Want to improve your fitness but not interested in training for a marathon or joining a high-intensity workout group? No problem. Walking is a great way to build endurance and strength, especially if you have not been exercising regularly.
“There are so many benefits of walking,” says Beth Blount, a personal trainer at the UNC Wellness Center in Cary. “It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, eases mobility of joints, helps you lose or maintain weight and decreases blood pressure. It’s weight-bearing, so it helps increase bone density. And it helps relieve mental stress, especially if you can walk outside.”
Get Started with a Walking Routine
When starting a walking routine, take it one step at a time, Blount says.
“It’s important that people realize that they need to start slow,” she says. “Some of the guidelines can be overwhelming, like ‘you should exercise 150 minutes a week’ or ‘get 10,000 steps a day.’ If you haven’t been doing anything, then getting up and walking to the mailbox and back is a great start. Gradually, you can increase your pace and distance.”
When you first start, try walking every other day. Give your muscles and joints time to recover before you go again. Eventually, you’ll be able to walk every day if you want to. But, Blount says, don’t set unreasonable goals.
“We need to be forgiving of ourselves and be flexible,” she says. “If you have planned to walk one day, and it’s really cold or rainy, it’s OK to wait and go another time. A goal of walking three or four times a week is more practical and attainable than setting expectations so high that we’ll fall off the wagon and never get back on.”
Choose—and Adjust—Your Pace
When you start walking, choose a pace that feels comfortable. As you gain strength and stamina, you can pick up speed gradually.
“Make sure that while you are walking you are able to comfortably carry on a two-way conversation,” Blount says. “Later, you can do short segments where you go faster, or go up a hill. It might be a little harder to carry on a conversation then, but you can work up to that.”
However, she says, “If you can sing an entire song while you’re going uphill, you can probably be going faster.”
Add Strength Training to Your Walking Routine
Walking is a wonderful way to increase or maintain fitness, Blount says, but to really maximize the benefits, you’ll want to add strength training.
“Strength training a couple of times a week helps improve bone density and your overall strength,” she says.
Gyms and fitness centers offer equipment and instruction, “but the reality is that belonging to a gym isn’t for everybody. Look for things that are going to help you stay motivated.”
You can strengthen your arms, chest and core by doing pushups against a wall or counter. Standing up and sitting down repeatedly from a chair works your legs and glutes. You can stop during a walk in the park to do simple exercises on a bench.
If the weather is bad, consider an indoor space you can walk, such as a mall or a big-box store during less crowded times. You can find exercise programs and classes, live or recorded, online. Many are free.
When you finish walking or exercising, make sure you stretch thoroughly while your muscles are warm.
“Do static stretches—those you hold 20 to 30 seconds,” Blount says. “Stretching helps reduce soreness and improves flexibility.”
Set Goals for Your Walking Routine
Blount recommends people walking for exercise set goals and make a plan to achieve them.
“If your goal is to be able to walk farther distances, what are you going to do to get there?” she says. “You need specifics, like planning to walk three times this week, a mile each time.”
She also recommends having an accountability partner.
“It could be someone who’s walking with you, or a friend across the country,” she says. “You can set goals together and check in with each other.”
Your accountability partner could also be your doctor, if you fill your doctor in on your progress every time you have an appointment. Even some dogs make good accountability partners.
“Before you know it, the dog is bringing you the leash, insisting you walk,” Blount says.
Stay Safe While Walking
Be aware of your surroundings while walking. If you are walking alone, let someone know when and where you are going. Make sure the area is well-lit and populated. If you’re listening to music or a podcast, don’t have the volume so loud that you can’t hear vehicles, people or animals near you.
Check the weather forecast before you go out to avoid getting caught in a storm. Invest in appropriate shoes, especially if you have knee, hip or back problems, to avoid pain and injury.
“Make sure they have some support in them,” Blount says. “You don’t want to go walking in flip-flops or flimsy sneakers. You might wind up feeling worse than before you started walking.”
If you struggle with balance or pain, consider using walking poles or sticks to help steady you and reduce some of the weight on your joints and feet.
If you haven’t been exercising, especially if exertion makes you breathless or you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Want to find out if you’re healthy enough to start a fitness program? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.