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The Benefits of Walking

Walking helps people lose weight

Walking is terrific exercise, and it's literally as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.

It can be enjoyed anywhere, indoors or out, 365 days a year. It requires no training, no gym, no forcing yourself to do things you hate, and no special equipment (though a good pair of shoes and some good socks are wise investments).

During an average lifetime, the typical American walks more than 100,000 miles. If you walk just a little farther and a tad faster for a few minutes more each day, you'll soon be on your way to losing weight and gaining better physical and mental health. You'll also see some great scenery.

"If you think 'exercise' means suffering, try walking," says Mark Fenton of Cohasset, Mass., a five-time member of the U.S. National Racewalking Team and technical editor at Walking magazine. "Unlike many other fitness activities, there's nothing yucky about it. You're already good at it, and if you become a little more organized about it, walking can be both enjoyable and very good for you."

Humanity's oldest physical activity

Our ancestors did not set aside time to "exercise." They simply led physically active lives. They walked almost everywhere they went. They also chopped wood, pumped water, hunted game, gardened, and tended farm animals — activities that all involved a great deal of walking. So, it's no exaggeration to say that walking was humanity's original exercise.

But because it was so fundamental, walking was taken for granted. When the ancient Greeks convened the first Olympics, footraces meant running, not walking. The same mindset was still firmly in place more than 2,000 years later during the mid-1970s, when the personal fitness movement was in its infancy. One of the big early fitness books was Jim Fixx's Complete Book of Running, not walking.

But in the last decade, walking has finally gained respect, thanks to an avalanche of recent research on the many health benefits possible from surprisingly non-strenuous exercise. "Strenuous aerobic workouts are still best if you want to get into optimal cardiovascular condition," says John Duncan, Ph.D. "But to control weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure, and to make you feel better, strenuous workouts are not necessary. Modest exercise programs confer similar benefits — if you make them a regular part of your life."

Walking helps you lose weight — and more

According to Robert Cooper, Ph.D., author of Health and Fitness Excellence, a regular walking program confers an enormous number of physical and psychological benefits:

Walking elevates mood, improves posture, helps treat mild to moderate depression, bolsters self-confidence, helps control stress and anxiety, and improves the ability to cope.

Walking can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes. It can improve recall, reaction time, sleep quality, and enjoyment of sex — even resistance to the common cold.

Walking also helps people lose weight. "The name of the game in weight loss is burning more calories, using up stored fat," says former chemical engineer Rob Sweetgall, author of Walking Off Weight.

"Some people think walking isn't a calorie burner," he says, "but they're wrong. With a daily brisk walking program and a low-fat diet, you can burn enough calories to lose weight." In fact, brisk walking (3.5 mph) burns as many calories as other activities that seem more strenuous: golf (unless you carry your own clubs), biking (8 mph), recreational volleyball and baseball, and leisurely swimming.

"If walking is the way you exercise," Sweetgall says, "the key to weight-loss success is walking for distance, not speed. Walking longer distances at a moderate pace is more effective than walking shorter distances more quickly. At a moderate pace, chances are you do more walking, more often, with fewer injuries. For weight loss, I recommend 45-minute walks seven days a week. Walking three or four days a week, most people can maintain their weight. But to lose weight, it's usually necessary to walk every day."

Sweetgall recommends a "cruising pace," one that moves along at 3 to 3.5 mph, but does not leave you winded and sore after 45 minutes. If you can't walk for 45 minutes all at once, no problem. Three 15-minute walks burn the same number of calories, approximately 250 calories per 45-minute walk, or about 1,750 calories a week. Each pound of stored fat contains about 3,500 calories, so with this program and a low-fat diet, you should lose about two pounds a month, or 24 pounds in a year.

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