Can Walking Do Much to Affect Health and Fitness?
Question: “I want to get in better shape and lose a few pounds. I am not very athletic but do enjoy hiking and being outdoors. How effective is walking as an exercise that will help me achieve my goals?”
Walking is an excellent choice of exercise for people of all ages and ability levels whose primary goals are to burn calories, lose weight and improve general wellness. You don’t have to be any particular size or shape, and you don’t need special athletic ability to be a walker. All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes and a place to walk. The Surgeon General’s Report on physical activity and health states that individuals who lead an active lifestyle are better off health-wise than those who do not, and walking is a superior method of increasing activity levels. Walking is low impact, gentle on the joints, ankles and back, and for the most part injury free. Walking also offers variety. You can walk indoors at the mall, outdoors on the track, or with your dog along trails in the woods. Walking, unlike some other types of aerobic exercise, offers an opportunity to socialize with friends, listen to music or simply collect your thoughts in a quiet moment.
A well-planned walking program can also improve your level of aerobic fitness depending upon how often and how fast you walk. At its most competitive level, race walking can be an absolute endurance event. At the opposite extreme, recreational walking can improve fitness in people who have been sedentary for an extended period. To improve aerobic (cardiovascular) fitness, consider the frequency, duration, and intensity of your walks, and achieve a minimum threshold for each factor.
Frequency: Research suggests that walking four to five days a week is the minimum required to improve aerobic fitness. Six or seven days is even a better choice as long as you consider the risk of overuse injuries and fatigue.
Duration: 20 to 30 minutes per session is the minimum threshold needed to improve cardiovascular fitness. The key is matching the optimal threshold for duration with the appropriate exercise intensity.
Intensity: The intensity of exercise is the most critical factor affecting improvements in aerobic fitness. Heart rate is the most common method of estimating exercise intensity, since it correlates with the amount of work being done by the heart. The training heart rate zone required to improve aerobic fitness ranges between 60 and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). You can estimate MHR by subtracting your age in years from 220. Multiply that number by 0.6 and 0.8 to calculate the lower and upper limits of your training zone. For example, a 50-year old person would have a lower training zone limit of 0.6 x (220-50) = 102 (beats per minute) and an upper zone of 0.8 x 220-50) = 136 bpm. Exercising within the training heart rate zone on a consistent basis should improve aerobic fitness for that individual. It is easy to check your heart rate. Find your pulse by resting your index and middle fingers at the base of your wrist, or at the side of your throat. Count the number of heart beats in 15 seconds and then multiply by four.
Setting your pace
As mentioned earlier, walking can be done as a leisurely stroll or a fast-paced endurance event. The decision is up to you. Some studies suggest that walking at a pace of roughly four miles an hour is sufficiently vigorous enough to improve cardiovascular fitness. That said, you can realize many other health benefits by walking at lower intensities. Walking at any pace strengthens bones, improves cardiovascular health and burns calories in the process. Consider this: Adding just 1,000 extra steps to your daily travels, a distance equivalent to one-half mile (10–12 minutes of walking) can burn 40 to 50 calories and result in a five-pound weight loss over the course of a year. Double the distance and you double the calorie burn. Also keep in mind that walking a mile burns almost as many calories as running a mile—it just takes longer to do it! Even walking for an hour at the relatively slow pace of two miles per hour can burn between 180 and 250 calories depending upon your body weight. Repeat that walk five times a week and you will lose 12 to 15 pounds of excess fat in a year, assuming your caloric intake remains the same.
To sum it up, a program of regular walking can help you lose excess weight and at the same time improve cardiovascular fitness, health and wellness. I can personally vouch for walking as a pathway to weight loss. I have a dog named Winston who loves to walk. A few months ago, at Winston’s urging, I began the daily ritual of walking him early in the mornings and again in the early afternoon, for a total of 60 to 75 minutes every day. Over that same time span I have, without any effort or planning on my part, lost several pounds simply due to the extra calorie burn. Moral of the story: When trying to lose weight, a dog who likes to walk can be your best friend.