You probably know somebody who started running or biking -- "just for exercise and weight loss" -- and got hooked. As you see him bounding out of the driveway, lean as a greyhound, you think: "That's fine for him, but it's not for me."
Exercise is for you, however. St--udy after study has demonstrated that regular physical activity is good for just about everything: losing weight, toning muscles, strengthening the cardiovascular system and protecting against heart disease, diabetes and many cancers.
The convenient component about walking is that you don't need special equipment to do it, and everyone knows how to walk. You can start at any pace or distance that suits your level of health and fitness.
It used to be recommended that Americans should exercise moderately for 30 minutes each day. More recently, the Institute of Medicine said that 60 minutes a day of vigorous physical activity would be more beneficial. Brisk walking still qualifies as a good choice. It gets the muscles moving and the heart pumping for an extended period without putting excessive stress on the joints or muscles.
Although some individuals don't have the time or inclination for 60 minutes a day, studies have confirmed that the more consistent your exercise schedule, the better. For example, a long-term study of 17,000 Harvard alumni found that men who exercised regularly lived longer than those who were sedentary.
The most obvious benefit of walking -- or any exercise -- is weight control. Each mile you walk uses up about 100 calories, so 20 miles of walking a week adds up to more than half a pound of weight lost (or not gained).
Sustained exercise speeds the body's metabolism and makes it more efficient at using energy, decreasing the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
The great thing about walking as an exercise is that you don't have to do any preparation. Just put on your shoes and start walking. You don't want to walk in dress shoes, of course, and there are special shoes designed for walkers. Most individuals, however, do perfectly fine with either casual or running shoes.
If you're overweight and have been sedentary for several years, even a little bit of walking will produce results. But eventually, you'll want to increase your speed until you're able to walk a mile in 15 or 20 minutes. A good measure of intensity is the talk test. You should be walking slowly enough that you can carry on a conversation but not so slowly that you can sing.
If you're a former runner or aerobic dancer, even a 15-minute mile may be too slow to get your heart rate elevated. To increase your speed, take faster steps rather than a longer stride.
Whatever your overall pace, take it easy for the first five minutes or so to warm up. Slow down again toward the end of your walk for a cool down. Gentle stretching after a walk will make you less likely to have sore muscles the next day.
As you walk, maintain a comfortable, upright posture with your neck, back and shoulders relaxed. Bend your arms to about 90 degrees and swing them to propel yourself forward.
Of all physical activities, walking is probably the most natural. Walk by yourself, with your dog or with a group of friends. Walk with a purpose or simply to explore and enjoy the scenery. Walking is the exercise for everybody.
Lisa A. Bankard, M.S., coordinates the Wellness Program at Yampa Valley Medical Center.