10 ways walking benefits your health

Special to The TribuneAugust 20, 2013 

MCT

My family and I have taken up long-distance walking. We’ve always been strong hikers and have trekked countless miles in both the Sierra Nevada and local hills. But now we’ve extended both our mileage and our adventurous spirits. Think Templeton to Cayucos. Or a nine-mile walk to an exercise class.

Of course, walking is nothing new. Approximately 4 million years ago, our ancestors began the habit of moving in an upright manner, thus defining the family Hominidae. Later, during the Pedestrian Age (1860-1903), walking was the leading spectator sport in Europe and America, with the best long-distance walkers earning more than today’s NBA stars.

It isn’t likely that ESPN will cover the sport of walking anytime soon. But walking is considered one of the healthiest activities we can engage in. It’s proven to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and improve cholesterol. It also makes bones stronger and helps shed unwanted pounds.

In addition, walking wards off breast cancer. The Nurses’ Health Study found that vigorous exercise, such as brisk walking, for seven hours each week was associated with 20 percent less incidence of breast cancer.

Research conducted at Yale University showed that women who walk regularly after being diagnosed with breast cancer have a 45 percent greater chance of survival than those who are inactive.

Walking even reduces the risk of stroke. According to University of South Carolina scientists, subjects who walked 30 minutes a day, five days each week had a 40 percent lower risk of suffering a stroke than those with lower fitness levels.

Walking has a host of mental benefits, too. For instance, it slows cognitive decline and staves off Alzheimer’s disease. A study from the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville found that men between the ages of 71 and 93 who walked more than a quarter of a mile per day had half the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s compared with those who walked less.

Walking also beats depression. Research reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that walking 30 minutes each day lifted depressed patients’ spirits faster than antidepressants.

One more plus? Walking is fun. It’s a highly social activity, and it’s great to do with friends. It’s also noncompetitive; nobody has to lose.

The only goal is to complete the distance and enjoy the scenery along the route.

HOW TO GET STARTED

Here’s how to get off the couch and start walking:

Have the right footgear. You won’t need anything fancy. But you’ll want shoes and socks that support your feet and prevent the formation of blisters. It may take a few outings to dial in the right combo. If you have any concerns, be sure to discuss them with your health care professional.

Set aside a regular time to walk. Are you a morning person? Do you plan to walk when you get home from work? Decide what time is best and stick with it. If you leave it up to chance, you’re more likely to forget or make excuses.

Map out your route. Decide where you’ll walk before you leave home. Your neighborhood may be a great place to start. A nearby park or walking trail works equally well.

Walk with friends. Friends make walks more enjoyable. They also keep you accountable should your motivation falter.

Start small. If you’re new to walking, keep your first outings short. It’s easy to overdo and get discouraged. Your initial goal is to be blister-free and eager to go again.

Leave the dog at home. Dog walks are different than exercise walks. They involve a lot of stopping and standing and seldom go more than a few steps at a time. Take Fido out for his walk first. Then take him home before embarking on yours.

Keep track of your progress. Start a walking diary and note the days and distances you cover. There are several free apps (we like Strava) that record your mileage, time and elevation gain, and give suggestions for nearby routes.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit http://lindalewisgriffith.com .

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