The Basics: Walking for Fitness and Fun

Last Editorial Review: 6/27/2008

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."

And set a goal beyond weight loss and better health. "What about doing a walk for charity or a planning a walking trip in France?" Isphording asks. Create a goal that's out of your current reach but attainable, she says, and that will help you stay focused.

Even if you follow all the tips to stay motivated, it isn't always easy, say the experts.

Archer teaches her clients to accept the fact that they're not always going to want to do it. "It's normal to have variations in energy and to experience a little discomfort at times. It's part of the process of conditioning your body. It doesn't mean you're backsliding, it's just life."

Isphording concurs.

"I've been in the Olympics and I can't tell you that I bounced out of bed every morning to run," says Isphording. "But those days [when it was harder to get motivated] were some of the most rewarding. You overcame doubts in yourself, you could meet the challenges of the day, and you got so much more out of it."

When starting a walking program, experts advise starting slow, then working up to longer distances and more time on the road. Even if 10 minutes is all you can handle at first, it's a start. Feel satisfied, keep gong, and try for 15 in a couple of days.

Progress at a pace you can handle. Isphording calls it the "talk test": You should be able to talk while you walk.

"As the body starts to feel more comfortable," adds Archer, "pick up the pace a bit more."

Keeping It Safe

Keep in mind, Yocum says, that though very safe, walking may not be for everyone. He recommends that those with lower-extremity degenerative disease such as arthritis or cardiovascular disease see their doctors before starting any exercise program. Some arthritis symptoms may be aggravated by impact; in this case, you might want to walk on a soft surface like a track or decide to swim or use a stationary bike instead.

Recent studies from the CDC have indicated that even moderate exercise can provide tremendous benefits.

The experts interviewed by WebMD agree, saying that while working up to 45 to 60 minutes a day would be great, you'll still benefit from doing 30 minutes or even 20. And they hope that once people get started walking, they won't quit.

"We are naturally active creatures," says Archer. "We were designed to move. It's unnatural for us to sit and be sedentary. We need the muscular stimulation. We need the stimulation to the brain.

"The bottom line is technology has made our lives very sedentary. It's not a character flaw," she says, "it's just that our environment is such that we don't get enough activity in our daily life, so we have to think active -- take the stairs instead of the elevator."

SOURCES: Shirley Archer, ASCM, NSCA; fitness specialist, Stanford University; spokeswoman, IDEA; author, The Walking Deck, Palo Alto, Calif. Julie Isphording, producer and host, FIT-Fitness Information Talk and On Your Feet, Cincinnati. John Yocum, MD, orthopedic surgeon, OrthoArkansas, Little Rock, Ark.

Originally published May 21, 2004
Medically updated May 29, 2008.

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