Is walking a good exercise?

Q: I’ve been accused of being a couch potato. I suppose it’s true but I’m just not the natural Joe Athlete type. I have no fundamental interest in playing tennis or jogging. But I still want to look good and feel good when I reach (shudder) middle age. Any recommendations?

A: Juneau is famous for its 101 walks. Call Parks and Recreation or Trail Mix. Seriously, walking is wonderful exercise, especially when you also move your arms around, and therapeutic in many ways. Dr. Dean Ornish, a well-known cardiologist, once quipped “you should walk your dog daily, whether you have one or not.” To maintain fitness, the average person needs to walk 3 miles in 45 minutes, 5 times weekly. If you’re just starting up after a period of convalescence or inactivity, begin with 1 mile (in about 15 minutes) 5 times weekly. Then work up to three miles 5 times weekly within 10 to 12 weeks, and maintain this level. This schedule applies to you at age 20 or at age 70 and above. Don’t increase your walking more than 10 a week. The objective is to enhance your total fitness, not to transform you into Joe Athlete. Total fitness means having a body free from disease with muscles, heart and lungs developed to enhance strength, agility, and endurance so that the days’ tasks may be performed easily and well. Total fitness also means having an alert mind free from undue worry, fear or anger. Ideally your mind will be fit and relaxed enough to engage readily with the challenge, opportunity or surprise that the moment presents. Total fitness also means having a free, strong, flexible and relaxed spirit that feels itself unselfishly a part of the grand adventure of life on earth. So, back to earth, and to walking.

Why not jog, you might wonder? Jogging is great for some people, but for many can create knee and ankle problems, urinary problems, headaches and in women menstrual problems. In fact, jogging is usually not the best choice in exercise for women. However, it is generally non-competitive, readily available and inexpensive. Your choice. Walkers and joggers both should invest in good shoes and wear 2 pairs of athletic socks or cushion your walking shoes with some kind of Dr. Scholl’s or other thin spongy pad. The next trick is to figure out the best time of day for your walking constitutional. This should be tailored to your schedule needs, remembering that a brisk walk will keep you revved up for up to 5 hours. If you need to be alert and articulate at 9:00 AM on a regular basis, then yes indeed 7:00 AM is absolutely the best time for your brisk daily walk. By warming up your body, morning walks also warm up your mind. CAUTION: make sure to leave enough time for a pre-walk stretch (at least 10 minutes) and cool-down (at least 5 minutes). If you make your own schedule, the best time for fast-paced striding is late afternoon, when your body is well warmed, so you can stretch more fluidly, and simultaneously avert nervous tension at a time of day when anxiety tends to peak.

Here are some tips to enhance your work-out, and boost your spirits. Don’t be concerned if you attract a few stares. Be proud. Heel walks to strengthen the muscles in front of your shins and help stretch your hamstrings. Walk on your heels for about 50 yards. Crossing. To get more mobility in your hips, overextend your foot placement so that your feet are crossing over one another. Figure 8. Another good hip stretcher is to stride normally, but move in a somewhat tight figure 8 instead of a straight line. Feel your outside hip stretch while the inside hip rests. Quickstep. To loosen up your feet and ankles, take tiny steps as quickly as possible. Concentrate on quickly rocking your feet from heel to toe. Remember to stay slightly on the outside of your foot.

Walking is not only good exercise, it increases well being just by virtue of allowing you time to get back in tune with your body, and notice the world around you. A brisk walk can produce a sensation of euphoria that results from better blood flow, decreased muscle tension, and many hormonal and chemical changes resulting from exercise. A bedtime stroll is one of the best antidotes for insomnia, but don’t make this your exercise for the day. You may be “warm” for up to 5 hours after walking 1 or 3 miles. Lastly, all walking should be performed with belly breathing. Most people who have not consciously shifted their breath into their bellies breathe in their chests. Chest breathing is shallow, and as you get tense, your breathing tends to get higher in your chest. When inhaling, you should feel your stomach rise, then your upper abdomen, and finally your chest. Then exhale by letting your stomach relax. This may feel strange at first, but it is very relaxing and provides more oxygen to the tissues.