Healthy Lifestyle

The Basics of Starting a Walking Program

Published: Aug. 28, 2019

Staying healthy and in shape can seem like an endless battle. But sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be, planning ambitious workouts and holding ourselves to unreasonable standards.

For many people, the simplest form of exercise is walking. It takes no special equipment or training, you can do it almost anywhere and it’s effective. 

While many people enjoy the cool, crisp fall air, any time of year is great for walking if you have little creativity or motivation.

The benefits of walking

Why walk? Among the benefits:

  • It’s joint-friendly
  • It can improve cardiorespiratory fitness
  • It can decrease the risk for some cancers, heart disease and diabetes
  • It can help you maintain a healthy weight 
  • It can improve your mood and memory

Parts of a successful walking program

Before you get started, consider your plan for:

Warming up: It’s important to prepare the body and mind before engaging in any form of exercise. Your warm-up should increase your body temperature, prepare your joints to move and get you ready mentally. Unless you’re engaging in vigorous exercise, which calls for more intense preparation, walking itself can be a great way to warm up. If you’re just beginning a walking program, you may benefit from walking at a slower-than-normal pace for the first five minutes.

Frequency and duration: How often do you plan to walk, and for how long? The government has specific recommendations for physical activity, but a successful walking program should start with comfortable goals and then gradually progress. I recommend trying to increase the duration of your walks by two minutes per week.

Intensity: You can affect the intensity of your workout by changing your speed or walking on more of an incline or decline. As your intensity increases, so will your heart rate. By pushing yourself to achieve your target heart rate, you’re getting an effective workout without straining yourself. For moderate aerobic exercise, the American Heart Association generally recommends a target heart rate of 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. Learn more about calculating your target heart rate here.

How do you know if you’re at your target heart rate? You can measure it with an activity tracker or do it the old-fashioned way: Stop walking and take your pulse at the wrist or neck, count how many beats occur over 15 seconds and multiply the number by four. 

All that said, before upping your walking intensity, I suggest increasing the duration of your walks over time until you reach your goal.

Cooldown: For people in a walking program, this is the time at the very end of the walk when you should move at a slower pace to allow your body to return to its normal breathing rate, heart rate and temperature. The cooldown is similar in intensity to the warm-up, and it should also be about five minutes. It’s also a good time to incorporate some light stretching to the major muscle groups of the body.  

The bigger picture

The specific details listed above are important for success, but the most important part of any exercise program is consistency. Plan for how you’ll keep walking when you’re tired, the weather stinks, something comes up or you just don’t feel like it. Be sure to: 

Mark it down: Plan the days and times you’ll walk. Go ahead and enter it as an appointment on your calendar. It’ll be harder to ignore.

Have a backup plan: Be ready to make adjustments if there’s a conflict. Can you walk over lunch if you had a busy morning? Can you head to the gym, an indoor mall or the hallways at work if the weather isn’t cooperating?

Make it fun: Music or podcasts can help the time fly by (just be sure to remain aware of your surroundings). Find a friend who has similar goals and can share the experience while holding you accountable. Mix up your route and explore new places. A little variety can go a long way.

Take the next step

You should always consult your primary care provider before beginning an exercise program. With their OK, lace up your shoes and start walking! It can be one of the easiest ways improve your health.

More Resources

About the Author

Alan Naujokaitis, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, is a physical therapist at Methodist Physicians Clinic.

“I believe that I should treat each patient as if they were a family member,” he said. “I want to spend enough time to hear their story and not make assumptions about what they need to improve upon.” 

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