We’ve all heard it a hundred times: Staying active is good for us; sitting is bad. But some of us are too wary, too busy or too thrifty to join a gym or purchase a piece of expensive exercise equipment that might very well sit unused in the garage.
That’s why you have also likely heard that simple, brisk walking may well be the perfect exercise. All it requires is a pair of sturdy shoes and comfortable clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses, and maybe a hat, and you’re set. And almost anyone at any age can participate in a walking program. Unlike running, which can put stress on your joints, walking reduces the chances of developing osteoporosis or fracturing a hip, and can increase bone density, all without much chance of injury.
The additional benefits of regular walking are well documented. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, next to not smoking, getting regular exercise is the best possible thing you can do for your health. And studies that include the longtime Nurses’ Health Study show that walking greatly reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Walking can also help you sleep better and relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and even improve your mood. And probably one of the best things about a regular walking program is that it not only prevents weight gain, but combined with a healthful diet, walking can help you lose weight. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that walking just 30 minutes a day for the majority of the week, combined with eating less, may be as effective as walking 60 minutes a day.
But we’re not talking about a gentle stroll around the block. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that healthy people get a minimum of two-and-a-half hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity spread out over several days during the week. What does this mean for walkers? Moderate-intensity aerobic activity causes a small but noticeable increase in heart rate and breathing. If you’re doing vigorous aerobic activity, your breathing and heart rate will be more rapid, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. So walking at a brisk pace — about three miles per hour — offers the greatest health benefits, especially with regard to weight loss or weight maintenance because it burns more calories. And while 30 minutes of walking is good, walking for a good hour at a good clip is a fabulous way to control or lose weight.
Luckily, here in San Francisco there are plenty of places to walk with hills, steps and staircases to provide built-in walking challenges. You’ll find many folks hiking up and down the Lyon Street steps in Pacific Heights, but even more head out to Crissy Field where it’s flat, and you can walk for an hour with breathtaking views. If you need a destination to get you out the door, walk to a farmers’ market (just don’t forget your reusable bags) or to meet a pal
As with any fitness program, start walking for short periods— 15 or 20 minutes — and then build up to 30 minutes or more. Some people like to wear a heart-rate monitor to gauge the intensity of their walks, and others prefer a pedometer so they can track their distance. But probably one of the best incentives to start walking is to find a friend or group to walk with. Chatting while walking makes the time fly, and many friendships have grown and gelled over regular walks.
One way to get started is to join a meet-up group, like Walking in San Francisco for Health and History at www.meetup.com/walking-in-SF. This group sponsors walks every weekend, which include walking and exploring the City’s history, and all you have to do is RSVP when you want
to join them.
Even on chilly, damp winter days, bundle up; a walk awaits — and usually someone who will gladly join you.