Quite simply, walking is one of the easiest and most effective exercises for humans. Its benefits span the whole body: cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal and cognitive. Most people are able to walk, and the equipment consists of a good pair of walking shoes and sweat clothes. Now that the binge season is over (Thanksgiving to Valentine's Day), use those sneakers to step away from the refrigerator and toward an easy lifestyle change.
What comes first? The shoes. The proper shoe with the proper fit is by far the most important consideration when beginning a regular program, says Jana Shubat, a local runner and organizer of the Ohio Valley Runners and Walkers Club and Health Plan's "Heart and Sole" run/walk clinics. Look for shoes made specifically for walking with thick soles, a supportive arch and allowing about one half an inch from the end of the shoe to the longest toe and enough width for toes to move around. The shoe should be flexible and breathable. Try on both shoes with socks that you'll be wearing with them for fit and comfort, and have a qualified shoe salesperson fit you properly.
Before walking do a bit of stretching to decrease the risk of injury and prepare muscles for the concentration of activity. A calf stretch will loosen the lower leg muscles: stand at arm's length from a wall or fence; slightly bend left leg and push the right leg behind you keeping the heel and toe on the ground; repeat with the other side. The torso twist loosens the back muscles: stand with feet about shoulder length apart; hold arms up and slightly bent; slowly rotate the upper body from right to left. Stretching the hamstrings in the back of the leg will keep your walking routine comfortable: place the right leg in front of the body about 18 inches, heel on the ground and toe up; slightly bend the left leg while reaching both hands toward the right foot: repeat with the other side. Four minutes of stretching will not only improve your walking program, but the body's overall range of motion, and Shubat says, "Stretching AFTER you finish while muscles are warm is a great way to stay limber and avoid injury."
Walkers and runners get ready for their Monday evening coached training session at “Heart and Sole,” a clinic sponsored by the Ohio Valley Runners and Walkers Club and The Health Plan. The free sessions are held through March 26 and open to the public.
Practicing a proper walking technique will give you the most benefit from your program. Maintaining a comfortable, normal stride (and not over-striding) will keep the body in balance and from becoming fatigued. Place the heel solidly on the ground, then roll the whole foot forward toward the toes, and push off from the toes into the next step. Try to keep weight evenly centered on the foot.
The torso should be upright, not leaning forward or back, and the neck and shoulders should be relaxed; eyes look forward. Keep arms close to the body, bent about 90 degrees. Swing them forward and back, but not side to side. Now you're ready to go.
Fitness experts and common sense say to start out slowly, especially if you haven't been active for awhile. If you've led a sedentary lifestyle and are overweight or obese, do check with a doctor before beginning ANY type of exercise program. According to the Surgeon General, all it takes is 150 minutes per week to see significant benefits from walking. Even better, those minutes can be divided up into 22 minutes per day or 30 minutes for five days. Research also shows that breaking those down into even shorter periods of 10 minutes two or three times per day will have a positive effect on health.
Aim for 3 to 4 miles per hour, but start at a comfortable pace. Gasping for breath is bad. You should be able to maintain a conversation, but not sing-seriously, it's a real test. The calculator at www.caloriecount.about.com says that at a comfortable 3 m.p.h. and a body weight of 150 pounds, walking will burn about 224 calories per hour. Pushing the pace to 3.5 m.p.h. will burn 258 calories per hour. People aiming for 10,000 steps per day can take care of roughly 5,000 with a 40 minute walk, or about two miles.
The local area provides a range of walking places for everyone from beginning walkers to those who want a challenge. Shubat recommends the St. Clairsville Trail, the rails-to-trails parks in Barnesville and Lore City, the Wheeling Heritage Trail or your high school track for flat, easy to walk outdoor trails with no traffic. Indoors, one loop through all the concourses in the Ohio Valley Mall, "hugging the storefronts," equals .9 mile according to George Diab, mall manager. He notes that "hundreds" of walkers use the mall weekly. Shubat says increasing hills increases the challenge, activity and calorie burn for walkers, and a park like Barkcamp State Park offers winding roads and hills and also a selection of hiking trails.
Need some motivation? The basic physical health facts are these:
1. Men can lower their risk of heart attack 50 percent by walking two miles per day; women can lower their risk of heart attack by 35 percent by walking three hours per week according to a Nurse's Health study.
2. Studies show that walking briskly for 75 to 150 minutes per week reduces the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. A Yale University study determined that women diagnosed with breast cancer who begin walking increase their survival chances by 45 percent over sedentary women, and women who walked before their diagnosis increase their chances of survival by 30 percent over sedentary women.
3. Walking 150 minutes per week and decreasing body weight by just seven percent will drop the risk of Type II diabetes by 58 percent..
4. Walking just one mile per day will increase bone density.
5. Walking 75 minutes per week will improve cognitive function significantly according to research.
6. An 18 year study at the University of South Carolina found that people who walked briskly for 30 minutes five days per week decreased the risk of stroke by 40 percent.
Mentally, regular walking has been shown to decrease the incidents of Alzheimer's disease and dementia by 50 percent in a study group of 71 to 93 year olds. It improves sleep and memory. Research in the United Kingdom and California showed that walking 30 minutes per day worked faster than anti-depressant medications in treating depression, most likely because of the endorphins released in the brain during exercise.
To stay the course, keep a log or diary of minutes or distance. Smart phone apps and free online programs can keep track of your activities, meals and calories eaten and burned. You can also use this "me" time in any number of ways. Allot one day's walk to meet and catch up with a friend, and make it a weekly outing for both of you. Listen to books on tape from the library, or get a language program and learn Italian. Or use the time to decompress from the day and quiet your mind.
One way to keep going is to join a club or train for an event like any number of 5K walks coming up this year. Most of them are fundraisers for causes, making it even more worthwhile to stay with the program.
As mentioned, Shubat has organized "Heart and Sole," a clinic series sponsored by the Ohio Valley Runners and Walkers Club and the Health Plan. Held at Wheeling's Edgewood Lutheran Church, 1154 National Rd., on Mondays at 5:30 p.m., the sessions run until March 26. In addition to group training time, each week a guest speaker will discuss aspects of health and fitness especially those pertaining to running, walking and training for the Health Plan's Grand Prix schedule of runs and walks. The Monday, Feb. 20 session is geared particularly to walkers. The sessions are free and open to the public.
Donna Nelson, director of admissions and marketing at Emerald Pointe in Barnesville, is also preparing for their second annual walking program in conjunction with Belmont County Senior Centers. The six-week program begins on Monday, April 30, and the walking course (located at Emerald Pointe) will be available Monday through Friday from 8 to 10:30 a.m. Seniors who have registered for the program with their senior center can earn points toward prizes. "This is great because our residents can meet other seniors. Seniors coming from the centers have a chance to walk in a nice, safe area, and the vans bring them here, so they don't have to drive," says Nelson. Last year the program ran 10 weeks with 50 participants, and two seniors reached 100 miles.
Setting goals can help you stay the course, especially by setting both short and long-term ones. Trainers and psychologists say that they should:
1. Be realistic. Losing 30 pounds in two months or walking five miles every day may not only be unhealthy, but darn near impossible.
2. Be somewhat flexible. If your goal is to walk 100 miles in three months, and you finish at 90 miles, be proud of yourself. Things happen, work schedules change, the weather turns. In the end it isn't the mileage, but the commitment that matters.
3. Be for yourself rather than to impress someone else. More than any other reason, a commitment to improve your health, decrease medications, avoid Alzheimer's, alleviate depression or wake up rested and energized every day should have you lacing up those tennies. Once the class reunion is over, your ex will most likely still be your ex, but if the bad habits return, so will the health issues.
Not everyone is blessed with naturally radiant health, and good choices aren't always the easiest choices. In the long run, investing 20 to 30 minutes per day in a simple good habit will pay off in medical cost savings, a more vibrant life and a happier body, mind and spirit.