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By Dean Michaels
Walking is one of the easiest ways to be physically active. A brisk-paced walk can help you feel better, increase energy, and pick up your spirits.
Walking is a simple and flexible way to improve your health, and it’s practically free.
You can walk alone or with friends, indoors or outdoors, on a city sidewalk or a country trail, any time of the year.
Brisk walking can help control your weight, lower cholesterol, strengthen your heart, and reduce the likelihood of serious health problems in the future.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General a routine of 30 minutes or more of brisk walking (moderate physical activity) on most days of the week can produce long-term health benefits.
You can do it almost anywhere and at any time. All you need is a pair of comfortable shoes or sneakers with sturdy heel support and the determination to stick to your walking program.
- Give you more energy and make you feel good
- Reduce stress and help you relax
- Combat depression and anxiety
- Tone your muscles
- Increase the number of calories your body uses
- Strengthen your bones and muscles
- Prevent osteoporosis
- Help breathing
- Improve your stamina and your fitness
- Improve circulation
- Lower your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- Bolster the immune system
- Give you an opportunity to socialize actively with friends and family
A Harvard study shows that walking at a moderate pace (3 mph) for up to 3 hours a week—or 30 minutes a day -- can cut the risk of heart disease in women by as much as 40%. This is the same benefit you would get from aerobics, jogging, or other vigorous exercise. The benefits to men are comparable.
Studies have also shown that people are most likely to stick to exercise when it is part of their daily lives. It is ideal since you can incorporate walking into activities they would be doing anyway. Once you start looking for opportunities to walk, you will be amazed at how many there are.
For all of these reasons, people have started walking fitness programs. But before starting your walking program, be sure to follow a few basic principles to stay safe and comfortable.
Answer the following before beginning a walking program.
- Do you have heart trouble, diabetes, or asthma?
- When you are physically active, do you have pains in your chest, neck, shoulder, or arm?
- Do you often feel faint or have dizzy spells?
- Do you feel extremely breathless after you have been physically active?
- Do you have high blood pressure?
- Do you have bone or joint problems, such as arthritis?
- Are you over 50 years old and not used to doing any moderate physical activity?
- Are you pregnant?
- Do you smoke?
Do you have a health problem or physical reason not mentioned here that might keep you from starting a walking program?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, please check with your health care provider before starting a walking program or other form of physical activity.
Planning Your Walking Program
Leave time in your busy schedule to follow a walking program that will work for you. Keep the following points in mind as you plan your program:
Keep safety in mind
Choose a safe place to walk. Find a partner or group of people to walk with you. Your walking partner(s) should be able to walk with you on the same schedule and at the same speed.
- If you walk at dawn, dusk, or night, wear a reflective vest or brightly colored clothing
- Walk in a group when possible
- Notify your local police station of your group's walking time and route
- Do not wear jewelry
- Do not wear headphones
- Be aware of your surroundings
Wear the right stuff
Wear shoes with proper arch support, a firm heel, and thick flexible soles that will cushion your feet and absorb shock uch as running, walking, or cross training shoes, or light hiking boots. Before you buy a new pair, be sure to walk in them in the store.
Wear clothes that will keep you dry and comfortable. Look for synthetic fabrics that absorb sweat and remove it from your skin.
For extra warmth in winter, wear a knit cap. To stay cool in summer, wear a baseball cap or visor.
Think of your walk in three parts. Warm up by walking slowly for 5 minutes. Then, increase your speed and do a fast walk. Finally, cool down by walking slowly again for 5 minutes.
Do light stretching after your warm-up and cool-down.
Try to walk at least three times per week. Each week, add 2 or 3 minutes to your walk. If you walk less than three times per week, you may need more time to adjust before you increase the pace or frequency of your walk.
To avoid stiff or sore muscles and joints, start gradually. Over several weeks, begin walking faster, going further, and walking for longer periods of time.
Set goals and rewards. Examples of goals are participating in a fun walk or walking continuously for 30 minutes.
Keep track of your progress with a walking journal or log.
The more you walk, the better you may feel and the more calories you may burn.
Experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. If you cannot do 30 minutes at a time, try walking for shorter amounts and gradually working up to it or take multiple 5-, 10-, or 15-minute walks throughout the day. It all adds up to better health.
Maintain a brisk pace. You should work hard to keep up your pace but still be able to talk while walking.
Practice correct posture – head upright, arms bent at the elbow and swinging as you stride.
Drink plenty of water before, during and after walking to cool working muscles and keep your body hydrated.
If you’re going for a long walk, include a cool–down period to reduce stress on your heart and muscles.
Stretch gently after you warm up your muscles with an easy 5-minute walk, and again after you cool down. Try doing the stretches listed below. Do not bounce or hold your breath when you stretch. Perform slow movements and stretch only as far as you feel comfortable
Reach one arm over your head and to the side. Keep your hips steady and your shoulders straight to the side. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Lean your hands on a wall with your feet about 3 to 4 feet away from the wall. Bend one knee and point it toward the wall. Keep your back leg straight with your foot flat and your toes pointed straight ahead. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Lean your back against a wall. Keep your head, hips, and feet in a straight line. Pull one knee to your chest, hold for 10 seconds, then repeat with the other leg.
Pull your right foot to your buttocks with your right hand. Stand straight and keep your knee pointing straight to the ground. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat with your left foot and hand.
Sit on a sturdy bench or hard surface so that your left leg is stretched out on the bench with your toes pointing up. Keep your right foot flat on the floor.
Straighten your back, and if you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh, hold for 10 seconds and repeat with your right leg.
If you do not yet feel a stretch, lean forward from your hips until you do feel a stretch.
Walking Correctly is Very Important
- Walk with your chin up and your shoulders held slightly back.
- Walk so that the heel of your foot touches the ground first. Roll your weight forward.
- Walk with your toes pointed forward.
- Swing your arms as you walk.
Make Walking a Daily Habit
There are ways you can increase your physical activity to maintain a basic level of fitness – without setting aside a big part of your busy day. The key is to find everyday opportunities to walk more to meet your goal.
The challenge is to think creatively about ways you might add steps to your day, and make walking a habit. For example:
- Use stairs instead of elevators or get off below your destination and walk up a few stairs.
- Park a few blocks from your destination or at the far end of the parking lot.
- Walk the last few blocks instead of riding the bus all the way to work.
- Park at the opposite end of the mall from where you need to shop.
- Walk around the field at your children’s ball games.
- Consider adding other routine walking to your day by organizing a lunchtime walking group at work, or a before- or after-work group with friends or neighbors.
- Make family time active time. After dinner, get the whole family outside for a game of tag and a walk around the block.
It’s important to know your own starting point before you set your personal walking goals.This knowledge will help you create a personalized walking program that is right for you.
If you are using a pedometer, count your steps for seven days; if you don’t have a pedometer, follow the recommendations of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports -- begin with 30 minutes of brisk walking at least 5 days each week.
Keep a log to track the amount of daily walking activity you are currently doing. This will establish your baseline. Include all of your normal walking activities, such as walking up the stairs at home, walking to work, etc. At the end of each day, write down your total number of steps in the walking log on page 9. If you are not using a pedometer, keep track of the minutes you spend walking.
Your benchmark is the highest number of steps you walked on any given day while establishing your baseline the first week. Use that number as your daily goal for the second and third weeks. Log your daily walks, and at the end of the third week, review your log. If you averaged your goal, add another 500 steps or several more minutes to your daily goal for the fourth and fifth weeks.
At the end of each 2-week period, try to add 500 steps or several more minutes to your walking goal. If you had difficulty reaching your goal, walk at the same level until you build enough endurance to increase your target. Continue to log your activity to prevent slipping back or dropping out. If you find yourself falling behind your average daily goal, try not to become discouraged. To maintain your motivation, keep logging your progress and stay with the same number of steps or minutes instead of increasing your target.
Keep in mind that 10,000 steps per day may not be a realistic goal for everyone. That’s why it's important to set your own personal goals. If you are very overweight or have other health problems, ask your doctor to help you determine a walking goal appropriate for you.
Log your progress every day
Reward yourself as you make progress toward your goals. As you record your steps, take a few minutes to sit down and relax. Think about the good feelings exercise gives you, and reflect on what you’ve accomplished. This type of internal reward can help you make a long-term commitment to regular walking.
The Weight-control Information Network (WIN) is an information service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health (NIH). WIN was established in 1994 to provide the general public, health professionals, the media, and Congress with up-to-date, science-based information on obesity, weight control, physical activity, and related nutritional issues. WIN also developed the Sisters Together: Move More, Eat Better national initiative to encourage Black women to maintain a healthy weight by becoming more physically active and eating healthier foods.
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Walking is a Step in the Right Direction Towards Fitness
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