Walking is free, it's easy, and it makes a real difference, even if you don't always reach the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation of 30 minutes on most days. By starting a walking routine, you'll live longer, gaining two hours of life expectancy for every hour of vigorous exercise according to the American Heart Association, and you could burn 125 calories per half hour (depending on your pace).
Click on the next slides for tips on creating a walking program that will improve your overall health.
Weeks 1 and 2
Focus on savoring the outdoors, no matter the season, and you'll be a natural walker. If you choose to stride inside, listen to music while strolling in a mall or walking on a treadmill. On a scale of 1 to 10, in which 1 is napping on the couch and 10 is gasping for air, aim to walk at a pace of about 5. You should be able to talk, but with slight breathlessness. In the first week, walk in 10-minute bouts three to four times a week. Add another two minutes per walk in the second week.
Weeks 3 and 4
Try to walk from 20 to 30 minutes at a time, picking up the pace, and add an extra day's walk by the month's end. Focus on form during these two weeks. Stand up straight, with shoulders back and tummy tight to protect your back. Keep your chin parallel to the ground. Raise your intensity -- and pulse -- by making pistons of your arms. Bend your elbows at an 85-degree angle and move them from mid-chest level to your hips and back.
Weeks 5 and 6
Keep it interesting by changing routes and music. And add intervals to one or two walks a week: Start by walking 5 minutes at a steady pace. Then walk as fast as you can for 90 seconds. Recover for the next 90 seconds by walking at a leisurely pace. If you're outside and without a watch, speed up from one light pole to the next. Repeat another four times, and cool down with a 5-minute stroll. In the coming weeks, expand high-intensity portions or cut relaxed ones by 15 seconds when you're ready to take it up a notch.
Weeks 7 and 8
Exercise itself is a reward. But adding in little treats, such as an occasional massage, will make your program more fun and help you stay motivated. Looking for a more creative reward? Sign up for the American Diabetes Association's Club Ped (diabetes.org/ClubPed/index.jsp). As you reach a goal, the club rewards you by revealing a new chapter to a mystery, romance, or adventure novel. You also can choose a virtual dog. You can pick the dog's personality, and the more you walk, the happier your pooch gets.
Weeks 9 through 12
Mix things up. Check with your local Humane Society to see if they have weekly dog walkings in which you take out a pound pup for a much-needed walk along a trail. Or, if you're ready for the commitment, think about adopting one to make every walk more of an adventure. Also, continue to boost the briskness and length of your walks by a few minutes per session. Don't be surprised if something interesting happens at the three-month mark. That's when exercise becomes a habit for most and you begin to crave the feeling that comes with it. Set new, more ambitious goals, such as entering an upcoming charity 5K.
Stretch It Out
Stretching a little goes a long way toward pain-free walking. After your walks, do these moves to target the muscles you've worked. Gently hold each stretch 10-20 seconds, and repeat on the other side. Remember not to bounce.
-- Hamstrings: To loosen the back of your thigh, stand straight on one leg and place the other foot on a low bench or ledge. Lean your body slowly forward at the hip. Keep your back straight as you do this.
-- Quadriceps: Try the Flamingo to stretch the front of your thigh. Place one hand on the wall and, while standing on one leg, bend the other knee, and hold your ankle or foot behind your rear. Keep your torso upright and knees together.
-- Calves: Stand facing a wall with palms against it. Stretch one leg behind you. Keep both feet flat on the floor. Bend your other knee slightly forward, but not beyond your toe. Keep toes pointed forward, hips parallel to the wall and back straight.