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Walking: Getting Started

How to Get Started

Think about your schedule today or tomorrow. Block out 20 to 40 minutes and take a walk. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Walking for health should not be exhausting — it should be enjoyable. Walk at a pace that feels comfortable — don't dawdle, but don't get yourself winded.

Walking expert Mark Fenton, technical editor at Walking magazine, recommends controlling your pace with the "talk test." "For noncompetitive fitness walking, you should be able to talk comfortably while walking. If you find yourself gasping for breath as you talk, you're probably pushing yourself too hard." Speaking of the talk test, a great way to begin a walking program is to make a walk-date with a friend and have a conversation on the move instead of over lunch. Another is to do an errand on foot instead of in your car.

"If you need to carry anything," Fenton advises, "use a backpack, to allow your hands and arms to swing freely at your sides. Carrying things by hand is tiring and interferes with the natural rhythm of walking." With hands and arms swinging freely at your sides, you can stride more comfortably for longer distances and more time without feeling winded.

On your walk, appreciate the little things that are difficult to notice when driving: the warmth of the sun, architectural details, store window displays, the smiles of your neighbors.

Here's how to get started: Warm up beforehand Forget the military-style calisthenics you were forced to do in high school. Like walking itself, warm-ups should be enjoyable.

Why take time to warm up? Because it makes exercise easier, and reduces risk of injury. Warming up increases blood flow to the muscles, delivering extra oxygen so they're ready to produce energy when you launch into your main workout. Warm-ups also gently stretch the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, preparing them for the additional stretching they're about to face. Finally, warming up allows you to shift emotional gears and anticipate the enjoyment of your walk.

For many walkers, especially beginners, walking slowly for the first five or 10 minutes is all the warm-up that's necessary. Or try some gentle leg, arm, and back stretches. Progress slowly Start by walking every third day for four to six weeks. Then advance to every other day for a month to six weeks. Then progress to walking four or five days for four to six weeks. Finally, move up to walking every day. It's a big mistake to progress too quickly. The body needs time to adjust to an increased level of physical activity. If it doesn't get the adjustment time it needs, likelihood of injury increases. Chart your progress Don't just keep track of your walks in your head. Make a real chart, post it where you can refer to it often, and record your progress weekly. Track anything that can be counted: the number of days per week you take walks, the amount of time you spend walking, the number of blocks you can walk in 45 minutes.

When progressing the right way — slowly — people often lose track of how far they've come. Charting your progress reminds you, and provides a sense of accomplishment that helps walking become a permanent part of your life. Set modest goals, and reward yourself with walking-oriented treats: a new pair of walking shoes or a weekend at a country inn near inviting hiking trails. Check your surface "There are pluses and minuses for every surface," says Rob Sweetgall, author of Walking Off Weight. Dirt is soft, which extends shoe life and is good for shock absorption, but it's not as "springy" as harder surfaces, and if it's uneven, you might turn an ankle. Concrete and asphalt are springy and usually fairly uniform (except for potholes), but they increase shoe wear. Refine your technique Suki Munsell, Ph.D., says, "Many walkers can increase their walking speed and efficiency and enjoy walking more with a few simple changes in technique. Don't march. Instead, flow forward. Stand tall and roll your foot from heel to toe. It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a big difference."

The grade of the path also affects technique. When walking uphill, Mark Fenton advises, slow down, lean forward, and put more energy into your arm swing. When walking downhill, maintain a comfortable speed, take shorter steps, and plant your feet gently. "If you slap your feet down, it's hard on your knees, and you may develop shinsplints." Vary your routine After walking regularly for about six months, most people can walk every day without becoming sore or unduly fatigued. Try some different walks: long walks at a moderate pace, shorter walks at a faster pace, walks on flat terrain, and walks on hilly terrain. A great way to vary your routine is to leave your home neighborhood and take a walk in a park or anywhere that has beautiful scenery. Skip your coffee break Sure, a jolt of caffeine can boost productivity around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. But so can a quick 10-minute walk. If you're still dragging at the end of a walk break, have that cup of coffee. But chances are, you won't need it.

Notice the benefits

For the first few months, after you finish your walks, pay close attention to how you feel. Don't expect the euphoric "athletic high" that more strenuous workouts produce. There's plenty of time to experience that in the future as your walking program progresses. Instead, enjoy the strange combination of fatigue, invigoration, and mood elevation that develops when formerly sedentary people start to become physically active.

Assuming you didn't overdo it, your fatigue shouldn't last more than an hour or so, but your feelings of invigoration and emotional uplift will last longer. As you continue walking and your physical condition improves, you'll feel less fatigue, more invigoration and mood elevation, and eventually an athletic high.

Invest in good walking shoes

Good shoes are a boon to even modest exercise programs built around everyday activities. You don't have to spend a fortune. Just shop smart. Here's how:

Check your feet. If you have flat feet, you need extra arch support. If you have a high arch, you need extra shock absorption. If you have weak ankles, consider high-tops.

Shop in the afternoon. Feet swell a little during the day. Be sure to try on both shoes, as left and right feet can be different sizes.

Get a good fit. Experts say there should be about a quarter-inch between your toes and the end of the shoe. Good fit is especially important for women. Fashion dictates that women have dainty feet, and dainty means small. As a result, many women buy shoes that are too small for them and then suffer chronically aching feet. A recent study by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society showed that 88% of women wear shoes too small for their feet. For everyday exercise, wear shoes that fit well and have good support and cushioning. Color is secondary.

Test them well before you buy. Shoes used for exercise should feel comfortable in the store. They shouldn't require breaking in. Jump up and land on your forefoot. In well-cushioned shoes, you should feel almost nothing. Rock from side to side. You shouldn't wobble. Pivot in different directions. The shoes should feel flexible.

Keep these top qualities in mind. When you're trying on shoes, look for the following:
  • Roll. The front and rear of the outsole should be rounded to encourage a smooth, rolling heel-to-toe stride. Running shoes often have flat, flared outsoles at the heel and toe to absorb the shock of runners' foot-strikes. Walking shoes don't need this extra shock absorption, and shouldn't have it.
  • Weight. The lighter the better. Walking magazine recommends shoes weighing 8 to 16 ounces. And make sure the shoe has good traction.
  • Flexibility. Walking shoes shouldn't feel stiff, or restrict foot flexing. Stiff shoes equal sore feet and may contribute to muscle strains.
  • Toe shape. A squarish toe provides the most room and optimal comfort. Avoid pointed toes.
  • Shock absorption. The insole, midsole, and outsole should feel well-cushioned, but not spongy.
  • Padding. The more the better, especially on the tongue, collar, and around the heel.
  • Heel. Most experienced walkers prefer a notched heel collar with a firm counter for support and stability.
Consider orthotics. Manufacturers design shoes for the "average" foot. But with 26 bones and dozens of muscles, tendons, and ligaments, the average foot may bear little resemblance to yours. That's why many people's feet hurt even after they've splurged on good walking shoes. If that happens to you, try orthotics.

Also known as arch supports, innersoles, or inserts, orthotics customize mass-produced shoes to fit unique individual feet. Start with over-the-counter orthotics available at shoe stores, drugstores, and shoe repair shops. "Ready-made orthotics are inexpensive, often effective, and they cause no harm if they don't help," says David B. Alper, D.P.M., a podiatrist.

Orthotics not only provide extra support, they also subtly reshape the feet by changing balance and the demands on some foot muscles. "This retraining takes time," Alper says. "On day one, wear your orthotics for two or three hours, then add an hour a day to allow your feet to adapt to them."

Unfortunately, not everyone finds happiness with ready-made orthotics. If your feet continue to hurt, it's time to consult a podiatrist for custom-made orthotics.

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