Heart-healthy exercise

Walking for a healthy heart

Regular exercise is a critical part of overall cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association recommends at 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week as an effective way to prevent heart disease and stroke.

Walking is an easy and convenient way to get an adequate amount of exercise. Besides the benefits to your heart, walking can be a way to meet people and boost your energy level.

The benefits of walking

You don’t have to compete in marathons or triathlons to have a healthy heart. Simply getting out for regular walks can provide aerobic exercise that conditions your heart and lungs. It’s best to walk at vigorous intensity for 30-60 minutes three or four times per week. But even low to moderate intensity walking can lower your risk of heart disease, if it’s done daily.

Maintaining a health weight goes hand-in-hand with a healthy heart – and walking can be an effective way to shed extra pounds. For example, a 200-pound person who eats the same amount of calories but walks 1 ½ miles at a vigorous pace each day could lose about 14 pounds in one year. Besides helping you control your weight, walking may:

  • Help smokers kick the habit
  • Help control blood pressure
  • Raise your HDL, or “good cholesterol,” levels

Aerobic exercise alone may not prevent or cure heart disease. But it’s a positive step towards a healthier life. Besides cardiovascular benefits, regular physical activity such as walking can help you:

Feel better

Daily walks can:

  • Give you more energy
  • Boost your self-image
  • Decrease fatigue
  • Reduce stress and help you relax
  • Improve your ability to fall asleep quickly and sleep well

Look better

Frequent walks can also:

  • Tone your muscles
  • Burn calories and help you lose extra pounds or maintain your desired weight
  • Control your appetite

How to get started

The first step anyone considering taking up a vigorous walking program should take should be to talk to his or her doctor’s office. That is especially true if:

  • You have a heart condition and a physician recommended only medically supervised physical activity
  • You frequently have pains or pressure in the left or mid-chest area, left neck, shoulder or arm during or right after exercise
  • You have developed chest pain within the last month
  • You have lost consciousness or collapsed due to dizziness
  • You feel out of breath after mild exertion
  • Your doctor recommended you take medicine for your blood pressure or a heart condition
  • Your doctor says you have bone or joint problems that could be exacerbated by a walking regimen
  • You have any other medical of physical condition that might be worsened or need special attention in an exercise program, such as insulin-dependent diabetes
  • You are middle-aged or older, have not been physical active for an extended period of time and plan a relatively vigorous exercise program

If none of these conditions apply to you, begin your walking program gradually. If you feel any pain in your chest, neck, shoulder or arm when you begin walking on a regular basis, stop immediately and contact your doctor.

Choose a time of day

Some people wake up before their alarm ever sounds. Others have to press snooze multiple times before getting out of bed. Choosing the right time of day – and then sticking with it – is key to a successful exercise program. For some, that’s first thing in the morning. For others, it’s lunchtime or after work. It depends on a combination of factors, including when you have time for a walk, and also when you have the most energy.

Though it’s ideal to walk continuously for 30 to 60 minutes, many of us have schedules hectic enough that we simply can’t find that large a bloc of time. That’s OK. Recent research suggests that taking three 10-minute or two 15-minute walks provides about the same benefit as one 30-minute walk. If time is an issue, try to accumulate a total of between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise daily in 10 to 15-minute increments.

Find a place to walk

Exercise programs deliver the most health benefits when they maintained year-round. Which means that it’s important to select a location (or multiple locations) where you can walk in any season. For outdoor walking, find a course with a smooth, soft surface that does not intersect with traffic. Have a backup plan for whenever it’s too hot, cold or wet to walk outside. Indoor tracks and schools and gyms are popular choices, as are shopping malls. Regardless of where you walk, be sure there is sufficient light so that you can see and others can see you.

Choose a walking partner

Many people enjoy the solitude of walking alone. But if having a walking buddy makes exercise more enjoyable and helps you stick to your program, find a partner. Your walking partner should be able to match your pace and keep the same schedule.

Choose the right attire

If your feet hurt when you exercise, you won’t stick to your walking program. Choosing shoes that fit and are comfortable will help you stay disciplined. Choose shoes with thick, flexible soles that cushion the sole of the foot and absorb shock for the rest of the body.

During cold weather, wear layers of clothes to stay warm. Find clothing made from materials that allow sweat to evaporate and keep you warm and dry. Be sure to wear warm socks, a sweatshirt with a hood or a hat, gloves and turtleneck to keep all areas of your body covered.

In the summer, wear cotton or other light and porous materials that will allow sweat to quickly evaporate. To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of water before, during and after your walk.

Always warm up

An injury not only derails your walking regimen, it can sap your enthusiasm for exercise altogether. Warming up helps prevent unnecessary injuries. Start by walking slowly for about five minutes. Afterwards, do stretching exercises to help limber up your body and prepare it for more strenuous exercise. A few basic stretching exercises include:

Wall push

Stretch your calve muscles by standing about 1½ feet away from a wall and leaning forward to push against the wall with your hands. Keep your heels flat on the ground and hold the stretch for 10 seconds before relaxing. Repeat 1 – 2 times.

Standing toe touch

To keep your hamstrings limber, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Bend at the waist and extend your arms downward towards your toes. Extend as far as you can towards the floor and hold the position for 10 seconds. Repeat 1 – 2 times.

Palm touch

Slightly bend your knees and bend from the waist to try and touch the floor. Without bouncing, hold the position for 10 seconds. Repeat 1 – 2 times.

Walk at the right pace

Whether a walk is moderate or vigorous varies from person to person. Whatever your pace, it’s important not to push yourself too hard when you begin a walking program. Slow down if:

  • You can’t easily maintain a conversation
  • It takes longer than 5 minutes for your pulse to slow down after you exercise
  • You feel faint, have a hard time breathing or have prolonged weakness

A walking checklist

Remember these tips to maintain a consistent, safe and beneficial walking program:

  • Consult your doctor before starting, particularly if you are middle-aged or older and haven’t exercised regularly for a long time
  • Choose a place and time to walk
  • Get the proper shoes and clothes
  • Always warm up before walking
  • Cool down by walking slowly after each walking session
  • Walk regularly, meaning at least three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes
  • Enjoy looking and feeling better

Learn more

 The American Heart Association’s website has a wealth of information about how and why to embark on a walking program.

Learn more by visiting www.heart.org