How to Start a Walking Fitness Program

walking fitnessI am a runner. However, after being plagued with injuries during the past few months, I'm rethinking walking.

Walkers are far less prone to injury than runners, and research shows that consistent, brisk walking can reduce the risk of heart disease by the same amount as more vigorous exercise such as running. 

It's a great time of year to be outdoors, and it's always a great time to start a walking program. As with any exercise program, there are some factors to consider before getting started.

First, check with your doctor. You should do this before starting any exercise program. He or she may know something about your medications or conditions that may affect your ability to exercise.

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. This is the only piece of equipment that you'll need to buy, so make sure that you make a good investment. Plan to replace your shoes every 300 to 500 miles or 3 to 6 months. Wearing the wrong shoes is one of the main contributors to joint and back pain and preventable injuries, so try on several pairs and walk in them around the store. 

Start slowly. As with any exercise, you need to progress slowly to avoid injury. You may be very ambitious in the beginning, but if you set your standards too high, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

At first, only walk as far or as fast as you feel comfortable, then slowly add time and intensity. For example, you may try daily short walks of 5 to 10 minutes and slowly build up to 15 minutes. Then, over 2 or 3 months, you can work your way up to 30 to 60 minutes of walking most days.

Warm up. The first 5 to 10 minutes of your walk should be easy. The goal is to warm up your muscles and gradually increase your heart rate.

Watch your posture. Stand up straight with your shoulders back and your eyes ahead.

Stay hydrated. This is particularly important during the summer months when dehydration and heat stroke are more common. Thirst is one of the last signs of dehydration, so make sure to drink before you're thirsty.

Know your surroundings. Make sure that you're familiar with the area where you'll be walking, even if it is your own neighborhood. Pay attention to unleashed pets as well as dark and desolate areas.

Know the amount of time and intensity needed to fulfill your goals. For health benefits, you should aim for 30 minutes on most days at a pace comfortable for talking. For cardiovascular fitness, your goal should be 30 minutes 3 to 4 times a week at a fast pace. For weight loss, you'll need to walk for 45 to 60 minutes 5 times a week at a brisk pace.

Avoid hand and ankle weights. These increase the strain on ligaments and tendons, which may lead to injury.

If you develop an injury or have questions about beginning a walking fitness program, consult with a physical therapist or other health-care provider.

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