Energize With Walking
By Jennifer Barrett
This winter, be happily pedestrian as you step up your resolution to get fit
With the new year, many of us contemplate exercise—or rather a lack of it—as a part of our life we'd like to change. Unfortunately, the realities of winter can derail even the best-intended workout program. Trudging back from the pool with wet hair, sliding along crunchy snow on a bike path, or jogging down an icy sidewalk are obstacles that cause us to quit before our new regimen gathers steam.
There is one fitness program, however, that has a better chance of surviving winter than most. Just ask Patti Hoppin Mohler, a 35-year-old mother of two who routinely pulls herself out of bed even on the coldest of mornings. Last January, Mohler's resolution was to walk most mornings, and she's still at it a year later, meeting a friend at 6:30 a.m. for an invigorating tour around their central Connecticut town.
"I used to run competitively," says Mohler, "but now I feel walking is gentler on my body. It's also great down-time, a small part of the day that's just for me." Like many fans of walking, Mohler finds winter as good a time as any to get out. In fact, she began her regimen of brisk walking—three times a week for up to 50 minutes a stretch—in the middle of last year's particularly snowy season. She's testament to the fact that there's no reason to quit a walking program—or avoid starting one—when the temperature drops. With a few simple changes and a little common sense, anyone can reap the advantages of this pursuit year-round.
As far as medical benefits go, walking covers all the bases. "It decreases your risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes," says Lewis G. Maharam, MD, president of the New York chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine and medical director of the New York City Marathon. "Walking also lowers blood pressure and 'bad' LDL cholesterol, while raising 'good' HDL levels." As an aerobic exercise, walking trains the heart as a muscle and sheds pounds while also being low impact. "It doesn't aggravate the knees and joints as much as a high-impact sport would," he adds.
Like any exercise that gets your heart pumping, walking has the backing of research to support its health perks. One meta-analysis, or statistical review, of 16 different studies, for example, found that walking programs reduce resting blood pressure in adults (MGH Institute of Health Professions, Boston). Another study of nearly 6,000 women over age 65 found a positive correlation between the amount of exercise, including walking, and cognitive health (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2001, vol. 161, no. 14).
While avid walkers insist the sport reigns over other forms of exercise, there's no research to prove that—yet. In 1998, Paul T. Williams, PhD, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, launched a large-scale survey to assess whether walking truly does offer the same benefits as running, with much less risk. "We gain certain medical benefits from recent exercise," he says, underscoring the importance of continuity in any exercise program. "Because walking is something people can do throughout their entire lives, we wanted to try to quantify its benefits." (See "Walk through the Web," for information on participating in the study.)
Taking up walking in winter can involve little more than putting on warm attire and a pair of waterproof, comfortable shoes and heading out the door. But you'll more likely stick to the program long-term if you make a few preparations ahead of time. First off, says Maharam, get clearance from your doctor before beginning this or any other exercise program, especially if you have been relatively inactive. Second, take a moment to figure out your target heart rate. The formula is simple: From the number 220 (for men) or 222 (for women), subtract your age. "For a 28-year-old woman, 194 would be the maximum heart rate," explains Elizabeth Gale, a certified athletic trainer at Healthsouth in West Hartford, Conn. "A beginner would want to work at 50 or 60 percent of that number," or 97 to 116 beats per minute. After walking anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, says Gale, take your pulse at the neck for 30 seconds, and multiply the number of beats by two. Heart-rate monitors, of course, will do the math for you, but most experts agree that they can become one more gadget ultimately getting between you and your resolve to go out and "just do it."
Beginners will find their hearts beating quickly at first. The American Council on Exercise recommends at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise three or four days a week. As you progress in your walking and become more fit, try increasing your pace so that you work at 75 percent of your target heart rate. Swinging or pumping your arms will help you reach the target heart rate faster, as you'll be expending more energy. "How you feel should be the determining factor in how long it takes to up your speed," Gale adds.
Walking in what might seem the off-season affords you time to drink in winter's quiet beauty, while avoiding feelings of cabin fever and even holiday stress. But it pays to be prepared. Dress in layers, favoring the new synthetic fabrics that wick away perspiration. "Don't put cotton close to the skin," Maharam advises, "as it doesn't allow for air pockets that will keep you warm. Damp cotton socks will also blister feet." Cover all extremities, including ears and hands, remove any jewelry that could draw the cold, and be sure to rehydrate after your walk, because you sweat even in cold weather.
According to Casey Meyers, author of Walking: A Complete Guide to the Complete Exercise (Random House, 1992), the greatest threat to wintertime walking is wind chill, not temperature. Check your local weather station before venturing out. "On a cold, windy day, the most important rule to remember is always start your walk headed into the wind. You won't walk far before you'll know if this is a day when you should just pack it in," he says.
Because of the added challenge of poor weather in winter, Gale recommends that those just starting out pick a milder day for their first walk. Echoing the advice of Williams and so many in the physical fitness field, she emphasizes the need for continuity. "If you start out walking on the worst day of the year, you just won't enjoy it—and then you won't do it for very long." Indeed, with minimal effort, you can integrate walking into your daily life in a way that's enjoyable, nearly effortless and sustainable for good health year-round.
Jennifer Barrett lives in West Hartford, Conn., where she works as a freelance writer and editor for The Herb Quarterly.