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Walk This Way to Fitness

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IMAGE Walking is easy, inexpensive, amazingly good for you, and has few undesirable side effects. Yet it is all too often overlooked when people consider which form of exercise is best for them.

The results surprised even JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, DrPH, despite her extensive knowledge about the subject. "No, I didn't realize just how effective walking was," says Dr. Manson, the co-director of women's health at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "We always knew that walking was effective, but after looking at the results, I am surprised that walking is not readily adopted by more people."

The results came from a study presented by Dr. Manson and her colleagues at a meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). The study, part of an 8-year research project of 84,000 female nurses ages 40-65, reported that women who walked for at least 3 hours a week had a 30%-40% lower risk of heart attack and stroke than women who did not walk. The study also suggested that the brisker the walk, the greater the health benefit.

"The benefits of walking are just not well appreciated," says Dr. Manson. "There is still a misperception among the public that in order to achieve any health benefit, you have to exercise vigorously or be a marathon runner. And that is just not true."

Walking Offers a Variety of Benefits With Few Risks

There are numerous benefits to walking. Here are a few of them:

  • Walking is inexpensive, requiring little equipment other than a pair of sturdy shoes. There are no fees to pay, no courses to drive to, and it is easy to do.
  • It is one of the safest forms of exercise. Walkers stand little chance of developing shin splints, tennis elbow, or torn muscles, cartilage, or ligaments.
  • Walking is one of the most efficient, low-impact workouts available.
  • Walking offers the same long-term benefits of any exercise, like lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of osteoporosis, and possibly lowering the risk of certain types of cancers.
  • Walking may also reduce the discomfort of the commonest forms of arthritis. In addition it can help with weight loss, one of the most commonly recommended interventions for osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that commonly affects the knees and hips.

Getting Started

Although walking is safe and dependable, do not start any sort of exercise regimen without first consulting your doctor. Once you have received a clean bill of health, keep these points in mind.

Start Slow and Build Up

If you are what the experts call chronically sedentary, do not try walking 10 miles the first time you get off the couch. Start off with a small goal in mind, like walking for 10 minutes at a time, then slowly build up how long you are walking. If you still have difficulty, break up your walk time and spread it out over the course of the day. After a short time, you will be able to do more of it at once. The key is to not get discouraged.

Keep in mind, especially if you are just starting to walk, that you have to come back to your starting point. Make sure you can cover the entire distance comfortably, and not just the first part of it.

Walk Briskly

That brisk pace of 3-4 miles per hour is not as daunting as it seems. It works out to a mile every 15-20 minutes. And people who are new to exercising do not have to hit that speed immediately to benefit from walking. The Nurses' study pointed out that even people with a slower pace had a 32% reduction in heart disease compared with people who did not walk at all.

Find a Friend to Walk With

It not only makes the time go faster, but the companionship makes it easier to go walking on the days when the last thing you feel like doing is exercising.

Use a Pedometer

A pedometer allows you to measure how many steps you take daily. With a pedometer you can incorporate walking activities into your daily life and keep a record of how far you walk. Set new goals to increase the amount of steps you take each day. Pedometers are now readily available and quite inexpensive. They can help you guide and evaluate your exercise activities.

Keep a Log

You can log your activity on a chart or in a journal. The easiest way to track yourself is to download an app onto your smartphone. The app can map your walking course, calculate your pace, and help you manage time and distance.

What You Can Expect

Walking strengthens the large leg muscles, including the quadriceps and the gluteus muscles. However, it will not give you a body-building physique. If you want that, you will have to do weight training. Walking alone is not a terrific way to lose weight—you have to combine regular exercise with a reduced-calorie diet. Do expect walking to make you feel better, both physically and mentally.

Dr. Manson hopes that more people will realize what walking has to offer. So, get up, lace up your sneakers, and hit the road!

  • American Heart Association

  • President's Council on Fitness

  • Canadian Cardiovascular Society

  • Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

  • Kokkinos P. Physical activity, health benefits, and mortality risk. ISRN Cardiol. 2012 Oct [Epub ahead of print].

  • Manson JE, Hu FB, et al. A prospective study of walking as compared with vigorous exercise in the prevention of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med. 1999;341(9):650-658.

  • Roddy E, Zhang W, et al. Aerobic walking or strengthening exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee? A systematic review. Ann Rheum Dis. 2005;64:544-548.

  • Start a walking program. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: Accessed January 13, 2015.

  • Start walking now. American Heart Association Start Walking Now website. Available at: Accessed January 15, 2015.