To Your Health
Walking for Health

by Paulette Avery, R.N., M.S.N.

If trips to the gym, running around a track, or thirty minutes on a home exercise machine don t excite you, here s good news. Walking, plain old walking, may be the best exercise there is. Since getting exercise helps keep our hearts healthy, our weight in the proper range, and our bones strong, isn t it nice to know we can do all of that by simply walking regularly?

It makes sense if you think about it, as the November issue of Harvard Women s Health Watch notes. But only in the last decade or so, and in studies involving women, have results indicated that walking has many benefits. And since it requires no special equipment (except some good shoes) and no training or skill, some consider it the ideal exercise.

Studies indicate many benefits from walking. One is a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Results from the Nurses Health Study found that three hours a week of brisk walking brought health benefits equivalent to getting 15 to 20 minutes a day of vigorous exercise. Women who walked or did more vigorous exercise had a 30 to 40 percent lower incidence of heart attacks when compared to sedentary women. Additionally, walking benefits those who already have cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, boosting HDL (good cholesterol), and slowing the progression of atherosclerosis.

Walking helps to maintain bone density, contributes to weight loss, reduces the risk of diabetes, improves your mood, and reduces cancer risk.

How much walking you must do and at what speed depends on the benefits you wish to achieve. If your goal is to increase your bone density, the longer you spend on your feet the better. Pace is not important. But if you want to lose weight, your success depends on both speed and duration. You should walk fast enough to keep your heart rate and breathing elevated; a leisurely stroll isn t going to do it. But you should still be able to carry on a conversation. According to the Nurses Health Study, a pace of at least three miles per hour is necessary to achieve a 35 percent reduction in heart-attack risk.

If you are just beginning a walking program, check with your doctor first. Begin with just a few minutes a day, and increase the speed and duration of your walks as your stamina increases. Wear shoes made for walking that provide the support and cushioning needed to protect your joints. Synthetic socks do a better job of absorbing perspiration and preventing friction than cotton socks. Walking with a partner may provide the commitment you need to walk regularly. I enjoy the companionship of a walking partner and find I walk further because our conversation makes the time pass more quickly than when I walk alone. If you don t have a partner, listening to a tape or the radio on a Walkman can also be helpful. And don t forget the importance of staying adequately hydrated. Drink water before, after, and, if possible, during your walk.

You may find you like to walk the same route every time or, if you are like me, may want to vary your path. I like to explore different parts of our neighborhood and vary the intensity of my walks. When I m feeling ambitious, I choose a route with steeper hills. On low-energy days, I prefer a more level area to walk. But wherever you walk in the coming weeks, may you find peace and joy this holiday season.

Paulette Avery is a registered nurse and a freelance writer who specializes in health issues.