Walk Your Way to Beter Health
Caroline R. Richardson, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, has some suggestions for people who want to get started. She also offers reminders of the myriad benefits of beginning an exercise program.
“Walking programs can be very effective in helping people get into shape, improve their cardiovascular fitness levels and, to some degree, lose weight,” she says, adding that one key benefit is that people tend to stick with walking programs. “Walking does seem to be better than more vigorous activities for adherence.”
Richardson’s five tips for starting a walking program:
• Find a buddy with whom you can walk regularly. A friend can encourage you to walk on days when you aren’t motivated and can help you continue walking at a good pace.
• Use a pedometer. This will help you keep track of your steps and can be an excellent motivator. “Perhaps the most important thing to do is to get yourself a pedometer. Pedometers really help you see how much you’re walking and see when you’re successful,” Richardson says. Studies at the U-M Health System and Veterans Affairs are exploring the benefits of pedometer use (see more below).
• Schedule regular walks in a PDA or calendar. This helps to ensure that you have a set time every day for walking, Richardson notes.
• If you have chronic medical problems such as heart disease or diabetes, you might want to check with you doctor to make sure a walking program is safe for you.
• Start slowly if you need to – just get started. “Just get up and walk around the block,” Richardson says. “Somewhere between three and four miles an hour should be your goal, but if you have to work up to that gradually, it’s better to walk slowly than to do nothing.”
Seven health benefits of walking:
• Improvement of cardiovascular function and possibly a reduction in the chances of having a heart attack
• Potential weight loss or weight control
• Reduction in blood pressure
• Has been found to be helpful in the prevention and treatment of depression
• Has a positive impact on the health of people with diabetes
• Helps build endurance and muscle strength
• Helps build and maintain bones and muscles
Richardson – who also is a research scientist at the Veterans Affairs Health Services Research & Development Service in Ann Arbor and at U-M’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender – is involved in studies looking at walking. Most of the projects involve using pedometers to help people start walking programs. The studies focus on people who have an illness or risk factor for an illness, such as diabetes or heart disease.
Many of the programs at U-M and the VA use enhanced pedometers – that is, pedometers that automatically upload step-count data to the Internet – that can help users see graphs and feedback that assist with goal-setting on a personalized Web page.
“An enhanced pedometer can really help you keep track of your walking goals and your successes,” she notes.