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Walk Off the Weight

It's so simple and convenient, walking couldn't possibly count as exercise, right? Wrong. Study after study shows that regular moderate walking can help you lose weight and reduce your risk of heart disease.

That's good news, because walking has now become the most popular fitness activity in the United States. Convenient, simple and gentle on the joints, walking is perhaps the easiest form of exercise to maintain. According to surveys, four out of five women who start a walking program continue to walk, while half of women who attempt other types of aerobic exercise, such as swimming, drop out during the first few months.

Here are some ways both to sneak more walking into your life and to get the most out of every step you take.

  1. Learn the basics. Before you take your next step outdoors, you need to know how much walking to do and how often. Here are the facts:

    • For it to be exercise, walk at a pace that has you breathing heavily but still able to talk.
    • Your goal, first and foremost, is to walk five days a week, 30 minutes a walk. Do that, and you are getting the base-level amount of exercise that research says should maintain your health and vigor.
    • Don't assume you can reach that goal quickly. Walking hard for 30 minutes is, well, hard! Walk for as long as you are comfortable the first week, even if it's just to your mailbox and back. Each subsequent week, increase that amount by no more than 10 percent.
    • Start every walk with five minutes of easy-paced walking, about the same pace at which you'd do your grocery shopping, to get your body warmed up. Then, cool down at the end of each walk with another five minutes of easy-paced walking. This allows your heart rate to gradually speed up and slow down.
    • When you reach the target of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, set a new target. Either you should grow your walking habit by increasing your time, or you might be ready for new forms of exercise, such as strength-building exercises twice a week.

  2. Use a pedometer. These inexpensive, nifty gadgets measure how far you've walked in steps and miles. They provide motivation by spurring you to meet a particular goal and showing you if you've met it. And research shows that they work. In one study of 510 people completed at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, people who wore a pedometer automatically increased the amount of steps they took in a day. Often, pedometers hook onto your belt and are small and easy to use.
  3. Shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Don't let that amount scare you. Most people walk about 5,500 to 7,500 steps during an average day as they amble to and from meetings, in and out of the car, to the mailbox, etc. In fact, researchers who study these types of things consider 5,000 steps a day a "sedentary lifestyle."

    According to researchers at Arizona State University in Mesa, you can cover 7,499 steps a day without participating in formal sports or exercise. If you garner 10,000 steps a day, you're considered "active." Using your pedometer, find your baseline of how many steps you normally take in a day. Then increase that amount by at least 200 steps a day until you reach 10,000 daily steps.

  4. Breathe deeply as you walk to a count of 1-2-3. Many people unintentionally hold their breath when they exercise and then suddenly feel breathless and tired. Oxygen is invigorating, and muscles need oxygen to create the energy for movement. So as you inhale, bring the air to the deepest part of your lungs by expanding your ribs outward and your tummy forward and inhale for a count of three. Then exhale fully either through your nose or mouth, also to the count of three.
  5. Pump up the volume. In a study published in the journal Chest, people with severe respiratory disease who listened to music while walking covered four more miles during the eight-week study than a similar group that did not listen to music while walking. Researchers speculate that listening to music made the participants feel less hindered by shortness of breath and distracted them from possible boredom and fatigue. Bring along a headset on your walks and play your favorite tunes.
  6. When you feel like blowing off your walk, promise yourself you'll do just 10 minutes. "Head out the door for a short walk. Chances are, once you've warmed up, you'll exercise longer than you anticipated," says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., nutrition and fitness expert at the University of California at Davis and author of Bounce Your Body Beautiful. "Even if you don't walk longer, 10 minutes is better than no minutes at all."
  7. Walk faster earlier in your walk. If you want to increase the amount of fat you burn during your walk, add some bursts of faster walking toward the beginning of your walk. Many walkers wait until the end of the walk to speed up, treating their faster walking as a finishing kick.

    Yet a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that exercisers burned more fat and felt less fatigued when they inserted their faster segments toward the beginning of a workout. It works because you speed up your heart rate early and keep it elevated for the rest of your walk.