The Basics: Walking for Fitness and Fun

Get happy -- and healthy -- with the world's easiest exercise

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael W. Smith, MD

Arkansan Jim Wilson had 300 pounds on his 5-foot-7-inch frame when he decided he wanted to walk a half marathon. He knew it would be a long journey: he couldn't walk a mile without getting winded.

Still, his goal spurred him on. He started training in March 2001, and in September of that year he walked a scenic 13-mile loop in Red Rock Canyon, outside Las Vegas.

Along the way, he started feeling stronger and sleeping better. His self-esteem shot up, and he ate more healthfully. By the time he walked his five-hour half-marathon, he was down 50 pounds.

"The whole process [gave me] a major feeling of accomplishment," says Wilson, a 53-year-old financial adviser.

You don't have to walk 13 miles to reap the benefits of walking. In fact, it's one of the best ways for a sedentary person to start an exercise program, says California health educator, fitness expert, and author Shirley Archer.

"There's very low risk of injury with walking," she says. "It's comfortable, easy, and low-cost. All you need is a good pair of shoes."

Besides that, she says, it can actually be enjoyable, which is half the battle when it comes to sticking to a fitness regime.

"Too many people think of exercise like medicine," says Archer, the mind-body spokeswoman for IDEA Health and Fitness Association. "It's not. It can be fun and the body will start to love it."

A Step Toward Health and Happiness

Medically, the benefits of walking are undisputed, says Little Rock, Ark., orthopaedic surgeon John Yocum, MD. Cardiovascular exercise such as walking can reduce the risk of heart disease and improve heart function and muscle tone, as well as lower blood pressure, cholesterol, risk of stroke, and risk of injury, says Yocum.

In addition, he says, "improving strength around the joints can help with degenerative joint disease."

But that's not all. "The benefits are multiple," he says, "not the least of which is the improved sense of well-being or happiness with the increased endorphin levels."

Archer, who coaches many beginning exercisers, says they have a kind of "awakening" when they begin to work out. They begin to feel better, so they sleep better, manage stress better, and get more energy in the process, says Archer. As a result, their self-esteem improves.

Former Olympic marathon runner Julie Isphording, a walking/running coach, author, columnist and host of two health and fitness radio shows for National Public Radio in Cincinnati, says she sees it often in the walkers she trains.

"People start to change their attitude," she says. "It really isn't about the walk. It's about something so much bigger; so much better. You can breathe deeper. You last longer in the day. You're running up steps."

When walkers enlist a partner, it's even better, Isphording says.

"I recommend that people find a friend to do it with -- meet at the mailbox," she says. That helps walking to become a part of the day you look forward to, not dread.

"Walking turns into more of a play-out than a workout," says Isphording.

"Social support is the most important factor when sticking to a program," says Archer. "Get a partner -- even a dog -- because that will reinforce it. We don't like to let other people down."

Isphording also encourages beginning walkers to keep a journal to chart progress.

So when you step on the scale and say, "it's not working," she says, you can look back at how far you've come. "Maybe a month ago, you couldn't walk a mile and now you're walking three," says Isphording.

In the journal, Isphording recommends you write everything down: the weather, how you felt that day, who you went with, and how far you walked.

Getting Started

Don't skimp when it comes to footwear. Yocum advises all walkers to get a good pair of walking or running shoes with arch support and the proper cushioning to prevent injury, even when they're just starting out.

"I've been in the Olympics and I can't tell you that I bounced
out of bed every morning to run."

"Shoes are the only piece of equipment you need," says Isphording, "so invest well. Whether you choose a walking shoe or running shoe," she says, "go to a specialty store and have them fit you. Expect to spend between $80 and $100."