In the Beginning there was Walking

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how recent research seems to indicate that lengthy and intense cardio sessions are actually bad for you and could even lead to premature death.

That’s rather sobering news considering that for decades, we’ve been told that long runs or sessions on some sort of cardio machine actually promoted cardiac health. Of course exercise theory tends to develop over time, and the recommended methods of promoting health are continually being adjusted.

This past week, I spent a lot of time going over what I do as far as resistance and cardio training, but obviously I haven’t always worked out like this. Everyone has a starting point or a re-starting point. Even if you’ve never exercised before and as an older person are just now considering the idea, you can do it. As you saw yesterday, it’s never too late to start.

But many people are intimidated at the thought of actually going to a gym, either because they are afraid of being judged because they are out of shape or because they don’t have the slightest idea of what to do in a gym.

I’ll write more about how to approach joining a gym and developing a starting workout routine at a later time, but right now I want to tell you how I got started exercising.

It’s called walking.

There are an abundant number of articles online touting walking as a great way to lose weight and build stamina and they’re all right. My starting exercise was walking for up to an hour a day four or five days a week during lunch. Most of the jobs I’ve had over the years have let me eat at my desk, so I could devote my actual lunch hour to running errands or other activities.

As it turns out, walking over the lunch hour is a pretty popular activity. If this time of day isn’t an option for you, there is almost always a time in everyone’s schedule, including yours, when you can take 20 or 30 minutes for a walk.

Getting Ready

Besides time, there really isn’t a lot of prep work to do to get started. If you are severely out of shape or have some health issues you think may inhibit even mild exercise, I recommend you have a medical exam and ask your doctor about the best way to approach a walking or other exercise program.

Next you’ll need a good pair of shoes. They don’t have to be a super-expensive running shoe, but they should have good arch support, a firm heel and provide plenty of shock absorption. I’m getting these details from the Mayo Clinic, so I have to assume it’s good advice. It also makes common sense. You’ll probably want have a dedicated pair of shoes just for walking and wear another pair of shoes for day-to-day use.

Besides that, wear comfortable clothing that allows for plenty of free movement and that’s appropriate for the weather.

I’ll talk about where to walk below.

The First Walk

walking exerciseDepending on your fitness level, you might want to start walking at a relatively slow pace, maybe a mile or two an hour, for about 10 to 15 minutes. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but one of the classic ways a person talks themselves out of a regular exercise routine is by starting out too fast or too intense, exhausting or injuring themselves, and then giving up saying that exercise is much too difficult.

When beginning any workout program, it’s always better to start out underestimating your abilities rather than overestimating them. If a slow walk for a short distance doesn’t challenge you even slightly on your first walk, for the second walk pick up the pace a bit and/or walk a little longer. After a few days to a week, you should have a pretty good idea of what you can manage as a beginner.

Route and Technique

You’ll probably want to select a route for your walk that is free of hazards such as potholes, poorly maintained sidewalks, low tree branches or anything else that would turn your walk into an obstacle course. I used to walk in a large industrial park that had plenty of sidewalks in a relatively protected space, that is, away from really busy streets.

A lot of parks have walking paths that are perfect for this form of exercise. I currently work right next to the Boise River which has greenbelt paths which are great for walks. Choose a walking area that is convenient, comfortable, and safe.

Let’s say you want to take a 20 minute walk. If you’re traveling along a straight path, you could walk 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back. If you’re traveling along a circular path and you can only leave the path or track at a certain point, you’ll have to adjust your pace for the appropriate distance and time. When your time is up and you still haven’t gotten to a place where you can leave the path, just slow down to a casual walk and finish the distance.

In fact, you’ll probably want to start with a slow warm up walk before proceeding to your working pace, and then slow down to cool off at the end.

As far as technique is concerned, stand at your full height and walk with a relaxed swing to your arms. Walk heel to toe with a long but comfortable stride and keep your pace even. WebMD.com recommends working up to 20 or 30 minutes per walk eventually reaching a pace of about 4 to 5 miles an hour, which they say should get your heart rate to about 70% to 75% of its maximum.

I provided different methods of calculating a target heart rate in last Saturday’s blog post, so you’ll be able to figure out what your personal target heart rate should be.

Two things about walking and heart rate. First, it’s amazingly difficult to take your pulse while actually walking so unless you purchase and wear a cardiac monitor, you’ll have to stop before you can find your heart rate. Second, I don’t know if walking ever got my heart rate up to 70% of maximum. Even walking as fast as I can without breaking into a jog wasn’t quite that intense. Yes, I would be sweating by the end, but there’s only so much effort that can be put into a walk. Once you reach your maximum practical pace, the only way to increase the effort is to increase the distance.

Does that mean walking isn’t an effective exercise? Not at all. Walking regularly over a period of several months actually helped me lose weight. However, according to research published on the New York Times blog, it takes a brisk walk to be effective. You may have to start out by strolling but if you never begin to walk faster in your routine, you are unlikely to see much if any result over time.

Other Considerations

I typically walked over my lunch hour in parks, business/industrial areas, or on city streets. Comfortably warm sunny days are ideal, but weather doesn’t always cooperate. I’ve walked when it was snowing or with snow on the ground, which actually isn’t bad, but while snow isn’t much of a problem, ice is. Walking on ice required that I reduce my pace, sometimes to a crawl, to avoid slipping and falling.

walking through snowMy daughter actually did fall once because she slipped on ice on the way to work. That ended her walking workouts until her twisted ankle healed so either use a great deal of care if you walk in icy conditions, find an alternative walking environment, or don’t walk to avoid the risk.

Walking in the rain doesn’t have the same risks, but it’s pretty unpleasant. I can’t walk at a really brisk pace while holding an umbrella, so it’s a matter of getting a good water resistant coat with a hood. Even with that, if it’s raining hard, you’re going to get drenched anyway. I walk in porous shoes to keep my feet cool but they’re a lousy option for walking in rain puddles, so I ended up with soaked socks most of the time.

The other “weather hazard” is summer. By the lunch hour, it can be pretty warm outside, enough to where I’d be soaked with sweat by the end of my walk because of the combination of work and heat. If you live someplace where temperatures get into the 90s or 100s in the daytime, a fast 30 minute walk may be out of the question. If you decide to walk in the heat, take a water bottle with you and stay well hydrated. During the summer, you might want to adjust your schedule so you’re walking early in the morning to avoid hot temperatures.

I’ve known people who would visit their local mall and walk there to avoid bad weather. You have to go when the place first opens up. That’s about the only time when the mall will be empty enough to allow you the space to walk. Trying to power through crowds won’t be an optimal exercise experience.

When I go to the gym at five in the morning, in the winter, it’s still dark. I see people walking and jogging that early and many of them are hazards to themselves and others. If you need to walk when it’s dark, please dress in light-colored clothing and wear a light. Usually bicycle shops will sell lights you can strap to you arm or leg. Otherwise, you’re next to invisible to drivers and you can’t be seen in their headlights until the last possible moment before (potentially) being hit.

The other option given all those conditions, is to join a gym and use a treadmill or other aerobic exercise machine to do your walks. That brings up other issues I’ll briefly mention at the end of this article.

Motivation

I’ve mentioned before that what got me to go back to the gym was having my son David as a workout partner. It also helped that David had a lot of experience in weight training from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Just having another person who is expecting you to meet them for a workout is incredibly motivating, not only in terms of support, but in not wanting to let the other person down by canceling or not showing up. This works as well for walking. Finding a walking partner is ideal for the reasons I mentioned above, plus having a companion makes exercise a social event. It can also be a safer option than walking alone depending on where and when you are doing your walks.

There’s nothing more motivating than seeing and feeling the results. This isn’t just about stepping on the scale and seeing a smaller number than last week or pulling your belt a bit tighter when getting dressed, it’s about how you feel. It’s about being able to generate more physical effort for longer periods of time. It’s about feeling more alert. It’s about seeing all the physical and mental signs of better health and quality of life. Once you begin to experience positive changes and see that walking really works, you’ll want to do it more, and an exercise activity will become a lifestyle habit.

I know we shouldn’t judge ourselves by how others see us, but having someone actually notice that we look better or are more active is a real boost. There’ve been a few times at the gym when people have actually mentioned how they admire how hard I work. Other people in my day-to-day life have said they’ve noticed I’ve lost weight or look better. It really does motivate me when other people say they can see the difference in me because of my workouts.

Speaking of results…

The Results

I made two basic observations after I’d been walking for a number of months. The first was that I definitely lost weight and generally felt better in terms of stamina and mental alertness. The second was that I hit “the law of diminishing returns.” That is, after a period of time, walking wasn’t as effective in helping me lose weight as it was when I first started out. My body had become accustomed to the effort, and my level of fitness at that point required that I either ramp up the intensity by jogging or running, or that I find a different routine in order to challenge myself.

treadmillAn article at Greatist.com compared the effectiveness of walking vs. running and concluded that running burns more calories than walking for the same amount of time. According to the Mayo Clinic for a 160 lb person, running for an hour burns 800 calories, while walking for the same period of time only burns 300 calories.

This isn’t just because running is a more intense exercise. Even when walkers expended the same amount of energy as runners by walking longer distances, the runners still lost more weight. This was explained by another recent study suggesting that running activity is better than walking for regulating appetite hormones. At least for me, this meant that walking was only going to get me so far in my effort to attain better health. My takeaway from all this was that I needed to join a gym and access more variety and intensity, both aerobic and anaerobic, in a workout routine. That was the right move, but it opens up a whole other world of variables to take into consideration. I’ll write more about these “next steps” soon.

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

C. S. Lewis

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