Walking is the ideal workout for many people. It’s easy, accessible, inexpensive, and virtually injury-free.
Besides helping you lose or maintain weight, a regular walking program can help lower your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and osteoporosis.
You should see a health care provider before you begin walking if you have a chronic condition or if you’re older than 40 years old and have been inactive. But you’re ready to start once you’ve taken that precaution.
All you need for walking is a good, supportive pair of shoes. Walking shoes should be lightweight and breathable with a well-cushioned heel (where you land as you walk). When selecting a shoe, test its flexibility by trying to bend it with your hands – bendable shoes help your foot easily roll forward and push off with the toes. Also look for good arch support and nonskid soles. But the most important thing is that you wear a shoe that fits. Tip: Try on shoes with the socks you plan to wear while walking.
Always do less than you think you can when you begin; your muscles and heart need to get used to the movement.
Initially, try to start out walking 15 minutes a day. If that’s more than you can do right now, do what you can. Focus on sitting less and moving more – even a few minutes of physical activity is beneficial.
Don’t worry if you last 1 mile or less. It takes time to build strength and endurance. As you feel ready, kick things up a notch until you reach at least 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) of moderate intensity walking each week. This averages out to a little more than 20 minutes per day.
Warm Up, Cool Down, Stretch
Start each walk at a very easy pace for the first few minutes. This increases the blood flow to your muscles and raises their temperature, so they become more pliable. A warm-up also preps your heart and lungs for the upcoming physical activity.
Cooling down after a workout is just as important as warming up. Slow your pace for the last few minutes of your walk to stabilize your breathing, then stop and stretch. The cool down is a great time to stretch because your limbs, muscles and joints are still warm. For walking, focus on flexibility exercises that target your hamstrings, calves, hips and chest.
Follow these two rules to keep yourself injury-free:
- Gradually increase your level of activity. Don’t walk 30 minutes your first day if you haven’t exercised in a while. Build up to that goal by starting with shorter walks and adding on another five minutes every week.
- Stagger your workout days. If you’re walking three times a week, maybe try to walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. As you begin to walk more often, alternate the intensity of your walks. Go for an easy or shorter stroll one day, then walk harder or farther the next.
Stick to It
Sometimes the most difficult part of exercising is sticking with it. Try these tips:
- Make an appointment with yourself and write it in your daily planner or schedule it in your favorite fitness app.
- Ask a friend to come along; a waiting companion will make you more likely not to skip your workout.
- Be realistic about when you’ll work out. Don’t promise you’ll walk at dawn when you’ve never been an early riser.
- Vary your routine by adding hills, stairs or a change in locations or pace.
- Monitor your progress by keeping a log. There’s nothing more encouraging than seeing success. Consider tracking your walking data in a fitness app – several are designed to help you set and reach specific goals.
Safety Tips for Walkers
Fitness walking is one of the safest exercises you can do. To keep it that way, follow these safety tips:
- Avoid walking alone. Ask a friend or family member to go with you or bring your dog out to join the walk.
- Always walk facing traffic. Stay on the sidewalk or near the side of the road. Be alert to the movement of cars around you. If you think you are being followed, change direction and head to a safe place such as a store or nearby residence.
- Walk during daylight hours. If you must go out after dark or before dawn, wear reflective clothing, carry a small flashlight, and walk in well-lit areas.
- Carry identification and a phone. Leave jewelry and cash at home.
- Be aware of your surroundings. If you listen to music while walking, keep the volume low enough so you can hear traffic noises and the movements of others around you.
- Leave a note or let someone know your route and when you expect to return.
- Be unpredictable. Vary your route or the time of day you walk to help prevent the likelihood that someone could know your routine.
Comfortable Walking in Any Weather
Don’t let cold or hot weather deter you from your walking routine. Take the following weather-related precautions, and a change in the temperature won’t tempt you to skip your workout.
For cold weather:
- Dress in layers that can be removed easily as you warm up. Start with a light synthetic fabric closest to your skin. For your second layer, choose a fleece, sweater or sweatshirt made of a synthetic fabric or a wool blend (avoid cotton, because it stays wet). Then add a waterproof or water-resistant breathable jacket and pants, a warm hat and gloves.
- Wear sunscreen. The sun emits harmful UV rays year-round and snow increases the need for sunscreen because it reflects the sun’s rays.
- Don’t walk after drinking alcohol. Beer, wine and spirits can make you lose body heat.
For hot weather:
- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear loose-fitting, lightweight and light-colored clothing. Choose synthetic “wicking” fabrics that draw sweat away from your skin.
- Wear a hat or visor and sunglasses with UV protection.
- Limit your outdoor activity to when it’s coolest. Walk in the early morning or evening and rest in shady areas as often as you need to so your body can recover.
- Drink lots of water before, during and after your walk to avoid dehydration.
Don’t forget to stretch after exercising! Here are the best stretches to do after a walk – Walking 101: cool-down stretches.
Sources: National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Heart Association, Harvard Health Publishing, Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/National Institutes of Health, Government of the District of Columbia, American Heart Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Dermatology, NIH News in Health, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Go4Life, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Heart Association