How to Begin Walking for Fitness

Before beginning a walking program, it's important to assess your overall health.
Before beginning a walking program, it's important to assess your overall health.
©2007 Photodisc

Before you begin walking for fitness with the freestyle walking programs that we've developed, you need to consider a few preliminaries, including your age and your overall health.

You also need to learn how to measure your heart rate and listen to your body, so you'll know where to begin and how hard you need to work to increase your fitness and health.

In the next section, we'll tell you how to assess your health in a number of ways, including finding and using your target heart rate. Make these steps the first ones you take in your walking program.

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Assessing Your Health for Walking

Before you start walking, take the time to assess your health. Consult your doctor before you hit the trail or treadmill, especially if you've been inactive in recent years. Too many Americans have a tendency to take their health for granted and allow too much time to elapse between physical examinations.

Unfortunately, life-threatening diseases like high blood pressure and coronary heart disease may not produce symptoms until a good deal of damage is already done. If you are overweight or smoke cigarettes, over 45, or have any significant health problems, your doctor's OK is essential before you begin any exercise program.

The doctor's physical examination should include checking your heart and lungs and taking measurements of your pulse, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol levels. It may also include a resting electrocardiogram, which measures electrical signals from your heart while you are resting.

In some cases, the doctor may decide that you also need an exercise stress test, which is really nothing more than an electrocardiogram that is taken while you are exercising on a treadmill or stationary bicycle. Doctors often recommend an exercise stress test to people who have a personal or family history of heart disease, because these individuals may have a higher risk of experiencing cardiovascular problems during exercise.

An exercise stress test is also often recommended for people who are over 45 years old -- particularly if they have been inactive; are obese; smoke cigarettes; have high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, or a high cholesterol level; or have a family history of heart disease. Even if you're under 45, your doctor may give you an exercise test if you have two or more risk factors associated with coronary heart disease or have a history of chest pain.

Health Problems

If you are overweight or have any significant health problem such as arthritis, anemia, lower back pain, foot trouble, diabetes, or a disorder of the heart, lungs, kidney, or liver, you're probably already getting regular medical checkups. Even so, you need to consult your doctor before you begin a walking program to determine if any special precautions need to be considered. For instance, if you have asthma, your doctor may advise you of ways to prevent exercise-induced asthma attacks, especially if you plan to walk outside in cold, dry weather.

If you are obese or have diabetes, your doctor may want you to add nonweight-bearing activities -- like swimming and walking in a pool -- to your walking program. If you have insulin-dependent diabetes, your doctor may advise you of when and where you may need to take your insulin. Your doctor may also advise you to consult an exercise physiologist to work with you one-on-one when you begin your exercise program.

Aging

Your age, in itself, shouldn't keep you from exercising. Many of the physiological changes that are assumed to be an inevitable part of aging can actually be linked to inactivity. Regular exercise like walking can actually help you look and feel younger. However, even the most active older people cannot avoid all the changes that occur over time.

For instance, particularly in women, the bones thin with age and become more susceptible to injury. This happens, to some extent, no matter how healthy your diet has been or how much weight-bearing exercise you've done; the bone-thinning process cannot be prevented entirely.

Time also takes its toll on the joints of the body, with the incidence of arthritis climbing in the later years. For these reasons, people over the age of 45 should consult a doctor and have a check­up before starting any new exercise program.

One of the most important aspects to consider before beginning a walking routine is your heart rate. For more information, continue to the next section of this article.

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Walking and Heart Rate

Paying close attention to your heart rate is very important during walking. Walking programs can take you down the road to increased health and fitness, but since your body is like no one else's, you'll need your own personal guide to tell you where to begin and how much physical effort to contribute.

Your best bet? Follow your heart and listen to your body. Your heart rate can tell you when you're working hard enough to increase your aerobic fitness. Your body lets you know how hard you are working: If it feels like too much to you, you're probably pushing too hard.

Exercise physiologists have figured out a heart rate range that is safe for most people during exercise. They call this your target heart rate range. This range tells you your optimum level of exertion during exercise. That doesn't mean you can't get any health or fitness benefits by exercising below or above that range. It's just that keeping your heart rate in the target range during regular aerobic exercise has been shown to be safe and effective for increasing your aerobic fitness.

Exercising above this range can be very uncomfortable and may increase your risk of injury. In fact, if you've been inactive, it's best to start gradually, with a heart rate that may even be below your target heart rate range.

But how do you find your target heart range? We'll answer this question in the next section.

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Finding Your Target Heart Rate

To find your target heart rate range, you first need to know your maximum heart rate. An exercise test can give you this information. But if you haven't taken an exercise test, you can get an estimate of your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.

For example, if you are 25 years old, your maximum heart rate is 220 minus 25, or about 195 beats per minute. If you're 48 years old, your maximum heart rate is 220 minus 48, or about 172 beats per minute. Your actual maximum heart rate can vary by as many as 25 beats per minute.

If you are older or have heart problems, therefore, it may be a good idea to have an exercise test performed at your doctor's office to find your precise maximum heart rate.

Next, find out how to use your target heart rate to make the most of your walking workout.

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Using Your Target Heart Rate

By exercising within your target heart rate range for at least 20 to 30 minutes, three or more days a week, you can safely and effectively increase your aerobic fitness. We recommend that you work up to the target range gradually by following the walking programs outlined in this article.

To check your heart rate, you need a watch that measures seconds, not just minutes. You can take your pulse either at the radial artery in your wrist (on the inner side of your wrist, below the heel of your hand) or the carotid artery in your neck (just to the side of the throat). Use the index and middle fingers of one hand to feel the pulse. If you use the artery in your neck, however, place your fingers gently; putting too much pressure on this artery can actually slow your pulse and give you a false reading.

When you've found your pulse, count the number of beats for ten seconds. Then multiply that number by six to find your heart rate in beats per minute. If you have trouble taking your pulse, you may want to purchase an inexpensive stethoscope that allows you to hear your heartbeat or use an automated pulse meter.

To find your optimum level of exertion during exercise, use your maximum heart rate reserve. Exercising at 40 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate reserve will give you a healthy aerobic workout. We've outlined a simple formula that you can use to calculate it:

  1. Measure your resting heart rate by counting your pulse for ten seconds and multiplying that number by six. (Be sure to do this when you're resting.)
  2. Subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate. (As discussed in the previous section, you can find your maximum heart rate through an exercise stress test or by subtracting your age from 220.)
  3. Multiply your maximum heart rate reserve (the result from step two) by .4 (40 percent) and add that to your resting heart rate to find the lower limit of your target heart rate range.
  4. Multiply your maximum heart rate reserve (the result from step two) by .85 (85 percent) and add that to your resting heart rate to find the upper limit of your target heart rate range.

You can use this method as a guide throughout the walking programs in the next chapter. By exercising at 40 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate reserve for at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, 3 times a week or more, you can develop and maintain your aerobic fitness.

Since freestyle walking is only a moderately intense exercise, however, it may not be intense enough to get your heart rate into the upper end of your target range. So you may have to walk longer (for 30 minutes or more) and more often (most days) -- or progress to racewalking, hiking hilly terrain, or walking with weights -- to achieve the same benefit as you would by exercising at a higher heart rate.

As you'll see, the walking programs in this book are designed to gradually get you to your optimum level of exercise. At first, you'll walk at a comfortable pace, one that may not get your heart rate in the target zone. Then you will gradually work your heart rate into the target zone.

By progressing slowly, you'll decrease your risk of injury. You'll also be more likely to stick with the exercise program. As your fitness increases, you will notice two telltale signs. It will take more exercise--or more intense exercise--to raise your heart rate into the target zone. And your resting heart rate will decline.

A word of caution: Don't be a slave to your pulse, measuring it so often that it becomes a compulsion. Don't let taking your pulse destroy your sense of fun and spontaneity in exercise. When you first begin your walking program, you may want to take your pulse as often as every 10 or 15 minutes so that you can get a feel for how hard your body is working. Keep in mind, though, that your heart rate begins to slow within 15 seconds of when you stop walking, so try to check your pulse quickly and then get back to walking.

As you progress through the program, you can take your pulse only every 20 to 30 minutes to be sure you're working in your target range. In time, you may only need to check your pulse at the beginning and end of your workout; you may be able to tell whether you're working in your target range just by the way you feel.

As a matter of fact, one of the tools used by exercise scientists to measure and prescribe exercise is something called the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. The exerciser rates how hard he feels he is working, using a 15-point scale that goes from 6 (resting) to 20 (very, very hard).

This rating scale has been found to correlate well with physiological indicators of fatigue or strain, including heart rate and oxygen uptake. In other words, you can use your perception of how hard you're exercising as a guide. If you really feel like you're walking at a moderately intense pace, you probably are; a measurement of your heart rate would probably confirm that you're working in the moderately intense range of 40 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate reserve.

By checking your pulse more frequently during the early stages of your walking program, you'll get a feel for how your body reacts to different levels of exertion; later, you'll be able to judge your exertion without having to stop and check your pulse every ten minutes.

There are other factors to consider to ensure your safety while walking. Read on to learn how to prevent the risks of overexertion, injury, and fatigue.

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Walking Safety

When walking, always keep safety in mind. The following three principles can guide you through your walking program. They should help you fight any tendency you may have to push yourself too hard. Remember, walking is an ideal activity to keep up for the rest of your life. You've got plenty of time to build up to a more demanding stride.

First is the "talk test," which is especially important during your first six weeks of walking. The talk test means that you should be able to hold a conversation with someone as you walk. If you are too winded to talk, you can probably conclude that you're walking too fast for your present fitness level. Even if you walk alone, you can use your imagination (or talk to yourself). Do you feel like you could keep up a conversation? If not, you may want to slow down.

Second, your walk should be painless. If you experience pain or a feeling of heaviness in your chest, jaw, neck, feet, legs, or back, you should see your doctor and describe what happened. Try to recall the circumstances: "I was walking up a hill," "It happened during the first few minutes," or "The weather was very cold."

Third, if you seem excessively tired for an hour or more after your walk, the walk was too strenuous. Your walk should be exhilarating, not fatiguing. If you experience a dizzy or light-headed feeling, it's time to back off. If you feel nauseous or are tired for at least a day after walking, take it easier next time. If you can't sleep at night or if your nerves seem shot, you've probably been pushing yourself too hard.

The same is true if you seem to have lost your "zing" or can't catch your breath after a few minutes of walking. These are your body's warning signs. If you have any questions about excessive fatigue, pain, or discomfort, see your doctor.

When walking, remember to listen to your body. It may take some practice, but you'll learn that your body really can tell you when to speed up or slow down.

Your walking style -- the way your feet hit the ground and your overall posture -- is also important to walking safely and avoiding injury. Read more on this topic in the next section.

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Developing a Walking Style

Perhaps the best thing about walking is that you are already an expert at it. You probably acquired your walking skills quite some time ago. In this chapter, however, we'll show you how to develop a walking style and turn your walking skills into an exercise tool that can tune up your body and improve your health.

The programs we've developed allow you to start your walking program slowly and progress without strain, no matter what shape you're in. The programs are demanding enough to help you improve your fitness, but flexible enough for you to adapt them to your individual abilities and your daily routines.

You can use them to prepare for a lifetime of freestyle walking or as a start-up step to get your body in gear for racewalking or hiking.

The "secret" to walking comfortably is to walk naturally -- pretty much as you've been walking up to now. Don't be too concerned with proper walking style for these freestyle walking programs. Remember, your body is unique. It has its own particular form and style, so you can't force it to behave like someone else's body. Just walk naturally and enjoy yourself.

It is a good idea, however, to keep your spine straight and to hold your head high as you walk. You can walk into trouble -- in the form of cars, trees, and other people -- if you stare at the ground. Try not to be so conscious of your posture that you feel unnatural, though. Forget the ramrod-straight posture encouraged in the military, where the chest is thrown out and the back hyperextended. This posture doesn't allow your back and hips to move to accommodate the natural shift of your weight from one leg to the other.

Instead, keep your wrists, hips, knees, and ankles relaxed. Allow your arms to hang loosely at your sides. They will swing naturally in opposite action to your legs--the left arm sweeping forward as the right leg strides ahead, and vice versa. (Racewalkers use a unique form that helps them to walk at high speeds.)

As you walk, each foot should strike the ground at the heel. You then transfer your weight forward from your heel, along the outer portion of your foot, to your toes. To complete the foot-strike pattern, you push off with your toes. As you shift your weight from heel to toe, you should get a rolling motion. Avoid landing flat-footed or on the balls of your feet. If you do, you may be headed for leg and foot problems later on.

As you begin your walking program, don't worry about the length of your stride. Just do whatever is comfortable. As you increase your speed, your stride length will increase as well.

Breathe naturally as you walk, using both your nose and your mouth. Remember that the faster you go, the more air you'll need. So help yourself to all the air you want.

Don't follow these guidelines slavishly. It's likely that the way you walk now is best for you. However, if you do experience any pain or discomfort while you walk, you may need to make an adjustment in your walking technique or switch to a different pair of walking shoes. If you have further questions, see your doctor. Remember, you're not competing in the Olympics. You're walking for fun and fitness.

Now that you've learned about walking style, you're ready to put that information to use with our Basic Starter Program, which is detailed in the next section.

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The Basic Starter Program

Each workout in your basic starter walking program should start with a warm-up period and end with a cool-down period. You can achieve this by starting each walking workout with five minutes or more of slow walking, followed by a series of stretches.

Then, after walking at your regular pace, end your workout with a five-minute slow walk, followed by another series of stretches. These steps are essential parts of your walking program (although the ten minutes total that they take do not count as part of the 20 to 30 minutes, minimum, that you should spend walking in your target zone). They will help you maintain your flexibility and prevent pain or injury.

Warming up, cooling down, and stretching all become even more important if you graduate to more demanding workouts that involve striding, racewalking, or walking up and down hills. The greater intensity of these workouts increases your risk of injuring tight muscles.

To get yourself started and keep yourself walking, you need a plan that puts you on a regular walking schedule. Our step-by-step program really works. It will help you increase your health and fitness while you experience the true pleasures of walking. You'll find this program demanding enough to get the job done, yet flexible enough to be adapted to your particular needs, age, present level of fitness, and lifestyle.

Getting started doesn't require any elaborate planning or expensive equipment -- just a comfortable pair of well-constructed walking shoes to support and cushion your feet and prevent them from turning inward too much when they hit the ground. Don't forget to warm up and stretch before you actually hit the trail.

Basic Starter Program

The Consumer Guide® Basic Starter Program is a good way to prepare your body for more demanding exercise. If you find the Basic Starter Program too difficult or if you have heart, lung, or joint problems, you should begin with the Special Starter Program detailed below.

The following list summarizes the Basic Starter Program.

  • Level 1: Walk 20 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 2: Walk 25 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 3: Walk 30 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 4: Walk 35 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 5: Walk 40 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 6: Walk 45 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.

In this starter program, you should walk fast enough to get your heart rate into the lower end of your target zone -- 40 to 50 percent of your maximum heart rate reserve. If you find that you can't walk comfortably at that pace for the specified amount of time, slow down.

Stay at each level until you can keep your heart rate in the lower end of your target zone for the specified amount of time, then proceed to the next level. The key is always to listen to your body. You may need to spend two weeks at each level, or maybe a week at one level and two weeks at another. If, however, you find that walking at even a very slow pace for 20 minutes is too difficult for you, then switch to the Special Starter Program. Try not to get impatient and skip ahead, even if you find the Basic Starter Program too easy. (You should spend at least one week at each level.) Stick with it -- slow and steady. You'll be glad you did, because this approach will raise the odds that you'll continue with your walking program.

Remember, anybody can start an exercise program, but not everyone can stay with it. Your primary goal in this starter program is to get motivated to exercise on a regular basis. Once you've completed it, you can proceed to the Basic Walking Program. Special Starter Program

The Consumer Guide® Special Starter Program is designed for people who find the Basic Starter Program too difficult or who have health problems.

  • Level 1: Walk 10 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 2: Walk 12 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 3: Walk 14 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 4: Walk 16 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 5: Walk 18 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 6: Walk 20 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.

In the Special Starter Program, you should begin by walking at a comfortable pace, even if it doesn't elicit your target heart rate. Begin at a level that feels comfortable and stay there for at least one week, then proceed to the next level.

If, however, the Level 1 duration of ten minutes, three to five times a week, is too difficult -- for instance, if you're out of breath as you walk -- then start by walking five minutes a day or less. Some emphysema patients walk for only a minute or two at the start. You be the judge. Once you can walk without discomfort for 20 minutes a day, 3 to 5 times a week, move on to the Basic Starter Program. From there, you will eventually graduate to the Basic Walking Program, which is detailed in the next section.

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The Basic Walking Program

Once you've completed the Basic Starter Program, you are ready for bigger and better things, including walking faster and getting your heart rate well into your target range. Now it's time for you to begin the Basic Walking Program, summarized below.

  • Level 1: Walk 20 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 2: Walk 25 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 3: Walk 30 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 4: Walk 35 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 5: Walk 40 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 6: Walk 45 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 7: Walk 50 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 8: Walk 55 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.
  • Level 9: Walk 60 minutes a day 3 to 5 times a week.

In the Basic Walking Program, your aim is to get your heart pumping at 50 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate reserve. Of course, as your fitness increases, you can't expect to just shuffle along and reach this heart rate range. You'll have to walk at a good clip.

As in the Basic Starter Program, you need to stay at each level until you can walk at that pace for the specified amount of time.

While these programs provide guidelines for how much exercise you need to do to improve your health and fitness, your own fitness goals can help you choose the exact duration, frequency, and speed of your walks.

For instance, if your main goal is to lose weight, you may choose to walk for 45 minutes to an hour, 5 times a week, at 65 percent to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate reserve. By keeping to a more moderate pace (yet still in your target zone), you'll be able to walk for a longer period of time.

Remember, the longer you walk, the more calories you'll burn. There's a simple rule of thumb to follow: If you decrease the speed of your walks, increase their duration and frequency. You can adjust how often, how long, and how fast you walk to suit your goals, as long as you keep your heart rate somewhere within your target zone and exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, at least 3 times a week.

If you find yourself missing the slower pace of the starter program and the chance it gave you to savor your surroundings, you may want to alternate brisk walks with more leisurely ones. You might try confining brisk walking to 30 minutes or so in the middle of your workout, sandwiched between long, slow warm-up and cool-down periods. You may also want to walk up and down hilly terrain, so that you can increase the intensity of your workout without having to walk at high speeds. Of course, you don't have to restrict your walking to your "official" workout times. Instead, you can try taking full advantage of the opportunities that each day offers for extra walking. For instance, try walking up and down stairs at every chance you get, instead of taking an elevator or escalator. Walk to the post office instead of driving there. Remember, any walking you can do in addition to your scheduled workouts is an added bonus in terms of health and fitness.

For the sake of convenience, it is important to build your walks into your daily schedule of activities. To keep your motivation high and your walks interesting, you may want to vary the routes you choose to roam or add new dimensions to your walking routine. Once you have mastered the Basic Starter Program and the Basic Walking Program, you may decide you want to be further challenged. Or you may be so fit that you have trouble walking fast enough to push your heart rate well into your target zone. If so, you can increase the intensity of your workouts by learning to racewalk, which will enable you to reach higher walking speeds. You may also want to try increasing the time and distance you walk by taking up hiking.

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ADDITIONAL CREDITS:

Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer