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Walking for the health of it

by Julie Estlick

Moving our bodies, especially as we reach middle age and beyond, helps us stay healthier and live longer. For some, that means regular cycling classes, playing hours of pickleball, or skiing black diamonds. But physical activity doesn’t have to be intense or expensive to provide health benefits.

Walking, something most of us do every day, is a great form of exercise, says Colorado State University’s Kimberly Burke, an instructor in the College of Health and Human Sciences. “Walking gets your heart rate up while being gentle on your joints. It helps build strong bones and avoid bone loss. And the only thing you need to get started is a comfortable pair of shoes.”

There are also no new movements to learn, no gym memberships or class fees, and you can do it whenever your schedule allows. A post-meal walk, for example, can aid in digestion by increasing blood flow to the digestive system, moving food along the digestive tract quickly and effectively.

Research has shown that walking at a moderate pace for 30 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 days a week can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk for chronic diseases, boost muscle power and endurance, and offer other physical and mental health rewards.

It’s a message nurses at the Health District of Northern Larimer County try to drive home at cholesterol and blood pressure scre enings. “We make it a point to tell clients that you don’t need to be a marathon runner to get the benefits of exercise,” says Julie Abramoff, clinical nurse manager for the Health Promotion Program. “Taking a walk provides amazing health benefits and it can be done anywhere.”

Unfortunately, as Americans age, they are not getting the recommended amount of aerobic exercise, which is any exercise that improves blood flow and sends oxygen to different parts of your body. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise). The guidelines also include doing muscle-strengthening activities two days a week or more.

In 2020, just 28 percent of American men and 20 percent of women met the guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise. Locally, 46 percent of men and 36 percent of women in Larimer County said they met the guidelines, according to the Health District’s 2022 Community Health Survey.

Finding activities that get you moving and don’t feel like a chore can help. “It’s important to enjoy whatever ways you choose to be physically active,” says Burke, who also directs the CSU Adult Fitness Program with the Department of Health and Exercise Science. Students help run the program to gain practical experience, providing fitness assessments and working with community members to improve participants’ cardiovascular fitness, strength, and flexibility.

Walking is often used as a warm-up or cool down, and sometimes as a main form of exercise in the program.

Need for speed?

You may be wondering if you need to walk at a certain pace to get the most out of your fitness routine. Some research suggests that walking around 2 miles per hour, or covering a mile in 30 minutes, is a good goal.

Burke puts it another way. “Our recommendation is that a brisk walk is ideal,” she says. “For instance, you ‘stroll’ at the store or to the mailbox, so ‘brisk’ is a little faster than that.” On a subjective scale with 0 being sitting, and 10 the hardest you have ever worked, 5 is moderate. Your pace should be in the 4-5 range.

The ‘talk test’ can be used to gauge your intensity. Let’s say you’re walking with a friend. If you can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, then you’re at a zero. Start walking faster, and you should be able to use natural pauses in the conversation to keep breath regulated. If there’s an opportunity to pick up the pace a little, do it, but if you find yourself stopping to catch your breath, slow down.

Before lacing up your sneakers, remember to keep safety and comfort in mind. Use sun protection, wear layers, and bring water to stay hydrated. If you’re walking at night, wear bright clothing or a vest so you can be seen.

When it’s hot out, walk with less intensity or do it at a cooler time of day or evening. Or walk at a mall or someplace that has air-conditioning.

If you want a more vigorous workout, do intervals—move at a faster pace for a few minutes, then slow down and recover, then speed up again. Treadmills are a good option because you can increase elevation on the machine to get your heart rate up quicker, plus you’re indoors in a controlled environment.

An indoor track offers an even surface, no cars or pets to dodge, and you don’t have to deal with heat or cold, wind, or bugs. There are several in the region you can use for a small drop-in fee or as part of a fitness program (see breakout box).

As with any exercise, if you feel pain or discomfort during a walk, slow down or stop. Some symptoms can be resolved by better footwear, but others may require a trip to your health-care provider. If you develop heel swelling or pain from plantar fasciitis, or you notice pain on the top of the foot, consider replacing your shoes, Burke says. Pain in the knee, hips, or back: have your gait assessed for any changes in the way you walk.

When in doubt, talk to your primary care provider.  

Mood buster

In addition to the physical benefits, exercise improves our mental outlook and can help with depression and anxiety. “Walking when the sun’s out, seeing the green around you, it boosts your mood,” Burke says “It gives your brain a chance to slow down and gain some context.”

For her part, Burke schedules weekly walks with a friend on campus to make sure she gets out of her work chair and gets a good dose of social time, too.

Area tracks and trails
Larimer County trails - larimer.gov/naturalresources/parks/regional-paved-trails
Fort Collins trails - fcgov.com/parks/trails
Red Feather Lakes area trails - pwv.org/trails/redfeather-lakes
Windsor trails - recreationliveshere.com/159/trails
Public use outdoor all-weather tracks - Kinard Middle School, Fort Collins High School, Fossil Ridge High School, and Poudre High School
Indoor tracks - Fort Collins Senior Center, Northside Aztlan Community Center, Colorado State University Glenn Morris Field House, Windsor Community Recreation Center
CSU Adult Fitness Program - chhs.colostate.edu/hes/outreach-and-engagement/adult-fitness
For more information contact Kimberly Burke at kimberly.burke@colostate.edu or 970-491-0928.

 

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