Not long ago, I saw a patient who had started walking regularly to lose weight. “Walking is now the best part of my day!” he proudly announced. He did lose weight — and a significant body of scientific research shows that walking also reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease (including heart attack and stroke) as well as diabetes, breast cancer and colon cancer. Walking also helps fight osteoporosis, anxiety, depression and memory problems. It even improves immune health, reducing the frequency and duration of colds and flu.
For thousands of years, walking — at a speed of about three miles per hour, on average — was our primary mode of transportation. Now, nearly 40% of Americans don’t walk beyond the bare minimum needed to get through the day. If this describes you, you are not letting your body do what it was designed to do. My advice…
Make walking a priority. Set aside specific times to walk five days per week. If you keep a daily calendar, write down when you plan to walk. Also, invest in a good pair of walking shoes. Depending on where you live, you also may need rain gear as well as warm, but not restrictive, clothing and a head covering for cold weather. In hot weather, try to avoid the hottest part of the day — and wear a hat to avoid excessive sun exposure. In harsh weather, you can walk in a shopping mall.
Start slowly. Many people are far too ambitious when they first start walking. In the beginning, walk only five minutes up to five days a week. Then increase your time by five minutes per session each week. If possible, work up to 30 minutes per day, five days per week within six weeks.
Walk outside whenever possible. Walking is most enjoyable when it exposes you to fresh air, sunlight and views of nature — even urban trees and flower boxes. The varied terrain of outdoor walking, including uneven sidewalks or the slope of a trail, improve proprioception — the brain’s awareness of body position and balance — and will make you more agile and less vulnerable to falls. To prevent injury, pay attention to the terrain, your surroundings and to how your body feels as you walk. If your balance is poor, invest in a walking stick, available at most outdoor-sports stores for $20 and up.
Get the right amount of fluid and take supplements. Drink one-half ounce of water per pound of body weight throughout the day — and at least 12 ounces of water just before walking. In addition, ask your doctor about taking daily mineral supplements containing 300 mg of magnesium and 99 mg of potassium. Following these steps will help you avoid muscle cramps, which are usually caused by dehydration, a deficiency of magnesium and/or potassium or lack of strength. Caution: If you are taking blood pressure medication or have kidney disease, be sure to discuss potassium supplementation with your doctor before trying it.
Even if you don’t need to lose weight, as my patient did, I’m betting that walking will make you feel healthier and stronger.