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How to walk your way to better fitness

Walking is a gentle and approachable form of exercise for most people. If you struggle with staying active—and at least half of Americans do—I encourage you to consider incorporating more walking into your life.

Feel physically and mentally stronger

Walking offers the same benefits as other types of physical activity. It improves cardiovascular health, helps control blood sugars, spurs weight loss, reduces back and muscle pain, and reduces fracture risk by improving bone density.

It also has significant mental health benefits, increasing people’s sense of well-being and decreasing overall stress. Walking can even help people’s bodies better tolerate stressful events when they inevitably occur. Another bonus? It requires little mental effort, so it’s still doable after a long day of taking care of kids or working in the office.

Walking has unique advantages compared with running and other forms of exercise. People can fit walks in throughout the day, making it less time-intensive than hitting the gym. It’s also low-impact. Individuals can stay walkers throughout their golden years.

Create a walking program

As a sports medicine physician and former competitive race walker, I am always thrilled to talk to patients about starting a walking program. Walking feels amazing and it is so good for the body! Here’s how to get started:

· Set a baseline: Figure out how much walking you can do physically or with the amount of time you have each day. Schedule walking times into your calendar.

· Get a good pair of shoes: Running shoe stores can help you identify the best width, length, fit, and arch support for your feet. Consider using inserts for extra support if you have flat feet. Plan to replace shoes about every 300 miles.

· Ramp up slowly: Start walking in 5–10 minute increments and slowly add more time if you’ve been mostly sedentary. Being gentle with your body and giving it time to adjust helps prevent injuries.

· Check your pace: Try to increase your heart rate so that you are breathing harder than normal but are still able to have a conversation. This will help you maximize walking’s aerobic benefits.

· Stay consistent: Get the best health results by making walking a regular part of your routine. Aim for the American Heart Association’s recommended 150-plus minutes of activity per week.

Take it to the next level

Seasoned walkers have options to elevate their routines and become more physically fit. Try to:

· Incorporate hills: Walking up and down hills burns more calories and improves your stride over time by challenging muscles.

· Pick up poles: Using Nordic walking or hiking poles increases energy expended while walking by 20 percent, according to a systematic review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Poles transfer part of the load from the lower extremities to the upper extremities for a more complete workout.

· Add weights: If you have good balance, consider adding hand or wrist weights to better engage your upper body.

· Try resistance training: Vary your exercise routine with yoga or Pilates videos or classes, which offer gentle resistance training to help you increase muscle strength and flexibility.

Trust your natural stride

Most people move naturally and don’t need to worry about their form when walking. They instinctively strike with the heel and roll through the foot. Keeping a soft bend in the knee helps cushion the impact, while stabilizing the hips minimizes up and down movement. Bending the arms at the elbows and allowing the upper arms to swing freely engages more of the body.

However, anyone dealing with an injury, pain, or specific concern should see a physician. An individual’s gait can be off, which can put undue strain on areas of the body. Sports medicine physicians and physical therapists are experts at recognizing and addressing biomechanical problems that can prevent a full and pain-free range of movement. Being able to walk comfortably is essential for keeping exercise momentum going.

Dr. Erin Wos is a sports medicine physician at Vancouver Clinic. She helps individuals of all fitness levels heal, prevent injuries, and make healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Wos competed for Bowerman Track Club as a racewalker, representing Team USA in numerous competitions.