If I could fall
Into the sky
Do you think time
Would pass me by
'Cause you know I'd walk
A thousand miles
If I could
Just see you
The lyrics are from Vanessa Carlton's 2002 Top 40 song, "A Thousand Miles." The mileage, of course, is figurative, but what if someone did decide to walk a tiny fraction of that distance for love, for charity, for errands, or for exercise? Whatever the reason, it would probably delight many health professionals who have been touting physical activity as one way to trim the nation's burgeoning waistline.
More than 60% of American adults are overweight, and about one out of three is obese, according to the CDC. In the kid department, 15% of 6- to 19-year-olds are also overweight -- almost double what it was two decades ago.
Sedentary lifestyles have repeatedly been held partially responsible for the excessive poundage. This is why many groups, including the American Heart Association (AHA), the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE), and AARP, are now promoting campaigns on how to incorporate physical activity into daily life. And since these organizations recognize the challenge of getting people moving, many have included fitness walking into their recommendations.
"Something is better than nothing," says Melane Kinney Hoffmann, director of health campaigns at AARP. "Everyone, even people who are totally sedentary, if they get up and do something, that's better than sitting in a recliner chair."
Besides, traveling by foot is something most people arguably know how to do, usually without requiring expensive equipment (except for maybe the shoes, but that's another story). It can be done for any length of time, and the intensity can be adjusted according to age, health status, and fitness goal. Plus, there are so many kinds of fitness walking, from strolling to brisk walking to marathon walking to volkssporting (more on this later).
So "Walk this way!" as the rock group Aerosmith would shout, and maybe one step could lead to a thousand, and that could lead to better health.
Why Fitness Walk?
The Benefits of Fitness Walking
Anna Cottrill says she doubts she would be mobile today if she had not insisted on her daily strolls. The 66-year-old has had osteoarthritis in her lower spine since 1979, even once unable to take a step for six months. Her ailment, however, hasn't flared up since she started her regular jaunts.
The Fort Worth, Texas, grandmother joined up with a walking group known as the American Volkssport Association (AVA) and soon became highly involved with the organization and its affiliates. She is now co-president of the Tarrant County Walkers, and is second vice president of the Texas Volkssporting Association. (For the unaware, volkssporting is a German-derived term describing participation in sports such as walking, swimming, skiing, snowshoeing, and biking. In Cottrill's case, the sport is obviously walking.)
As an active member of volkssporting groups, she and her husband have traveled by foot in all 50 states, and are now working on traversing through all the state capitals. They have met many friends through treks and have seen people begin lifelong relationships.
Cottrill's observations correspond well with the scientific research on physical activity. According to the AHA, vigorous activities that include brisk walking and moderate activities that include walking for pleasure can help reduce the following risk factors for heart disease:
- High blood pressure
- Obesity and overweight
- High levels of triglycerides
- Low levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol)
Additionally, Richard Stein, MD, AHA spokesman, says fitness walking is easy to do and can achieve the same cardiovascular benefits as many forms of physical activity.
"The heart is really a very nice organ," he says. "It really doesn't know whether you're walking barefoot on the beach or you're in $4,000 Nike gear in a million-dollar treadmill."
Good forms of exercise supposedly include activities that burn fat, use large muscle groups, or happen over long distances, particularly if there is no resistance involved.
For older people afflicted with arthritis, Hoffmann says fitness walking can actually ease pain instead of cause it. "There is a huge body of research that shows that the symptoms of arthritis are usually relieved by walking, that if people will get up and get moving, they will find that their joints will get better and they will be less stiff and less sore."
At the other end of the spectrum, walking can also help meet children's health needs, says Charles Corbin, MD, author of the NASPE's physical activity guidelines. "Kids need to expend enough calories during the day to maintain desirable weight," he says. "Plus, they need to expend energy consistent with building bones and muscles for fitness and normal growth and development."
The Basics of Fitness Walking
Most people may think they've mastered this skill at toddler age, but certain steps apparently need to be taken in order to maximize the health benefits of going by foot:
Timetable: The Surgeon General recommends moderate amounts of activities such as a brisk walk of at least 30 minutes a day every day for overall health. The NASPE proposes that kids get more -- from 60 minutes up to several hours of physical activity (which includes walking) a day -- on most, if not all days of the week. People looking to lose weight are encouraged by the AARP to hit the pavement at least an hour a day for most days. For heart, lung, and circulation health, the AHA suggests 30 minutes of vigorous activity (including walking) a day, three to four times a week. Many of these guidelines allow time requirements to be non-continuous, with bouts of physical activity sprinkled throughout the day.
Intensity: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning relaxed and 10 thoroughly exhausted, Stein advises starting a walk at level 2 or 3, working up to level 6 to 8, and then cooling down to a 2. "The recommendation is the same for everyone," he says, "because as you get more and more fit, you actually end up having to walk faster or steeper to keep that 6 to 8 up."
Form: Stein says it doesn't matter whether someone is swinging his or her shoulders or walking straight from the hip, as long as they're comfortable and have the right intensity. Hoffmann, however, says it's best to have elbows bent at a 90 degree angle, the arms swinging freely so that they come up to about chest level, the fingers curled into a loose fist, and the feet moving forward at a brisk pace. "If your hands are just dangling at the sides, you're probably not walking fast enough to get any heart rate increase," says Hoffmann, who notes that the extremely sedentary and overweight can begin an exercise plan with a stroll and work up to a quicker pace.
Mileage: Many guidelines give recommendations on time and intensity, so distance may not necessarily be a factor. On the other hand, some walking events and campaigns with specific distance requirements have been known to be very motivating. For example, Corbin says children have loved digital pedometer programs, which have enabled them to keep track of steps during the day. Students who take a certain number of steps a day for at least five days a week for several weeks receive a President's Council Activity Award. Volkssporting groups have also given honors to walkers of all ages that have achieved particular distances.
Walking Through Life
Putting one foot ahead of the other may yet be the easiest form of exercise because it can readily be incorporated into daily life. Various sources, including the AHA, the AARP, and the NASPE, have provided the following tips, which could make fitness walking seemingly effortless whether you're doing it for love or against love handles.
- Go out for a short walk before breakfast, after dinner, or both.
- Walk to the corner store instead of driving.
- Instead of asking someone to bring you a drink, get up off the couch and get it yourself.
- Walk instead of watching TV.
- See neighbors.
- Walk the dog.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or get off a few floors early and walk the remaining flights.
- Walk down the hall to speak to someone at the office rather than using the telephone.
- Conduct a meeting with co-workers while taking a walk.
- Walk around your building for a break during the work day or during lunch.
Out and About
- Get off a stop or two early on the bus or subway, and walk the rest of the way.
- Park farther away at the shopping mall, and walk the extra distance.
- Walk around while waiting for a relative or friend's game to begin.
- Walk while waiting for the plane at the airport.
- See the sights in new cities by walking.
- At the beach, sit and watch the waves instead of lying flat. Better yet, get up and walk, run, or fly a kite.
- When golfing, walk instead of using a cart.
Advice for Caregivers of Children
- Have kids walk to and from school.
- Provide time for activity in a school setting.
- Be an active role model.