Walk your way to heart, head and physical fitness

Oddly enough, one of the problems with characterizing a morning or evening walk as an exercise regimen is just how natural and simple the activity seems. Walking is, after all, something that most of us start doing at a very early age as a way of getting from point A to point B as opposed to “real” exercise, right?

“Walking is definitely a real form of exercise,” says Amy Becker, fitness supervisor at Franciscan Health Fitness Centers in Chesterton. “As with any other exercise, all the health benefits that come with moving are experienced when walking. For many, it is the only accessible form of exercise they have, and everyone has the option to make it harder or easier to really get the heart rate and muscles moving, depending on their fitness level.”

“I do feel people who walk regularly in addition to their normal fitness routines are typically more fit, as you’re still burning calories and fat even if it’s not considered a high-intensity activity,” adds Dustin Shurlow, owner and head coach at Top Fuel CrossFit of Crown Point.

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So walking is real exercise. Becker notes that some of the most common physical benefits of walking include reducing the resting heart rate, increasing heart strength, reducing one’s risk of heart disease, weight loss, stress reduction and strengthening joints — positive markers that would be associated with any kind of workout. On top of that, walking can provide a number of mental benefits, as well.

“Walking is a fantastic grounding activity that can help decrease stress and boost the feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine,” says Rebecca Saylor, a therapist with the Franciscan Employee Assistance Program. “It can also bilaterally stimulate the brain to help connect the right and left hemispheres to assist in problem-solving. In short, walking connects the emotional side of the brain to the logical side to help process thoughts and feelings.”

So, walking is good for  mind and body — check and double-check. The question one should ask, then, is the same for walking as for any other form of exercise: “How can I get the greatest health benefit from it?”

Becker says those beginning a walking routine should start slowly and gradually build up time, perhaps starting with 10 minutes at a time and working up to 30. As one progresses, pace and distance can be adjusted.

“If you walk at a faster pace your heart rate will go up, strengthening your heart and lungs, while longer walks at a slower pace will increase endurance,” she explains. “Mixing it up with shorter, faster walks and longer, slower walks can provide great benefits and the best of both worlds.”

Another way to increase the effectiveness of walking is to incorporate complementary exercises as part of a mild cross-training routine. Becker and Shurlow recommend doing some stretching or body weight or free weight exercises in addition to walking to aid everything from weight to strength to balance. And to help ensure that walking becomes more of a routine than an occasional pastime, Saylor says that setting goals related to steps, distance or pace (or some combination of these) can be an effective motivational technique.

“Setting goals can be beneficial because success often leads to more success,” she says. “When we achieve a goal, it feels good and we’re more likely to work toward the next goal. This can help create a new habit.”

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