Heart Health and Walking: The Key to Better Health

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Filed Under: General Health, Heart Health Principles
Last Reviewed 09/08/2014

Heart Health and Walking: The Key to Better Health
There is no other lifestyle modification with such immediate and long-lasting benefits for your health and well-being as exercise, and walking is one of the most effective, and sustainable, types of exercise you can do. It strengthens your heart and circulatory system, builds stamina, relieves stress, and improves your state of mind.
 

Getting Started

Do you warm up and stretch before you walk? Most injuries that occur while exercising are caused by not warming up and/or stretching before beginning. Plus, intense exercise without warming up dumps more fatty acids into your bloodstream than muscles need. These excess fatty acids can end up lining blood vessel walls. Also, sudden intense exertion can shock your heart, greatly increasing the risk of heart attack.

Warming up raises your heart rate gradually and facilitates the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids. Stretching gradually loosens muscles, tendons, and other tissues so they are more flexible and absorb shock or injury better. Many exercises, especially weight lifting and running, decrease range in motion unless you stretch.
 
Never stretch cold muscles, for you risk tearing them. First, warm up by walking in place or riding a stationary bicycle for five minutes. When you stretch, do not hold your breath. Stretch slowly and hold the position just short of pain. Avoid bouncing.
 

Before You Walk, It's Important to Stretch

  • One-quarter head circles. Starting with your ear near your shoulder on one side, rotate your head around to the front, ending with your ear near your shoulder on the other side. Roll your head back to the other side. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
  • Arm circles. With one arm, make a backward circle with palm facing out, thumb pointed up. Repeat 10 to 15 times with each arm. Then make forward arm circles with palm facing in, thumb pointed down. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
  • Calf stretch. Stand an arm's-length from a wall. Lean into it, bracing yourself with your arms. Place one leg forward with knee bent. Do not put weight on this leg. Your other leg should be back, with knee straight and heel down. Keeping your back straight, move hips toward wall until you feel a stretch. Hold 30 seconds. Relax. Repeat with other leg.
  • Cooling down. The final 5 to 10 minutes of your walk should be done at an easy pace. When finished, repeat the stretches you did after your warm-up. Cooling-down stretches gradually decrease the intensity of exercising, improve flexibility, and help your body return to its resting state.

How Fast Should You Walk?

In a two-week Dutch study reported in Nature a sophisticated device was used to measure energy expenditure of 30 healthy adults. Researchers found that moderate activity was actually superior to vigorous exercise for expending energy.
 
If you want to use a heart rate monitor to pace yourself, that's great, but go no higher than 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. Do not exert yourself at 80 or 85 percent, as so many fitness gurus used to advise. To get a rough idea of your maximal heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Multiply the answer by 0.70. The result is your target heart rate.
 

How to Find the Best Walking Shoes

  • Get your feet measured every time you shop. Your shoe size can vary over time, especially if you've gained or lost weight.
  • Choose a true walking shoe, not a hiking shoe. You want a shoe that's going to bend and flex with your feet. One tip is to bend the shoe and see if it's going to flex where your feet bend naturally.
  • Make sure the shoes you choose have shock-absorbant cushioning, since each time you take a step you're putting stress on your feet and ankles. Some brands of shoes have an air pocket on the bottom to help absorb that shock.
  • To ensure an even distribution of weight, you want to select shoes that are as wide (or slightly wider) than your feet.
  • Shop for walking shoes near the end of the day, not the morning, since feet swell slightly over the course of the day.
  • Wear your athletic socks when you shop, so you'll be trying on shoes wearing the same socks you plan to use when you walk.
  • Lace up both shoes, and spend some time really testing them out in the store before you buy. Make sure no part of the shoe feels tight or rubs against your feet, and that you have adequate cushioning and support. Also make sure you can wiggle your toes--if you can't, the shoe is too tight.
  • Replace your walking shoes at least every six months. Shoes lose their tread and support over time.

How to Keep Up Your Walking Program While On Vacation

  • If you're sightseeing, put on a pedometer. Whether you're touring a quaint neighborhood, or walking with your children or grandchildren, chances are you're logging a lot of steps, and miles. So, put on a pedometer before you head out and see just how far you walked. While it may not be brisk, all of that walking counts.
  • Take a walking tour. Many places offer maps with a walking tour of the town. Not only will you get in your exercise, you'll get a chance to see a lot of new sites. There's nothing like new scenery to make your walk even more enjoyable!
  • Walk before everyone else gets up. If your vacation involves more sedate activities, like basking on the beach, get up early in the morning before the rest of your travel companions wake up. That way you get in your walk during the cool morning hours, and will earn your relaxation.
  • Give yourself a fun destination. Whether you want to see a quaint little shop in town, or are headed for a restaurant that's nearby, leave the car behind and walk. There's nothing like walking to see something that's enjoyable to keep you motivated.

More Dr. Sinatra Advice on Exercise

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