Walk to a Healthier, Slimmer You

It’s so simple and convenient it couldn’t possibly count as exercise, right? Wrong. Study after study shows that regular moderate walking can help you lose weight and reduce your risk of heart disease. Here are some ways both to sneak more walking into your life, and to get the most out of every step you take.

1. Learn the basics. Before you take your next step outdoors, you need to know how much walking to do, and how often. Here are the facts:

  • For it to be exercise, walk at a pace that has you breathing heavily, but still able to
  • Your goal, first and foremost, is to walk five days a week, 30 minutes a walk. Do that, and you are getting the base-level amount of exercise that research says should maintain your health and vigor.
  • Don’t assume you can reach that goal quickly. Walking hard for 30 minutes is, well, hard! Walk for as long as you are comfortable the first week, even if it’s just to your mailbox and back. Each subsequent week, increase that amount by no more than 10 percent.
  • Start every walk with five minutes of easy-paced walking, about the same pace at which you’d do your grocery shopping, to get your body warmed up. Then, cool down at the end of each walk with another five minutes of easy-paced walking. This allows your heart rate to gradually speed up and slow down.
  • When you reach the target of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, set a new target. Either you should grow your walking habit by increasing your time, or you might be ready for new forms of exercise, such as strength-building exercises twice a week.

2. Pick a charity — it could be breast cancer, the American Red Cross, the United Way — and pledge to contribute $1 for every mile you walk. You’ll take pride in the fact that you are walking for something beyond yourself, which will motivate you to go longer and faster. After every walk, mark the amount you owe on a chart, and when you reach $100, send a check. Whoever thought exercise could be tax deductible?

3. Walk with a friend. If she’s expecting you, you’re more likely to get out of bed on cold winter mornings or skip the cafeteria for a lunchtime walk. If one of you backs out for any reason, put $5 in a kitty. Hopefully this will never happen, but if you manage to build up any substantial sum, donate it to charity.

4. Walk for entertainment one day a week. Instead of walking around your neighborhood, walk through the zoo, an art museum, or an upscale shopping mall. First circle the perimeter of your location at your usual brisk pace. Then wander through again more slowly to take in the sights.

5. Use a pedometer. These nifty gadgets measure how far you’ve walked in steps and miles. They provide motivation by spurring you to meet a particular goal and showing you if you’ve met it. And research shows that they work. In one study of 510 people completed at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, people who wore a pedometer automatically increased the amount of steps they took in a day. Often, pedometers hook onto your belt and are small and easy to use.

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6. Shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Don’t let that amount scare you. Most people walk about 5,500 to 7,500 steps during an average day as they amble to and from meetings, to the water cooler, to the mailbox. In fact, researchers who study these types of things consider 5,000 steps a day a “sedentary lifestyle.” According to researchers at Arizona State University in Mesa, you can cover 7,499 steps a day without participating in formal sports or exercise. If you garner 10,000 steps a day, you’re considered “active,” while 12,500 steps a day garners you the title “highly active.” Using your pedometer, find your baseline of how many steps you normally take in a day. Then increase that amount by at least 200 steps a day until you reach 10,000 to 12,500 daily steps.

7. Take the entire family on your daily walks. Not only will you be modeling good fitness habits for your children, but you’ll also be able to supervise them while you walk rather than getting a sitter. If your children walk too slowly, ask them to ride their bikes or roller-skate alongside you. To keep everyone entertained, play your usual repertoire of long car trip games such as “I Spy.” You can also try a scavenger walk, where you start out with a list of items to find during your walk and check off the list as you spot them.

8. Once a week, complete your errands on foot. If you live within a mile of town, or even a convenience store, start from your house. If you live out in the middle of nowhere, drive to within a mile of your destination, park, and walk the rest of the way there and back. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish on foot, and even better, how many people you’ll meet along the way.

9. Improve your walking posture. Proper posture will reduce discomfort as you walk and help you burn more fat and calories. So when you go on your next walk, readjust yourself to the following standards:

  • Stand tall with your spine elongated and breastbone lifted. This allows room for your lungs to fully expand.
  • Keep your head straight with your eyes focused forward and shoulders relaxed. Avoid slumping your shoulders forward or hunching them toward your ears.
  • Roll your feet from heel to toe.
  • As you speed up, take smaller, more frequent steps. This protects your knees and gives your butt a good workout.
  • Allow your arms to swing freely.
  • Firm your tummy and flatten your back as you walk to prevent low back pain.

10. Breathe deeply as you walk to a count of 1-2-3. Many people unintentionally hold their breath when they exercise and then suddenly feel breathless and tired. Oxygen is invigorating, and muscles need oxygen to create the energy for movement. So as you inhale, bring the air to the deepest part of your lungs by expanding your ribs outward and your tummy forward and inhale for a count of three. Then exhale fully either through your nose or mouth, also to the count of three.

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