Get Results with Fitness Walking

Easy-To-Do Exercise Brings a Bushel of Benefits

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

If I could fall
Into the sky
Do you think time
Would pass me by
'Cause you know I'd walk
A thousand miles
If I could
Just see you
Tonight

The lyrics are from Vanessa Carlton's 2002 Top 40 song, "A Thousand Miles." The mileage, of course, is figurative, but what if someone did decide to walk a tiny fraction of that distance for love, for charity, for errands, or for exercise? Whatever the reason, it would probably delight many health professionals who have been touting physical activity as one way to trim the nation's burgeoning waistline.

More than 60% of American adults are overweight, and about one out of three is obese, according to the CDC. In the kid department, 15% of 6- to 19-year-olds are also overweight -- almost double what it was two decades ago.

Sedentary lifestyles have repeatedly been held partially responsible for the excessive poundage. This is why many groups, including the American Heart Association (AHA), the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE), and AARP, are now promoting campaigns on how to incorporate physical activity into daily life. And since these organizations recognize the challenge of getting people moving, many have included fitness walking into their recommendations.

"Something is better than nothing," says Melane Kinney Hoffmann, director of health campaigns at AARP. "Everyone, even people who are totally sedentary, if they get up and do something, that's better than sitting in a recliner chair."

Besides, traveling by foot is something most people arguably know how to do, usually without requiring expensive equipment (except for maybe the shoes, but that's another story). It can be done for any length of time, and the intensity can be adjusted according to age, health status, and fitness goal. Plus, there are so many kinds of fitness walking, from strolling to brisk walking to marathon walking to volkssporting (more on this later).

So "Walk this way!" as the rock group Aerosmith would shout, and maybe one step could lead to a thousand, and that could lead to better health

The Benefits of Fitness Walking

Anna Cottrill says she doubts she would be mobile today if she had not insisted on her daily strolls. The 66-year-old has had osteoarthritis in her lower spine since 1979, even once unable to take a step for six months. Her ailment, however, hasn't flared up since she started her regular jaunts.

The Fort Worth, Texas, grandmother joined up with a walking group known as the American Volkssport Association (AVA) and soon became highly involved with the organization and its affiliates. She is now co-president of the Tarrant County Walkers, and is second vice president of the Texas Volkssporting Association. (For the unaware, volkssporting is a German-derived term describing participation in sports such as walking, swimming, skiing, snowshoeing, and biking. In Cottrill's case, the sport is obviously walking.)


"Fitness walking gives people purpose to get out and do something."

As an active member of volkssporting groups, she and her husband have traveled by foot in all 50 states, and are now working on traversing through all the state capitals. They have met many friends through treks and have seen people begin lifelong relationships.

Fitness walking "gives people purpose to get out and do something," says Cottrill. "It improves their health, it improves their blood pressure, they can lose weight, and it just keeps them flexible."

Cottrill's observations correspond well with the scientific research on physical activity. According to the AHA, vigorous activities that include brisk walking and moderate activities that include walking for pleasure can help reduce the following risk factors for heart disease:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity and overweight
  • High levels of triglycerides
  • Low levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol)

Additionally, Richard Stein, MD, AHA spokesman, says fitness walking is easy to do and can achieve the same cardiovascular benefits as many forms of physical activity.

"The heart is really a very nice organ," he says. "It really doesn't know whether you're walking barefoot on the beach or you're in $4,000 Nike gear in a million-dollar treadmill."

Good forms of exercise supposedly include activities that burn fat, use large muscle groups, or happen over long distances, particularly if there is no resistance involved.

For older people afflicted with arthritis, Hoffmann says fitness walking can actually ease pain instead of cause it. "There is a huge body of research that shows that the symptoms of arthritis are usually relieved by walking, that if people will get up and get moving, they will find that their joints will get better and they will be less stiff and less sore."