Walking doesn't require special equipment or even much time, yet the benefits can be life-changing. / Getty Images / Alistair Berg
Tips to keep you moving
» Skip the e-mail at work. Go talk to the source. You’ll put those leg muscles to use, and you may earn some valuable face time.
» Drink water — lots of it. First, you’ll have to get up more for associated bathroom breaks and second, you’ll keep yourself hydrated through the day.
» Set yourself a reminder. Program your cellphone to alert you to get up every half-hour or hour to stretch or walk around.
» Rethink your lunch break. If possible, start your workday earlier so you can take a longer lunch. Use the time to take a walk, work out or just get away.
» Relocate office supplies. Move the location ofyour printer or fax machine to make yourself get up from your desk.
» Go high-tech. Body monitoring devices like fitbit, the Basis Band and the BodyMedia FIT clip, clasp or strap on, to give you readouts on steps, miles, calories and more.
» Grab ’n’ go shoes. Keep a pair of sneakers at your desk to “sneak” in occasional 15-minute power walks.
» Skip the easy route. Take the stairs at least once a day for a leg-toner.
» Maps & apps. Smartphone apps such as Walkmeter and MapMyWalk help you keep track of routes, speed and distance. You can post results on Facebook and Twitter.
» Meet your match. Find walking clubs by state at the American Volkssport Association, ava.org.
If it seems as if more people are hoofing it for their health, it’s true. More than 145 million Americans count walking as part of their physical activity, according to a report last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 15 million more people walking than in 2005. All regions of the country reported an increase in walking, but the most walkers were found in the Northeast and West, home to walk-able urban centers such as New York City and Los Angeles.
But despite the increase in footfalls, only about 48% of Americans report they meet the recommendation of at least 2½ hours of moderate physical activity a week, according to the report. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyle has another downside: a greater risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure that threatens our longevity.
“Our society has been conditioned to be inactive. We rely on all these modern conveniences. We end up being slug-like,” says Marianne Carter, a registered dietitian who directs the Delaware Center for Health Promotion, which encourages residents to adopt healthier living habits.
That’s where walking comes in.
“People think in order to get physical activity, they have to be back in the exercise mode. They don’t realize that walking is almost the perfect activity,” says physician Joan Dorn, chief of the CDC’s physical activity and health branch. “A lap around the block is better than not taking that lap. Most of us can find 10 minutes if we really try.”
Walking requires little other than a pair of shoes and can fit in the busiest of schedules. Just 30 minutes of regular brisk walking — about the pace if you are trying to reach a bus before it pulls away — can help lower your cholesterol, risk of stroke and some cancers, and it can improve your cognitive function and blood pressure. If 30 minutes is too much, consider breaking it up into three 10-minute chunks during the day for the same benefits.
And you don’t have to be a super-athlete to reap the benefits. Physician Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and specialist in exercise science with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says some of the biggest health winners are couch potatoes who transition from being totally sedentary to moderately active.
“If they only had one thing to do, the average person can get a whole lot of benefit out of walking,” Joyner says. “The first two miles of brisk walking are most critical.”
Made to move
Walking was the gateway to making sustainable changes for 62-year-old Debbie Dintenfass, of Delaware. Over the years, she exercised and dieted, but the focus always seemed to be fitting into a particular size of clothes, not her long-term health.
After some personal challenges, including a divorce and job loss, Dintenfass found herself unhealthy, both physically and emotionally. She began walking.
From there, she found her way back to the gym. Today, her workout regimen includes regular strength training, cardio and yoga. With so much other exercise, Dintenfass admits she doesn’t walk as much as she used to, but she knows it was a crucial first step to recharge her health.
“Humans are made to move,” says Dintenfass. “Ideally, we should all be moving as much as possible.”
If it seems like more people are hoofing it for their health, you’re right. More than 154 million Americans count walking as part of their physical activity, according to the recent the CDC report said. That’s 15 million more people walking than in 2005. All regions of the country reported an increase in walking, but the most walkers were found in the Northeast and West, home to walkable urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles.
The simplicity of walking is one of its key advantages, Joyner says. Though some people prefer the pavement-pounding rush of running, it also comes with an increased risk of injuries. Walking is something most people can do without much preparation or training, regardless of age.
“For every excuse you have, there’s a person out there that has a more demanding job or a tighter schedule or more limitations than you who is doing it,” Carter says.
Most of us don’t think of our desk chair as being bad for our health. But if you’re planted in one eight hours a day at work, it might be. Several studies, including one by the American Cancer Society, have found that sitting for more than six hours a day has the potential to shorten our life span.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should ditch the chairs in the conference room or institute an office Olympics to counteract the effects of those sedentary hours. But it’s worth thinking about opportunities to get desk workers out of their chairs during the work day to blunt the effects of sitting.
Wilmington bank executive Rebecca DePorte keeps a pair of sneakers at work in case she has a few minutes of free time to sneak in a quick walk. Although she works out at least four or five times a week, DePorte still looks for ways to be active while at work, even if it’s running down the hall to answer her phone or talking face-to-face rather than sending an email.
“I definitely make a point to get up and go places,” said DePorte, 51, who usually runs or works out with a trainer when she’s not in the office. “I throw on the sneakers and head out, even if it’s around the corner to the store.”
Small efforts can make a big difference, Dorn says. Something as simple as mapping out a path around an office building can encourage strolls. Even noting how many laps around the corridor equal a quarter-mile can provide encouragement.
But for some employees, a fitness break isn’t an option. For them, a treadmill desk or FitDesk — an exercise bike with an attachable table so you can work on a laptop while pedaling — are the latest spins on the idea of combining work and physical activity.
Severin Nelson, 29, found the FitDesk after searching for something that would let him be active while studying for the bar exam and working as a freelance tax consultant. After a year of pedaling 90 minutes a day, the Utah man is down 44 pounds without making any big changes to his diet. Best of all, he’s not distracted while tapping away on his keyboard.
“After a while, you kind of forget. An hour goes by and I’m still pedaling,” says Nelson, who weighed 311 pounds.
The hardest part for most of us is getting started, Dorn says. But there’s potential in the challenge.
“There’s always a chance that once people get to a comfort level of walking for 10 minutes, they might think about trying 11 minutes,” she says. “That first step, it’s really worth it.”