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doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000286144.97951.e2
Features: Fit & Happy/Not Just A Stroll In The Park

Fitness Walking Is More Than Putting One Foot In Front Of The Other

Clark, Susan Paulson

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Walking is the Number One physical activity in America. And for good reason: It's convenient, affordable and provides social interaction.

The National Institutes of Health reports that walking can increase energy, reduce stress, strengthen bones and muscles, improve stamina and fitness–even lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And it's a more challenging workout than you might think.

“Walking can run the gamut from a slow saunter to speed walking, but generally speaking, a 15 minute-per-mile walk is a fitness walk,” says Judy Heller, an Oregon-based trainer, organizer of walking events and founder of Wonders of Walking.

For most walkers, reaching that pace will require some hard work. “A good way to judge your progress is the ‘talk test.’ If you can carry on a monologue, you're not walking fast enough–and if you can't carry on a conversation, then you're working too hard,” Heller explains.

As with any other physical activity to improve fitness, the bar needs to be raised from time to time. Says Heller: “The body adapts and becomes more efficient. In order to challenge yourself, walk faster, walk farther, increase the intensity by walking hills or do intervals–which is alternating fast and slower paces.” But if you are walking on a treadmill, Heller warns not to go steeper than a four percent grade, because your form will suffer and you will risk muscle strain.

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Proper form helps walkers increase heart rate and burn calories:

▪ Align the body properly. Keep ears over your shoulders and hips and knees over your ankles. Think in terms of “keeping your bellybutton engaged” to stabilize the abdominal muscles and pelvis–meaning, gently pull the belly button in, toward the back, but don't flatten the back.

▪ Keep the torso tall and look straight ahead.

▪ Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle, with your forearms parallel to the ground. Keep your fingers in a loose fist, with fingertips lightly touching your palms and thumbs resting gently on your index fingers.

▪ Your arms should swing back and forth, but never higher than the chest bone.

▪ Step heel to toe, with a “roller motion,” but don't over-stride. When less of your heel touches the ground and your foot plant becomes flat, you're over-striding.

The pace at which you walk will determine how many 30-minute sessions you will need per week to improve or maintain your fitness level, according to a 2005 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine: Five to seven times a week at moderate intensity (45 to 55 percent of maximum heart rate), or three to four times per week at high intensity (65 to 75 percent of maximum heart rate).

A maximum or “target” heart rate is the rate that a person should achieve during maximal physical exertion. A seat-of-the-pants way to calculate this is to subtract your age from 220, but it's helpful to work with a fitness professional to find your target heart rate zone. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes or other cardiovascular risk factors, or are under the care of a cardiologist, consult your doctor.

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Beginners should keep their heart rate at the lower end of the target zone until they have become accustomed to regular exercise. Experienced fitness walkers should maintain a heart rate near the upper limit of their zone for the duration of their workouts.

A heart rate monitor is a great way to stay “honest,” because you'll know right away if your workout heart rate has reached an effective target zone. The monitor can be set to beep when you're out of your target zone (that is, too low to be effective or high enough to be harmful.)

Alternatively, you can monitor your heart rate by taking your pulse on the inside of the wrist for 10 seconds. Use the tips of your first two fingers, not your thumb, to press lightly over the blood vessels on your wrist. Count your pulse for 10 seconds, and multiply by 6 for the number of beats per minute.

Whether using a heart rate monitor or taking your pulse, make sure you check your heart rate periodically as you exercise.

There are several styles of fitness walking you could consider, once you've gotten up to speed and want to add variety to your routine, or ratchet up the intensity:

NORDIC OR SKI WALKING (also known as “trekking”). Using ski poles, walkers mimic the action of cross country skiing to get an upper and lower body workout.

POWER WALKING (also known as speed walking). Moving fast –4.5 to 5.5 mph–walkers reach nearly the same pace as jogging, but always keep one foot on the ground.

POOL WALKING. Muscles work harder walking in waist- to chest-deep water, because of the added resistance.

Chi Walking. Based on principles of T'ai Chi, this walking style emphasizes good posture, loose joints, engaging the core muscles and relaxing the peripheral muscles of the arms and legs.

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If you need motivation to walk often enough, far enough and fast enough to gain health and fitness benefits, you might want to:

HIRE A COACH. Plano, Tex. walking coach Cathy Myers grooms walkers who are facing the challenge of participating in a 5K or 10K for the first time. “The time it takes to get & ready for a race varies. For a couch potato it might take four to six months, for an active person who has simply gotten a bit out of shape, it will take less time, maybe 12 weeks,” says Myers, whose company, Feet In Motion, works with individuals to groups as large as 200. To find a coach in your area, contact the athletic department of a nearby college or visit (mouse on the “Resources” section of the navigation bar, and click “Club Contacts”).

JOIN A WALKING CLUB. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada studied 947 adults in Northern England. Participants, who were grouped by age, reported whether they prefer to exercise alone, with groups of people in different age brackets or with those in their same age bracket. The study, published in the April 2007 Annals of Behavior Medicine, found that people prefer to exercise with others in their own age group. To hook up with other walkers, visit the “Club Contacts” page of and find local walking clubs.

PARTICIPATE IN A WALKING PROGRAM The American Heart Association's Start! movement was launched in January to help companies organize walking programs and groups for their employees. Walks range from 10-minute breaks to longer walks during the lunch hour. Employees of Subway restaurants, Astra Zeneca, Healthy Choice and other companies are already participating in Start!, according to AHA spokesperson Alex Barbieri. Visit and type “Heart Walk” in the Search Box on the upper left corner of the Home Page to find out dates, times and locations of more than 450 Heart Walk events nationwide. Also check out your local athletic shoe store for brochures and fliers advertising walking or running events that include walkers.

DEVELOP GOALS AND TRACK PROGRESS. “People stay motivated when they choose a goal, like participating in a walking event or losing weight. Then they adopt a plan to reach it,” Myers says. “Tracking progress in a journal, logbook or via software helps to maintain motivation in the process.” The AHA's My Start! online allows walkers to track activity and diet. members use a pocket pedometer that can be plugged into their computer to upload walking data to the Web site. Users can log on to to track their steps, distance and other statistics.

Is walking just a stroll down easy street? Not if you're a fitness walker. To graduate from simply walking to fitness walking, use proper form and pick up the tempo. Then, don't revert back into a leisurely pace–keep challenging yourself!

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A vigorous fitness walking program isn't for everyone–and you should check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

Diabetics and others at risk of cardiovascular disease can burn calories and improve their health by simply making sure that the number of steps they walk over the course of the day totals 10,000–or about five miles.

A study by Catrine Tudor-Locke at Arizona State University and David Bassett of the University of Tennessee found that walking 3,000 steps is equivalent to the 30 minutes of moderate physical activity recommended by the Surgeon General to maintain good health.

While cautioning that type 2 diabetics should not discontinue their medication, Ralph LaForge, a physiologist at Duke University Medical Center's endocrine division in Durham, North Carolina, notes that “there is a growing body of research that indicates that walking 10,000 steps per day at a fair pace has the same physiological benefit as the diabetes drug metformin.” Having said that, regular, vigorous exercise may not adequately control blood sugar levels in all type 2 diabetics, so patients should continue to work with their doctors to determine how much and what kind of medicine they need.

LaForge, who trains physicians to manage patients with pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome with a walking program using pedometers, recommends that they “prescribe” a well-engineered pedometer that does one single thing: accurately count the number of steps taken.

Pricey gadgets with MP3 players and GPS are unnecessary, says LaForge, and “freebie” promotional pedometers are inaccurate.

“Ninety-nine percent of pedometers are worn on the belt, except in cases where the foot strikes may not register. Extremely obese people, the very frail or elderly may need to wear an ankle pedometer,” LaForge says.

“It's important to purchase a well-manufactured pedometer that has a large easy-to-read LED display–one that accurately registers just your walking steps and not superfluous movements,” says LaForge. He recommends Accusplit ( and NewLifestyles ( pedometers, which range in cost from $10 to $60.

When he's counting his steps, he prefers the Accusplit Eagle 2720, because it has a three-step delay, which reduces the likelihood that random movement of the leg or foot will count as a “step.”

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Research shows that using a pedometer to count the number of steps you take will also motivate you to aim for–and reach–10,000 per day.

© 2007 American Heart Association, Inc.