The American Heart Association recommends that adults engage in 30 minutes or more of moderate- intensity physical activity at least five days a week. Whether you do the 30 minutes all at once or break it up into two or three shorter walks a day, here are some ways to stride successfully:
- Practice good posture. Keep your head lifted, your stomach pulled in, and your shoulders relaxed. Place your heel down first, then roll your foot forward. Swing your arms naturally; each arm should move with the opposite leg.
- Warm up and cool down. Warming up primes your body for exercise by increasing blood flow to the heart and loosening up your joints and muscles. Walking slowly or marching in place for a few minutes before beginning your walk will accomplish this. Slowing down gradually over a five-minute period at the end of your walk allows your heart rate to decrease slowly to resting level. It's also important to do a few simple stretching exercises after a walk to prevent muscle soreness or strain.
- Be aware of your breathing and heart beat.
To reap the most benefits for your heart, you should walk vigorously enough so that you're breathing hard but can still carry on a conversation. You should also attempt to reach your “target heart rate,” which is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. (To estimate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.) To measure your heart rate while exercising, take your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply the result by six. Build up to your target heart rate gradually.
- Add variety to your walks. Mixing it up will keep them from becoming predictable and boring. For example, walk one block fast, two blocks slow, and repeat several times. Gradually add more fast intervals with shorter recovery periods. Or seek out hilly terrain or a new walking route altogether. Check out Start! Walking Paths for some inspiration at www.startwalkingnow.org/start_walking_paths.jsp.
- Try walking tracking tools. Keeping track of the time, speed, and duration of your walks will help you monitor your progress, realize goals, and stay motivated. The Start! website has an online tracker that allows you to record the times and distances you walk as well as your food and water intake (www.startwalkingnow.org/mystart_tracker. jsp). You can also use the tracker to design a customized weekly walking schedule based on your age and fitness level.
- Use a pedometer to measure the number of steps you take. A 2007 analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who used a pedometer significantly increased their walking distance over time. The researchers combined the results of 26 studies that lasted an average of 18 weeks and enrolled a total of 2,767 participants with an average age of 49. The findings showed that people who used a pedometer increased their walking by nearly 27 percent, adding more than 2,000 steps to their daily walking tallies. The commonly cited goal of 10,000 steps a day is not an official recommendation (it's roughly equivalent to five miles, since the average person's stride is around 2.5 feet long). But take it one step at a time and gradually work up to that recommended number. To count steps accurately, the pedometer should hang vertically from your waist, aligned over your knee.
- Set realistic walking goals. Everyone's fitness level is different, and, initially, many older people are unable to walk for 30 minutes at least five days a week or do 10,000 steps daily. If necessary, start with as little as five to 10 minutes of walking three days a week. Every week or so, add another three to five minutes to your walk, and when you're ready increase to four days and then five. As your fitness level improves, also try to walk faster, so that you're covering more distance in the same amount of time. But always remember that some exercise is better than none.