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Turn Your Walk into a Workout

How to start (and stick to) a walking program, whether you're new to exercise or already fit.
By Linda Melone
WebMD Feature

Walking while listening to podcasts and audiobooks made it easy for Janet Zinn to stick to her daily exercise program. "I walk at least three miles, sometimes six or 10," Zinn, 51, says.

After a year of regular walking, Zinn dropped more than 60 pounds. She's kept it off for eight months and continues to walk as her main form of exercise.

As one of the simplest exercises, walking requires no equipment except for a good, supportive pair of walking shoes. Exercise physiologist Julia Valentour says, "Exercise doesn't have to be hard to be effective. The recommended 30 minutes can be broken up into two 15-minute sessions or even three 10-minute sessions, making it easy to weave into a busy lifestyle."

Weight loss isn't the only benefit of a walking program. Regular walking helps lower cholesterol, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, increases bone strength, and improves circulation.

"Just a few extra steps each day is a simple and easy way to take an active role in maintaining a significantly healthier life," says Timothy Gardner, MD, past president of the American Heart Association.

Get Started

Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program if you've been inactive for a while.

Establish a baseline. Courtenay Schurman, author of The Outdoor Athlete. says, "If you've been sedentary, start walking three times a week at a stroll for 20 minutes." Work your way up to five or so times a week, 30 minutes per session, for a total of 2.5 to 3 hours per week.

Choose distance or time. Some walkers focus on distance, others target time. "Ultimately, it's about speed," Schurman says. "If you can walk five miles but it takes you five hours to do it, it's not a fit level of work. So use both distance and time as well as heart rate."

Check the intensity. Exercising at a particular heart rate enables you to gauge the difficulty of your workout.

You can check your heart rate by manually checking your pulse or by purchasing and using a simple heart rate monitor. Keep in mind, however, that the standards of the traditional heart rate formula do not fit everyone. "Most recommendations suggest starting out at 70% to 75% of your maximum heart rate," Schurman says. "But this may not be enough if you're fit."

You can also use the "talk test" to gauge your exercise intensity. "If you can string together six to eight words or chat briefly," Schurman says, "you're in your aerobic zone." But if you find yourself gasping for air, lower the intensity. If you can say several phrases with one breath, you may not be working out hard enough.

5 Ways to Stay Motivated

Wear a pedometer. Bit by bit, boost your daily steps. "Wear a pedometer for a week to see what days you have the most number of steps," Valentour says. "Then try to repeat the activities of that day and add another 500 steps the following week." Keep it up until you reach 10,000 steps a day.

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