Finding Bliss
{One Step at a Time}

Walking is a highly accessible exercise that can burn plenty of calories
and provide a personal space for mobile meditation.


April 2011

By Eric Schneider

Walking used to be an integral part of everyday American life. Before cars and mass transit, you got to where you were going by horse or your own two feet. These days, particularly in suburbs, walking from point A to point B isn’t even possible due to roads and intersections that are inaccessible to pedestrians. And for urban residents, getting from place to place by car, bus, or commuter train is often the default—one that deprives body and mind of a relatively gentle exercise that fosters better health.

Although jogging, running and other forms of physical activity may build more bone and muscle strength, walking is accessible to most people and is considerably less taxing on one’s joints.

And while more strenuous activities may burn additional calories, walking is no slouch in this category. Brisk walking—three to four miles per hour—burns about 300 calories per hour depending on weight, says David R. Bassett Jr., PhD, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Walking does more than just burn calories, however. “We have a large body of evidence showing that physical activity, including walking, lowers the risk of developing many chronic diseases such
as heart disease, thromboembolic stroke, type 2 diabetes, and colon and breast cancers,” says I-Min Lee, MD, MPH, ScD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and a key researcher in the extensive Women’s Health Study trial.

Walking can help people shed pounds, lower blood pressure in those with hypertension, improve glucose tolerance and insulin resistance, and raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), commonly referred to as good cholesterol, adds Bassett.

Often forgotten are walking’s positive mental effects. “People underestimate the mental health benefits. Studies show people have lower stress levels after exercise bouts, and chronic exercisers report less stress and depression overall,” says Mark Fenton, host of the PBS series “America’s Walking” and author of The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness (Lyons Press).

Walking Away from Arthritis

One reason people don’t walk—or jog, or run—as much as they should is because arthritis makes movement painful. Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type, causes cartilage, which cushions the joint, to degrade. Nearly 45% of Americans will develop OA symptoms in at least one knee by age 85.

It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise aids a cranky knee; it helps with weight control and strengthens the surrounding muscles. In addition to walking, swimming and elliptical training provide low-impact exercise. Workouts should also include stretching, particularly the quadriceps in the front of the thigh and the hip flexors, which pull the knee upwards. Be sure to avoid any motion that bends the knee more than 90 degrees.

Complementary medicine offers helpful therapies including yoga, tai chi and acupuncture. Prolotherapy, in which sugar water is injected into the joint as a counter-irritant, is a fairly new anti-arthritic procedure (to learn more, visit www.aaomed.org or call 800-992-2063).

Diet plays a crucial role in OA control. Cold-water fish such as salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help ease inflammation. Turmeric, a spice used for centuries in India as an arthritis remedy,
contains curcumin, a substance that has shown an ability to ease inflammation in lab studies. (Omega-3s, as fish oil, and curcumin are available in supplemental form.)

Glucosamine and chondroitin, the best-known arthritis supplements, provide substances that help the body build healthy cartilage and reduce cartilage damage. They are often combined with MSM, a form of dietary sulphur that has been found to impede inflammation-
related damage to cartilage, especially in OA’s early stages. Some
formulations also include black cherry extract and esterified fatty acid carbons (EFACs). Black cherry contains anti-inflammatory anthocyanins along with antioxidants to fight cell-damaging free radicals. EFACs help membranes of cells within the joint resist damage, leading to greater flexibility.

To get the most out of walking, a pace of around three miles per hour is ideal, although a slower speed may be more suited for those who are older or out of shape. Lee offers this guideline: “Aim for a pace at which you can still carry on a conversation comfortably, but you cannot sing.” Ultimately, however, any tempo is preferable to not walking at all. Says Fenton, “If you’re sedentary now, even a comfortable 10-minute stroll provides some improvement in your health profile.”

Research has shown that walking at a suitable pace for about two and a half hours a week is a good goal. Lee says, “Most health benefits are obtained starting at 150 minutes per week
of brisk walking.” She recommends splitting this time up over several days a week, and walking for at least 10 to 15 minutes during each session. For more benefits, some experts suggest increasing one’s walking time to five hours per week.

Posture Counts

You won’t get the benefits of walking if your style resembles the kind of aimless, slouched-over walking that you’d find in your local mall—it takes technique. To help keep an optimal pace, Fenton suggests maintaining a tall posture with a gaze directed forward instead of at the ground. Other tips include making faster—but not shorter—steps, carrying your arms in 90-degree angles at the elbows, and pushing off of your toes as you complete each step.

Another factor to consider when getting the most out of a walk, whether in a gym or out in the fresh air, is incline. “Walking both up and downhill increases the energy expenditure,” Fenton says. “I recommend walking on moderate hills to make walking a more intense exercise. For beginners, I’m talking about modest inclines, not mountaineering. Save steep hills for when you’ve gotten more fit and built more leg strength.” When walking on a treadmill, both Fenton and Bassett suggest an incline in the range of 5% for most people, with a steeper grade on the order of 10%. The steeper the incline, the more calories burned.

Although walking requires nothing beyond casual clothes and a comfortable pair of shoes, a very helpful device is a pedometer, which keeps track of how much walking you do throughout the day.

Bassett, co-author, with Fenton, of Pedometer Walking: Stepping Your Way to Health, Weight Loss and Fitness (Lyons Press), explains, “A lot of walking is done in short bouts and doesn’t necessarily enter into your consciousness. So it’s a nice thing to be able to check [a pedometer] throughout the day and see how much physical activity you’ve accumulated.” A pedometer, if used with a daily step goal and log, has been shown in studies to increase a walker’s exercise by an average of 2,500 steps—or 1.25 miles—per day.

Some love the solitude that comes with walking by themselves. On the flip side, others enjoy the camaraderie of walking with others. “The thing that I like about walking with a group is that it becomes a social activity as well as a physical activity,” says Pat Rush of Empire State Capital Volkssporters (ESCV), an upstate New York chapter of The American Volkssport Association (AVA) (www.ava.org), a network of walking clubs that holds regular group outings. Rush, of Schenectady, says that her group tries to vary its walks and visits different locales, although the distance for each generally meets the AVA standard of 10 kilometers (roughly 6.2 miles).

In addition to walking with the ESCV, Rush has completed many long-distance walks on her own. “I walked on my own in northern Spain—the Buddhists call it ‘walking meditation’—and it is a time for reflection and contemplation, which, in itself, is a wonderful thing to do. I’m 74, so I’m at the age when these things become kind of important.”

That’s the beauty of walking—it’s versatile, done alone or in groups, with friends, parents, children and pets. A walk can take you through the heart of a city or deep into the woods; it can be long and leisurely or it can be quick and functional.

What’s more, as Lee observes, walking is a no-tools-required venture. “Almost everyone can walk—it does not require special skills, clothing or equipment. It can be done indoors and outdoors, and in most weather conditions,” Lee says.

For those that live in areas where walking routes aren’t easily accessible, there are promising developments on the national level. Fenton is a leading advocate of the movement to create “walkable communities” that are much more pedestrian-friendly. The concept has steadily been gaining traction throughout the country. (To learn more, contact The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute: www.walklive.org, 614-940-9780.)

No matter where walking takes us, it gets us moving. And that movement will invariably benefit our lives.

Guidebooks, Pedometers to
Help You on Your Walk

If you’re tired of that “going nowhere real fast” feeling that walking on a treadmill gives you, there are plenty of opportunities to see some fascinating sites while getting a brisk workout by lacing up your walking shoes and stepping outside for your walk.

Many adventure tour operators and major cities offer walking tours; you can easily find one by typing “walking tours” and the name of your city in your search engine.

There are also plenty of guide books on the subject. PowerHiking Ltd., of Tiburon, California, for example, has released 7-in. x 7-in. easy-to-carry guides for New York City, San Francisco, London and Paris. Each guide includes multiple routes.

In PowerHiking’s latest guide, for New York, walkers can traverse the areas in and around Central Park, the Upper East Side, lower Manhattan and 10 other areas. Accompanying each entry are handy maps, the distance for each walk and the time it takes to complete. At just over five miles and running four to five hours, the Central Park West walk, for instance, will take you to the Great Lawn, the Strawberry Fields area and Imagine mosaic commemorating John Lennon’s time in the city and other points of interest.

If you’re looking for a more precise measurement of how far your walking has taken you, and an added boost of inspiration for forging on a few more miles, consider wearing a pedometer on your walk.

Omron Healthcare Inc., a Bannockburn, Ill., maker of pedometers and other fitness monitors and products, cites Stanford School of Medicine research showing that using a pedometer can increase physical activity by about 2,000 steps–an extra mile–each day.

The Omron Pocket Pedometer HJ-112 tracks steps, time, distance, and calories and fat grams burned. It stores seven days of historical data which allows for tracking a full week of exercise.  It features dual-accelerometer technology, which enables it to be placed horizontally or vertically while accurately counting steps. The device can be placed at the hip, in a pocket or in a bag. For more details about the Omron HJ-112, visit www.omronwebstore.com.

The Yamax Digi-Walker SW-200 is a simple step counter, with a single reset button. It works well in most people. However, for those who are overweight the device may tilt away from the vertical axis when it’s on the belt; the tilt decreases its accuracy. It has a spring-loaded lever arm that bobs up-and-down with each step, and that opens and closes an electric circuit.
Visit http://www.yamaxx.com/digi/sw-200-b-e.html.

The New Lifestyles NL-2000 pedometer works well for individuals who are overweight or obese. It has a different internal step-counting mechanism and the accuracy is not affected by “tilt.” This mechanism is called a “piezo-electric accelerometer.” In addition to counting steps, it detects the intensity of each step to determine the appropriate amount of caloric expenditure. The NL-2000 also computes your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Visit http://www.thepedometercompany.com/nl2000.html.

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