9 steps to walking safely: walking is a great way to get the aerobic exercise you need, but work with your doctor to set up a program that’s right for you
So, you’re finally going to exercise, and you want to start a walking program. There’s nothing to it, right? Just put one foot in front of the other. You do it all the time.
The truth is, starting a walking program requires some preparation, so we’ve asked Heather Nettle, M.A., a Cleveland Clinic exercise physiologist, to offer some tips to help you take to the sidewalk, track or treadmill safely.
1. Consult with your doctor first
If you’re going to walk the walk, you’d better talk the talk … with your physician. Get a checkup, and if you have cardiovascular risk factors, your doctor may recommend a supervised exercise test to gauge your fitness level and establish exercise parameters.
2. Perfect your form
Walking is more than one step after another. It requires proper form and the right posture to avoid injury and maximize the benefits you get from walking. Move your arms and shoulders freely to help propel you. If possible, keep your arms bent at a 90-degree angle, or swing your arms at your sides and build up to the 90 degrees. Hold your head high, with your chin parallel to the ground and your back and neck as straight as possible, all the while gently tightening your abdominal muscles and taking normal-size steps.
3. Determine the right duration
Most health experts recommend that you get at least 30 to 45 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise on most, if not all, days of the week. When you’re starting out, walk for 10- or 15-minute segments three to four times a day–whatever you feel comfortable with–and gradually add a minute each day until you can meet the goal. “Anything beyond 10 minutes of continuous cardiovascular exercise is counted toward that 30- to 45-minute goal,” Nettle said.
4. Monitor your level of exertion
To gain cardiovascular benefits, you need to exercise at a moderate intensity, which means walking at a brisk pace, but you may need to start slowly. Some health experts recommend measuring your exercise intensity based on your target heart rate (pulse), which for moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking is 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (calculated by subtracting your age from 220). Nettle, though, prefers heart rate reserve (HRR), a more appropriate measure that incorporates your resting heart rate as well as your maximum heart rate. (See chart on how to calculate HRR.)
Using heart rate to monitor exercise intensity is not appropriate for everyone. Some medications affect heart rate, making any heart-rate calculation inaccurate. Consult your physician to determine if heart rate is appropriate for you. As an alternative and completely safe way of measuring intensity, Nettle suggests an easier method–the “talk test”–to gauge your exertion level. If you can’t walk and carry on a conversation without gasping for air, you’re probably overexerting yourself.
And, she suggests following a rated perceived exertion (RPE) scale (see chart), a subjective measure with 1 representing very light exertion and 10 being extremely heavy. Exercise in the 3 to 5 range.
5. Watch the terrain
Start with level terrain, such as a walking track, and gradually add hills. If you live in a hilly area, slow your pace to account for the increased resistance that a steeper grade presents. Eventually, vary your program by walking uphill, downhill and on level ground. If the weather is a factor, walk on a treadmill, go to a nearby mall or find a local gym or school with an indoor track.
6. Leave the weights at home
Nettle advises against using weights while walking, because you gain little, if any, benefit by carrying a 1- or 2-pound weight. You also may sacrifice proper form, which can lead to overuse injuries. Instead, she recommends strength training twice a week, independent of walking.
7. Warm up first
Start your regimen with a warm-up that includes 5 to 10 minutes of slow walking, and gradually build up to your normal pace. Warm up your body with dynamic movements such as rolling your shoulders and neck or marching in place. And, although stretching exercises are important for maintaining flexibility, Nettle recommends doing them separate from walking. “Stretching before exercise has been debunked quite a bit in the last few years,” she said. “It’s more important to do a slow warm-up where you’re increasing the temperature of the muscle versus stretching it out beforehand.”
8. Choose the right footwear
Wear only athletic shoes designed for walking. Look for shoes with ample arch support and traction, and heels with at least two densities of foam. And, if you walk most days of the week, you may need to buy new shoes every three to four months.
9. Take precautions
Carry a cell phone when you walk, and program your local emergency services number for quick retrieval. (If you dial 911 on a mobile phone, your call could be rerouted to an emergency center far away.) Walk a circular route so you’re never too far from home, and change directions every other day so you don’t put wear and tear on one side of your body. Map out your walking route, and let someone know where you’re going. And, if you feel dizzy, short of breath or suffer chest pain or any unusual sensation while walking, stop and call your doctor.
MEASURING EXERCISE INTENSITY
To gauge your exercise intensity, calculate your heart rate reserve (HRR). Here’s how:
1. Measure your resting heart rate (your pulse before you get out of bed in the morning) in beats per minute.
2. Subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate.
3. Subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate to get your HRR.
4. Your training heart rate should be 50 to 70 percent of your HRR plus your resting heart rate. To calculate the upper end of your training zone, multiply your HRR by .70 and add your resting heart rate:
HRR X .70 + resting heart rate = maximum training heart rate
A simpler way to measure the intensity of your exercise is the Rated Perceived Exertion Scale, which gauges your exertion on a scale from 0 to 10.
0 No exertion at all
1 Very light
4 Somewhat heavy
7 Very heavy
10 Extremely heavy
* Keep your exercise intensity within the 3 to 5 range.
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