Please note, this article is for informational purposes only – see my disclaimer here. It is aimed at people who would like to start walking for exercise, especially those who have other health problems that may hold them back from starting to walk for their health.
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The benefits of walking for health
Walking has many health benefits including increased cardiovascular fitness, improved weight control and increasing your life span. This guide tells you all you need to know before you start walking for health. Walking has been shown to lead to sustained weight loss, especially if you walk regularly. It is the only exercise I do, and I lost over 17kg last year and have kept it off. If you incorporate walking in to your healthy lifestyle, along with other choices of a well balanced diet, stopping smoking, minimal alcohol and plenty of sleep, you will derive multiple benefits including reduced stress, weight control and improved tolerance to illness. Just 30 minutes brisk walking per day has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes and extend your lifespan.
Why you need to see a doctor before you start a walking program
Any walking plan should begin with a trip to your GP. If you have other health issues such as heart disease, arthritis in your joints or chronic back pain, you will need to have an individualised program under the supervision of a physiotherapist or other trained specialist in this field. This is especially relevant if you haven’t exercised for a long time or have a significant amount of weight to lose. Starting off slowly and building up your tolerance will mean that you have less issues such as strained muscles.
I don’t want to put you off altogether, however, there are some precautions to be aware of. If you experience any symptoms such as palpitations, severe shortness of breath or chest pain, seek medical attention straight away. Any muscle aches and pains can be treated by a cold pack, resting and elevating the affected leg, however anything more serious should be examined by a medical professional. Apart from these precautions, there is relatively very little that prevents you from starting to walk for your health. Walking is the best exercise for anyone with other health issues because it is less stress on your body.
Why I started walking for health
10 years ago I was relatively fit. I went to the gym at least three times a week and swam 1 km on the other days. I trained for triathlons and competed in two. My stamina was deteriorating, but I just thought I needed to train harder. The harder I trained, the worse my exercise tolerance became, until one summer evening when I collapsed in a heap at boot camp. My heart was racing and palpitating, and I was gasping for breath. I had developed a cough as well which I thought was just a cold or flu. After a trip to my GP, he referred me to have a cardiac echo done. I thought that was a bit over the top: it couldn’t possibly be anything cardiac.
The cardiac echo showed I have an atrial septal defect, which I’ve had since birth (another genetic condition thanks to my dad’s mother who had the same thing). To be diagnosed at 43 was a huge shock to me, but it explained why my symptoms had got worse with increased exercise. I have two holes in my heart, plus an aneurysm in the wall between the top chambers (atrium). This allows unfiltered blood to circulate into my blood system, and the symptoms include palpitations, migraines and shortness of breath. I manage it by minimising the work my heart does – no high intensity exercise, and medications to stop the palpitations and lower my blood pressure.
Walking is the only exercise I do now. I swim in the summer but not as much as I used to, and I do some yoga although I’m out of practice now. Contrary to what one might believe, I don’t miss the heavy schedule of training that I used to do. I was often nursing injuries and my life revolved around training which left little time for anything else. My running used to be on a treadmill and I rarely walked in the fresh air. I had a lot of migraines, not surprising really.
Now I walk my dog every day and it is the best part of the day. I enjoy the fresh air and feel completely stress free when I’m walking. I’m telling you this story as a word of caution as to why any symptoms should be checked out by your doctor. It may be something completely out of the blue like mine. You always need to be checked by your doctor prior to undertaking any exercise program.
What you need for walking:
You can walk almost anywhere, in any weather (with adequate clothing for extreme temperatures and rain or sun), and it costs very little to get started. This is what you will need:
Shoes – Good shoes are a must as they take all the impact and need to support your feet so that you don’t get strains in your leg muscles. My favourites are Asics (link to buy online here) and Sketchers Go Walk (buy online here). In the summer a good pair of sandals such as Planet Shoes (with arch support) may be more comfortable. I know a lot of people wear Birkenstocks but I’ve never tried them so I can’t rate how they are.
Hat – I always wear a cap but a wide brimmed hat is better for sun protection. Sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Sunscreen – SPF 50+ is the best. Neutrogena make a great spray-on one called Beach Defence (buy online here). I bought a fantastic one in Japan by Biore – if you can buy it I recommend it as it is light, and goes on like moisturiser without leaving a greasy film on your skin (buy online here). In Australia, Cancer Council make the best range of sunscreens and skin protection (buy online here) .
Clothing – walking doesn’t require any special clothing, but comfortable loose fitting clothes will be better. I wear shorts or long pants with pockets so that I can carry keys, phone, dog poo bags and hand sanitiser, leaving my hands free for the dog leash and a water bottle. You may prefer leggings which are definitely more comfortable. T-shirt and light sweatshirt are usually enough, and a lightweight jacket on rainy days.
Optional – a dog, preferably a border collie! Even when you don’t feel like walking, they always do, and their pleading eyes will motivate you even on your laziest days. Being out in the fresh air is the best remedy for a glum mood, and my dog is a social butterfly so I get to meet all the other dog walkers even when I’m feeling antisocial so it helps take my mind off things. Seeing how happy he is lightens my mood so much and it definitely is the highlight of my day.
Fitbit or other fitness tracker – to record your steps for the day, pulse rate, weight, calorie intake and sleep. I am in challenges with other people on Fitbit which keeps me motivated. (Buy online here)
Other ways to increase your step count
The optimum number of steps per day is 10000. If you don’t have the time to take a 30 minute to one hour walk every day, you can increase your step count by doing the following:
- Park further away
- If you sit at a desk all day, set a reminder on your phone to get up and move every hour. My fitbit buzzes to remind me to take 250 steps every hour during the day
- Walk in your lunch break
- If you meet a friend regularly for coffee, get the coffee to takeaway and have a walk while you drink it
- Set your alarm for 30 minutes earlier and go for a quick walk in the morning
- If the weather is bad, go to your local shopping centre and walk around there
- Take the stairs at work. Walking up stairs burns calories 2-3 times faster than walking on level ground
- Invest in a treadmill or join a gym so that you can use theirs
By gradually increasing the amount I walk, and by taking the stairs at work, I have increased my stamina so much that when I was in Japan a couple of years ago we used walking as our primary means of transport (apart from the train), and we managed to climb a mountain! I was so happy that my fitness had allowed me to see something that was only accessible by walking and climbing. Some days we walked up to 14km while we were there.
I hope I have inspired you to start your own walking program. You may like to read these other articles:
Slow and steady wins the race – how I lost weight by walking
How to make goals that stick – how to set realistic goals that you will achieve and stick with
Living the healthiest version of your life – even if you have health issues, you can still live the healthiest version of yourself