Walk Your Way to Fitness

So you’ve made up your mind that 2010 is the year you’re going to improve your health, shed those extra pounds and get in shape. Great idea, unfortunately, sometimes it can be difficult to incorporate exercise into an over-scheduled life. Also, over-doing it in the beginning can lead to injury and burnout.

The answer is something most of us already do every day – walk. Walking is low impact, requires no special equipment other than a good pair of shoes, and the difficulty can be tailored as fitness levels increase. It’s also a great way to spend time together as a family and teach children the importance of staying active.

By Mandy Hughes Jackson

According to the American Heart Association, every hour spent on regular, vigorous exercise, including brisk walking, adds two hours to your life. Other health benefits include a lower risk of coronary heart disease and reduction in blood pressure levels; a lower risk of obesity and a reduction in the risk of osteoporosis. According to studies done by The Mayo Clinic, walking can lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol while raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol and reduce the risk of or manage Type 2 diabetes.

Another perk of regular walking are the benefits to your mental well-being. “Walking definitely helps you feel better mentally by getting blood flowing to the brain and also gives you a sense of accomplishment once you start doing it regularly,” says Tammy Nichols, personal trainer and group fitness instructor at the Sports Barn. In addition to improving your mood, taking walks on a regular basis contributes to a sharp memory. According to a four-year study of seniors by the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, regular walking is tied to a lower risk of vascular dementia.

When beginning a walking routine, “easy does it, especially for sedentary individuals,” says Nichols. All individuals should check with their doctor before beginning a fitness regimen. Nichols says to start with 10 to 15 minutes and see how you feel. Gradually increase the time until you reach 25 to 30 minutes a day. “For individuals trying to lose weight, I personally recommend at least 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week. If you’re just trying to incorporate regular activity into your routine, 20 to 25 minutes is fine,” Nichols says. “The most important thing is to keep raising the bar. When your normal route is no longer a challenge, add some intensity.”

To do this, Nichols recommends increasing speed or length of time, carrying hand weights or adding in some hills. “Intervals work well too – add in a couple of minutes of speed, walking every five or six minutes and you’ll see a difference in your heart rate,” she says.

Chattanooga is an ideal town for walkers. The weather is relatively mild for much of the year, and there are several outdoor and indoor places to add variety to your routine. Some places to consider for outdoor walking are:

• North Chickamauga Creek Greenway, entryway located at Hamill Road by the Greenway Farm

• South Chickamauga Creek Greenway, entryway located at Camp Jordan Park

• Tennessee Riverpark, entryway located on Amnicola Highway

• Lookout Mountain Guild-Hardy Trail, entryway located on Ochs Highway

If weather prohibits outdoor walking, or you want a detailed report of your trek, join one of Chattanooga’s many gyms and walk on a treadmill. To vary your routine, try increasing the incline to level 3 or greater while you walk. Adding resistance will help increase your results and provide diversity in your workout.

To prevent injury, experts recommend wearing shoes with thick, flexible soles that absorb shock and cushion your feet. Even if your shoes still seem to be in good shape, it’s recommended that they be replaced every six months if you’re a regular walker. Other safety considerations include staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after walking; always wearing sunscreen (even in cold or overcast weather) and dressing appropriately for the temperature – layers for winter and moisture-wicking material for summer.

Mandy Hughes Jackson is a native of Chattanooga. She has a degree in Communication from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Mandy and her husband, Chris, have two children and live in Falling Water.