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Getting fit: Why not walk?

Created date

July 24th, 2012

Practically everyone knows that it s good to be active, says Tammie Zeilinger, B.S., personal trainer and cardiac rehabilitation specialist at LifeBridge Health Fitness in Pikesville, Md. But if you re not active now, walking may be the easiest way to start.

Health benefits galore

Walking can improve your health if you have almost any medical condition, and it may help prevent some diseases altogether, says Shaveta Kotwal, M.D., medical director atAshby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, VA. Research shows that walking on a regular basis may lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. It gives you more energy and lifts your mood. It may strengthen your muscles and bones, ease arthritis symptoms, improve your balance, and lower your risk of falling. Walking is so simple that people take its health benefits for granted, Zeilinger says. You may be able to lose excess weight, but the real benefits are apparent when your blood pressure goes down, your cholesterol or blood sugar improves, and you feel like you have a new lease on life.

Getting started

According to the National Institute on Aging, you should aim for 150 minutes of physical activity each week, or strive for 10,000 steps a day. How do you go about reaching this goal? If you haven t already, talk to your doctor before planning your walking program, Kotwal says. Your doctor knows your health best and can give you guidance about how to start. Break up your walking sessions throughout your day, she adds. Start slowly and build up your speed. Walk as briskly as you can, but don t overdo it. Certain signs mean you should slow down. If breathing becomes an effort, or if you feel chest pain or pressure or feel lightheaded, you should stop walking until you ve been seen by your doctor, Kotwal says. You are also more likely to stick to a program if you have someone to walk with. Get a buddy to go with you, Kotwal says. Chatting with someone on your route makes it more enjoyable. Do whatever you have to do to make walking a pleasurable activity. Along with walking, weight bearing, balance, and flexibility activities are also highly recommended for seniors, Kotwal explains. These can help strengthen your muscles, protect against diseases such as osteoporosis, and help reduce the risk of falls and fractures. Practically anything can count toward your 150 minutes, whether it s gardening or cleaning the house as long as you are moving around.

Be safe

Wear comfortable shoes. They should support your feet and have thick soles and a firm heel. Sneakers work well for most people. Walk in a safe place, away from traffic, Kotwal says. Wear non-restrictive clothes that will keep you dry in hot weather. If you walk early in the morning or late in the evening, wear reflective clothing. Leave your jewelry at home and if you are heading out alone, make sure someone knows where you are and when you ll be back.

If you can t walk

You can still aim for 10,000 steps a day even if you have a cane or walker. Assistive devices may help you keep your balance and walk more. People who are wheelchair bound or unable to walk can do exercises that strengthen their upper body, Kotwal says. They can also do stretching exercises, and some yoga and tai chi programs are designed for people who can t stand or walk. Some people who use a wheelchair or scooter won t walk at all even if they can, Kotwal explains. I recommend that those people have someone assist them to use a walker whenever possible. Even a small amount of movement can help you be healthier. But if you think you can t walk because of a leg injury or any health condition, see your doctor. Just get out and move. Make an appointment for your annual wellness visit (covered by Medicare) and partner with your health care provider to develop your personalized exercise goals. Walking helps you stay independent and mobile for as long as possible, Zeilinger says. You can do it anywhere and it s free. Tips for walking correctly Keep your chin up and your shoulders slightly back. Allow the heel of your foot to touch the ground first. Keep your toes pointed forward. Swing your arms naturally as you walk. Before you pound the pavement Some things to consider: Do you have heart trouble, diabetes, asthma, or arthritis? When you are physically active, do you ever feel short of breath or have pains in your chest, neck, shoulder, or arm? Do you often feel faint or have dizzy spells? Do you smoke? Do you have any health problem that may interfere with a walking program? If you answered yes to any of these questions, talk to your doctor before beginning your walking program.