So, you're on board to begin a walking program and get yourself into shape. You've explored new places to walk and found plenty of room to roam. You've checked up on your health, figured out your target heart rate, and chosen the walking program that's right for you. That's great.
However, if you're like many people with busy schedules who know they ought to be more active, you may be wondering how long you'll be able to stay with a walking program. This introduction to fitting walking into your life will help.
Maybe you're asking yourself: "How long will it be before I lose interest, am sidetracked by an extra-busy time at work or home, or invent any number of other excuses for not walking?"
Don't let these worries keep you from starting to walk. Begin now, and refer to this article whenever you feel the need for another dose of encouragement. You'll find suggestions for fitting fitness into your schedule -- not only in terms of finding time to walk, but in terms of making regular walking a priority in your life.
The Dropout Problem
When it comes to getting health benefits from physical activity, your ability to stay with a regular exercise program for life is even more important than the intensity of the activity itself.
Unfortunately, figuring out how to get people to take up exercise and integrate it into their lifestyles permanently hasn't proved all that easy for health-care professionals.
Nearly 50 percent of people who begin a supervised exercise program drop out within 6 months to a year, according to Rod K. Dishman, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of physical education and director of the Behavioral Fitness Laboratory at the University of Georgia, in Athens.
The dropout rate is the same regardless of whether people exercise in community or work-site fitness programs, in programs to prevent first or second heart attacks, or in outpatient programs for the treatment of overweight, diabetes, or depression. In fact, many patients referred to an exercise program by their doctor or hospital never even show up for the first session.
Exercise demands more time and effort than do many other health-promoting behaviors, like brushing and flossing your teeth or having your blood pressure checked.
The knowledge that exercise can provide health benefits may help people get motivated to begin an exercise program. However, their continued involvement over the long haul appears to depend much more on positive reinforcement from friends, family, and health professionals, and on a sense of personal well-being and achievement.
Instead of concentrating too much on official exercise programs, Dr. Dishman advises, more attention should be paid to motivating the estimated 65 percent of the American population who are currently sedentary. These are the people who stand to benefit most from adding more physical activity to their lives.
These individuals are also more likely to begin and continue a less strenuous exercise program such as walking.
Studies of exercise compliance have identified convenience as a major factor. People who drop out of exercise programs tend to live farther away from the exercise site than do those who stick with it.
Convenience is one reason why walking has such a low dropout rate as a lifelong exercise program. Walking really can be incorporated into your daily routine, no matter how crammed full of duties it is.
Compared with an exercise class at a health club, for instance, following your own personal walking program saves you both money and time.
In addition, although you may enjoy walking with a friend or family member, walking is something you can do on your own as well. You can set your own walking schedule, without having to wait for your partner or team to show up, as you would have to do for many other activities.
Continue on to the next page to learn more about fitting walking into your life.
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Building Walking into Your Life
Building walking into your life is really quite simple and can be done in a variety of ways. One convenient method is by turning everyday errands and chores into opportunities to walk.
Taking your dog for a brisk, 30-minute walk, for instance, can provide both you and your pet with a hearty workout. If you need to take clothes to the dry cleaner, try choosing one that's a mile or two from your home and walk the distance instead of driving.
If you have a baby at home, break out the baby carriage and go for a lengthy, moderately paced stroll that can lull your baby to sleep and give you an aerobic workout. You can even purchase a three-wheeled stroller that's designed for this purpose.
If you need to go to the shopping mall to pick up a few things, try parking at the far end of the lot and walking to the door -- or better yet, choose a mall that's within walking distance and leave your car at home.
Once you're inside, take a quick trip or two up and down the length of the mall before you begin shopping. After you've purchased everything that you need, take another couple of brisk laps around the mall.
If you work sitting at a desk for most of the day, try walking during your lunch hour, as well as to and from work. If you have to attend appointments outside of the office, use them as another chance to walk. Besides, such a work-day break can actually clear your head and buy you a little extra time to mentally prepare for a presentation.
Whether you work on the second floor or the tenth, try walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator to your office. This can help tone the muscles in your legs and buttocks and help you burn calories even if you have only a couple of flights to climb.
If you work on one of the top floors in a skyscraper, try getting off the elevator several floors before yours and take the stairs the rest of the way. Work-site studies have shown that workers who simply began using the stairs instead of elevators and escalators improved their overall physical fitness by 10 to 15 percent.
Even when you have to spend hours at your desk or computer terminal, you can practice an essential part of your walking fitness program. You can do stretches frequently throughout the day to maintain your flexibility. (The more flexible you are, the less chance you'll have of injuring yourself when walking.)
Stretching can also help to relieve tension and give you an energy boost. And you don't need to change clothes or leave your work area to do many of these stretches.
You can do head tilts, shoulder shrugs, leg lifts, and ankle twirls while you're seated. Then, when it comes time for a coffee or restroom break, you can stand up and stretch your legs. Visit a coffee machine or restroom that's on a different floor, so you can use the stairs to get there and back.
If you have to go on a business trip, there's no reason to suspend your walking program. If possible, ask your travel agent to book you into a hotel within walking distance of your appointments. If your travel plans include lengthy layovers at airports, pack your walking shoes and use the extra time to explore your surroundings.
The key to fitting fitness into your schedule is to not take the easy way out and succumb at every opportunity to every time-saving modern invention designed to keep us from walking. The subliminal message we get from being constantly surrounded by all these inventions is that walking is something we should avoid.
But walking is actually good for you and worth incorporating into your life at every opportunity. So the next time you find yourself driving around the parking lot looking for that space up front, think about the benefits of walking. Then head to the far end of the lot, park your car, and take a walk.
Find out how to incorporate walking into your commute in the next section.
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Walking commuters are people who have managed to work their walking program into their daily commute to and from work. These individuals are proof of what we've been saying throughout this article: Walking is the easiest of all exercises to build into your routine.
Walking to and from work may take a little longer than commuting in a car, bus, or train, but the rewards are well worth it.
If you travel by public transportation for many miles to get to work each day, you might assume that there's no way you can walk to work. You can't walk the entire distance, that's true. If you take public transportation, on the other hand, you can try getting off the bus or train one or two stops early and walking the remaining distance.
If you drive to work, you might save money and time if you walk part of the way. As many long-distance commuters know only too well, the longest part of the drive to work is often the last mile or two, as you near the congested area that everyone is converging upon. If you're really unlucky, it can take the last ten minutes of an hour-long drive just to get through the last four blocks.
If you parked your car four, six, or eight blocks from work, you could probably walk that distance in the same amount of time it takes you to drive, fight for a parking space, and get to your office. You might even beat your driving time by walking that last bit of the trip.
Chances are you'll also pay less for parking, because you won't be fighting for a prime parking space. Depending on the location, if you play your cards right, you may even be able to find a free space.
Other people find walking support at the office through corporate walking programs. Learn more on the next page.
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Corporate Walking Programs
Many corporations have taken up the idea of corporate walking programs to encourage workers to get fit. Some of these programs involve a brisk two- to four-mile walk, with warm-up and cool-down sessions, during lunch hours.
An increasing number of employers are realizing that they can make an important contribution to their employees' welfare and productivity simply by encouraging them, through financial and physical incentives, to walk to work, at least partway.
If your employer hasn't jumped on the bandwagon, you might try bringing up the idea. Here's one idea that deserves consideration: The company could rent parking lots a mile or two away from its offices, so employees could park there and walk to work.
In case of bad weather, umbrellas could be placed at the office and parking lots for use by the walking employees. This system has the built-in potential for progress checks and rewards.
Some sort of sign-in or sign-out procedure could be used to check whether employees use the facility. Many companies are already awarding their physically fit employees with special financial incentives.
Some company managers may read this suggestion and think, "Terrific. But how much is all this walking going to cost, and who's going to pay for it?"
In a way, it would be just like any other investment. It might cost a few dollars at first, but that money would quickly pay dividends in terms of healthier, more productive employees who take fewer days off for illness. And it probably wouldn't hurt the company's insurance rates, either.
In fact, employee fitness programs are not just an attractive fringe benefit but also a profitable investment for the company. Such programs have been shown to result in decreased absenteeism, reduced health care costs, and increased productivity.
Corporate leaders are realizing that a walking program can be the simplest and least expensive way to get their employees moving with regular exercise. And regular exercise has been shown to help employees escape everyday office pressures and competition -- and become more productive at work.
Walking on the Job
There are some people who may not need to concentrate so hard on building walking into their commuting or their lunch hours. These are the ones for whom walking is actually an integral component of their daily work.
Examples include restaurant servers, ushers, meter readers, garbage collectors, caddies, mail carriers, and police officers on the beat.
If you walk a lot on your job, pay attention to how often you stop. If you don't walk continuously, you may not be getting much of an aerobic training effect, so you may want to schedule regular, vigorous walks outside of work to improve your fitness level.
Maintaining a walking routine often involves keeping the proper attitude. Find tips on how to do just that on the next page.
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Steps Toward Having the Proper Attitude to Walking 1-4
When you're trying to fit walking into your lifestyle, it's important to take steps toward having the proper attitude toward walking. After all, you're not as likely to find time to exercise if you look at it simply as a chore.
On this page and the next, you'll find some simple steps you can follow to make exercise a natural, convenient, and enjoyable part of your daily routine.
Step One: Set a goal. Goals are important in life. They give you something specific to work toward and a way to measure your progress.
When you're setting a goal, avoid vague generalizations like these: "I want to get into shape," or "I want to lose weight." Instead, set precise long-term, intermediate, and short-term goals.
For instance, if you want to lose weight, decide how much weight you want to lose in six months or a year. If you want to lose 20 pounds during that period, that is your long-term goal.
Your short-term goal might be three pounds by the end of the first month. (Your intermediate goal would be somewhere in between.) Ask your doctor for assistance in planning a healthy, realistic weight loss program.
What kind of goals should you set? What would you like to achieve? Whatever it is, write it down. Even if it seems unrealistic at this time, put it on a sheet of paper or a card and save it. This is your long-term goal.
Once a week, you can take out the sheet of paper, write down your progress, and make a note of anything that seems to be preventing you from achieving your goal.
Next, you need to plan how you are going to reach your goals. Write down your plan, and be specific. For instance, how many additional minutes of walking are you going to do each week to accomplish your long-term goal?
Finally, make a note of what you'll do today -- not tomorrow, but today. Write down how long, at what time, and where you're going to walk.
Step Two: Record your progress. For some people, the thing that makes sports like football, basketball, and baseball so endlessly fascinating is the competition. If competition really gets you moving, you can get it from racewalking -- or even from competing against yourself.
Just use a progress chart to record how well you're doing and how close you're coming to your goal. Charting your progress can give you the sense of achievement that helps keep many exercisers motivated.
And the chart doesn't have to be complicated. The simplest chart is just a regular calendar on which you write the information about your walking progress.
Many people record their mileage on a map. Your regular walking route may take you around the same section of your neighborhood every day, but you can mark off your distance on a map as though you were walking cross-country.
By the end of a year, you may find that you've walked a distance equal to that between San Francisco and San Diego -- or between New York and Miami. This helps in setting long-term goals, too.
For instance, you can promise yourself that by the end of the year, you'll have walked the same number of miles as you would had you walked from Chicago to Houston.
Step Three: Set a workout time. Have you ever noticed how easily you slip into routines? Perhaps you always brush your teeth before, not after, you shower in the morning; always put your left, not your right, shoe on first; or always take the same route to work every day.
And have you ever noticed how you tend to feel you've forgotten to do something important if anything should interfere with one of these rituals? You may find it easy to stay with a walking program if you can allow it to become part of your daily routine -- so much a part that you'll feel compelled to walk despite your own excuses for skipping a day.
If you can get yourself into the habit of walking at a certain time every day, you'll accept it as part of your regular daily schedule and not just something to do during your "free time."
Many people feel they can't find the time in their busy schedules to exercise. But exercise, including walking, need not take much time, especially compared to the amount of time most Americans spend watching television. It's simply a matter of priorities.
Others may feel so exhausted from work and their responsibilities at home that they feel they have no leftover energy with which to exercise. This can become a vicious cycle, though, because the more out of shape you are, the more easily you'll get tired out.
To break the cycle, make time for walking, and stick with it. You'll soon find you have more energy.
Step Four: Choose the best time of day to exercise. It's important to schedule your walking workouts for a time when you are least likely to have to cancel or interrupt them because of conflicting demands from work or home.
Some walkers like to venture out early in the morning, some even before daybreak. They like the solitude of early morning, when the streets are still empty of traffic and people. They can slowly get their minds and bodies going and do a little thinking in the silence.
And if they are walking where they can see the horizon, they can savor the exhilarating sight of dawn.
Even some walkers who are decidedly not morning people -- the types who ordinarily just drag themselves around till noon -- swear by an early-morning walk. They say their morning walks give them a "jump start" on the day, making them feel more alert and energetic on the job. By the time they sit down at their desks, they feel invigorated enough to tackle any work that comes their way.
Lunch hours are an increasingly popular time for regular, vigorous walks. Some people walk for the first 45 minutes of their lunch hour and grab a bite during the last 15 minutes. Walking at lunchtime gets them out of the office (or house) and into a refreshing midday break.
If you want to do your walking during your lunch hour, however, be sure you have enough time to accommodate the goals specified in your walking program.
Other walkers wait until they have left work for the day, putting their jobs behind them. A walk at this time provides a nice transition -- an opportunity to work off some of the day's tensions so that they aren't carried into family life.
Late evening seems to appeal to some people as the best time to work out. You might want to take a couple of factors into account, however, before you set late evening as your walking time.
When you put walking as the last item on your agenda for the day, it often gets treated that way -- last. You may tend to put other things in place of it or skip it because you don't have enough time or energy left.
Also, some people find that a walk right before bedtime revs up their metabolism so much that they have difficulty falling asleep. On the other hand, some people find that a walk in the late evening can help them relax and unwind enough to fall asleep. So you may want to experiment with walking at this time before you decide to make it a habit.
Find more tips on keeping a proper attitude to walking in our final section.
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Steps Toward Having the Proper Attitude to Walking 5-8
These remaining steps will help you get on the right track toward a proper attitude to walking.
Step Five: Dress the part. If possible, have a special outfit, and wear it only for walking. How you look is not the point; it's how you feel.
In changing from regular clothes into a "walking outfit," you can "psych yourself up" for the activity. In effect, you're telling yourself you mean business and really intend to collect all the rewards that are coming to you from walking. Be sure, however, that your outfit is appropriate for weather conditions.
Step Six: Think the part. What happens in your head is almost as important as what happens to your body. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, you'll begin to find reasons for not doing it.
Before you walk, try to get yourself into a positive, active frame of mind. As you walk, be aware of what's happening to your body. Feel your muscles work. Concentrate on the rhythmic flow of your movements. Walking can be a very pleasurable sensory experience.
Step Seven: Walk with others. If you're married, your spouse has to be on your side, says a study conducted by the Heart Disease and Stroke Control Program.
The study followed men who were participating in an exercise program of one hour of physical activity three times a week for eight months. The men whose wives encouraged their participation had good attendance in the program; those men whose wives were neutral or had negative feelings about the exercise had a much poorer attendance record.
The conclusion: The spouse's attitude was critical. So if you can, try encouraging your spouse or significant other to join you in your walking program or to begin one of his or her own. You'll not only be increasing your chances of sticking with your program, you'll be encouraging your partner to increase his or her fitness and health, too.
Walking with a friend can also give you the advantage of companionship and encouragement. In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, scientists reported a greater dropout rate for individual exercise programs than for group programs.
Only 47 percent of those in individual programs were still active at 28 weeks, compared with 82 percent of those in the group programs. If you think your motivation is weak -- or weakening -- walk with a partner or with several friends.
Step Eight: Walk tall. Don't worry about what other people think. As you're walking down the street, you may think that everyone is looking at you. Chances are that no one is really paying any attention. And if somebody does stare, so what? You're doing something good for your body. Besides, they may simply be admiring your ambition.
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Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer