Walk your way to better health
Shirley Poor walks more than two miles on a treadmill nearly every day — not bad for someone attached to an oxygen tank. Poor, in her sixties, has chronic bronchitis. And emphysema. And asthma. People would understand if she decided to take it easy. But the retired kindergarten teacher from Kissimmee, Florida, plans to put many more miles on her sneakers before she’s through.
Simply put, walking has restored her life. She no longer needs to use her oxygen tank when she does housework or shops for groceries. Her new hobby has also made her the perfect role model for anyone struggling with weight. Since taking up walking two years ago, she and her husband, Bill, a retired Disney executive, have each lost about 20 pounds.
In many ways, walking is the perfect weight-control routine. As Shirley Poor clearly demonstrates, just about anyone can do it. You don’t need any special skills or equipment. It’s relaxing. If you choose to walk outside, it gives you the chance to feel some sunshine and compare the barking styles of the neighborhood dogs. Without a doubt, nothing in a health club is as invigorating as a long walk on a beautiful day.
Most important, walking works, says James Hill, PhD, director of the Colorado Clinical Nutrition Research Unit at the University of Colorado. Hill has been following a large group of people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of them are walkers,” he says.
Walking isn’t a miracle cure for obesity. A brisk 40- to 45-minute walk burns about 300 calories. At that rate, a typical 150-pound person who walks every day could potentially lose a little more than a pound every two weeks.
“It won’t take a person from 350 pounds to 120 pounds,” Hill says. “People who are severely obese will need something more drastic to get to a healthy weight.” But if you’re looking to lose 10 to 20 pounds — or if you’re just hoping to hold steady — you should seriously consider putting one foot in front of the other.
And according to new research, you don’t have to be a marathon walker to drop a few pounds. In a government study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women were asked to reduce their calorie intake and then were given exercise programs that primarily consisted of walking. Some women were assigned strenuous workouts and some less strenuous. At the end of a year, women in the moderate workout group had about the same weight loss as women in the intense workout group.
Walking is especially valuable for people trying to avoid regaining lost weight. A study of 74 female dieters published in the Archives of Internal Medicine proves the point. The women had lost an average of 30 pounds on very low-calorie diets. They all regained some weight within two years of quitting the diet, but women who walked two to three hours every week gained about eight pounds less than their inactive peers.
Beyond the scale
Even if the needle on the scale never drops, walking is a powerful health tonic. As Shirley Poor can attest, walking can boost stamina, strengthen the lungs, and provide energy to spare. Walking also eases depression, lowers blood pressure, and helps prevent diabetes and heart disease
Walking can even help keep you alive. A study of more than 72,000 women, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that three or more hours of brisk walking each week cut the risk of fatal heart attacks and other heart trouble by 35 percent. Interestingly, women who engaged in more vigorous exercise, such as jogging or bicycling, weren’t any better off than the walkers.
If Shirley is exhibit A, her husband is exhibit B. Bill Poor had sky-high cholesterol and borderline diabetes before he started hitting the treadmill. Today, both his cholesterol and his blood sugar are well under control. Bill has help from the prescription drug Lipitor in keeping his cholesterol level down. But once he started walking, he was able to cut the dose.
You already know how to walk. The question is, can you make walking part of your life? If you want to enjoy the full benefits of walking, it has to be an automatic part of your daily routine, Hill says. Not once a week. Not whenever you feel like it. Every day. (Of course, any walking is better than none, so if you can only walk three or four times a week, or only manage to squeeze in a five- or 10-minute walk on a hectic day, by all means do it.)
You don’t have to make it a marathon trek, and it doesn’t have to take a huge chunk out of your day. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of walking each day. The National Institutes of Health suggests working toward a 40-minute routine that is broken into three stages: five minutes of slow walking to warm up, 30 minutes of brisk walking, and five minutes of slow walking to cool off.
If this routine is too daunting at first, you can start with just 15 minutes each day, including five minutes of warmup, five minutes of brisk walking, and five minutes of cooling down. Each week, add a few minutes to your brisk walk until you reach at least 40 minutes total. For a sample walking program and more tips on starting your own routine, check out the NIH brochure “Walking: A Step in the Right Direction”.
One great thing about walking is that you don’t have to do it all at once. Four 10-minute walks will burn just as many calories as one 40-minute walk. Many people find, however, that it’s simpler to fit one walk into their schedule than four.
Different walkers find different ways to stick with their routine. Walking with a friend can be a great source of motivation — it’s hard to stay on the couch when someone else is counting on you. Bill and Shirley Poor take a slightly different approach. Both visit the Celebration Health Fitness Center in Celebration, Florida. The encouragement and support of the staff and the other exercisers keeps them going. “It’s easy to find an excuse to not exercise. But once I get to the center, I always do it,” Bill says.
The treadmill is ideal for Shirley because she can walk for miles without moving her oxygen tank. Bill likes it because he can listen to swing music on his headphones and not worry about traffic. “I’d never walk on the streets around here, the way people drive,” he says.
Crazy drivers aside, walking is one of the safest activities imaginable. Still, some people should proceed with caution. If you already have angina or coronary heart disease, or if you’re at high risk for heart trouble, talk with your doctor before starting a walking program. You may need a stress test to see how much walking your heart can safely take. Chances are, your doctor will be thrilled with your commitment to exercise. Walking has saved far more hearts — and lives — than it could ever harm.
Shirley Poor certainly feels like she got a second chance. She still wants to lose a few more pounds, but more than that, she’s aware of everything she’s gained. “I’m happy to have my life back,” she says.
James Hill interview.
Bill and Shirley Poor interview.
National Institutes of Health. Walking: A step in the right direction. March 2001.
Fogelholm, M. et al. Effects of walking training on weight maintenance after a very-low-energy diet in premenopausal obese women. Archives of Internal Medicine. July 24, 2000. 160: 2177-2184.
Manson, J.E. et al. A prospective study of walking as compared with vigorous exercise in the prevention of coronary heart disease in women. New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 341(9): 650-658.
Jakicic JM, et al. Effect of Exercise Duration and Intensity on Weight Loss in Overweight, Sedentary Women. JAMA, Vol. 290:1323-1330
Last Updated: March 11, 2015
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