If ever there was a "positive addiction" — something good for you that you actually crave — I'd nominate distance walking and running.
Once you've adopted movement as a part of your life, it starts crowding out less healthy habits.
In the time it takes to do a long walk or run, you've removed your mind and body from the stresses of life. Walking or running also requires total physical exertion. This results in steady deep breathing, which is calming. Lastly, steady physical movement strengthens the entire musculoskeletal system while raising levels of serotonin, the chemical in your brain that adds to your sense of well-being and self-esteem.
At the same time, your overall mental and physical health is enhanced, protecting you from depression, heart disease, diabetes and excess weight.
Compare all that with the temporary high you get from sugar, alcohol, nicotine and other drugs, and you can see why I call movement a positive addiction.
You can't know where you're going until you know where you are now. So let's start with some self-assessment.
If you're over 40, haven't exercised in a while and haven't had a physical exam lately, go to the doctor to make sure you don't have any conditions that would limit your exercise. Most people will likely hear that exercise will help whatever ails them, from high blood pressure to arthritis.
The program I outline here starts with walking 2 miles in 35 minutes and builds from there. You may think that's a lot for you, and you may be right, but you won't know until you try.
1. Go to a measured track, or use your car's odometer to set your own markers in the neighborhood.
2. Then take a walk to see how far you can comfortably go. Do what we call an out-back negative split: Go out one specific distance and time yourself. Turn around and repeat that distance. If you can come back faster than you went out, you're ready to increase your distance and/or speed.
3. If 2 miles really is too much for you, just do what you can, and add 10 minutes every week. Keep a journal. You'll be amazed by your progress. Before long, you can start the Walk to Run program.
HOW FAR, HOW FAST?
The Walk to Run program starts by emphasizing distance over speed. Start with an easy walking pace — that's faster than a stroll through the mall, but slower than the cardio walk I'll write about in the next issue of Personal Best. This chart is only a suggestion to help you get going. You need to pay attention to your progress and how you feel to determine when you need to step it up.
Level 1: Walk 2 miles, 4 days a week. Should take about 35 minutes
Level 2: Walk 3 miles, 4 days a week. Should take about 50 minutes
Level 3: Walk 3.5 miles, 4 days a week. Should take about 60 minutes
Level 4: Walk 4 miles, 4 days a week. Should take 60-90 minutes
Now you know where you are, but I want you to complete a few more steps before starting your Walk to Run program so you give yourself the best chance of success.
• Make the commitment. Sign and post this contract in a prominent place (perhaps the front of the refrigerator): I, (your name here), have decided to begin a walking program and will walk (your distance here) miles in (your time here) by (your date here).
• Keep an exercise journal. Recording data such as distance, heart rate, body weight and other relevant fitness markers will allow you to note the progress you've made throughout the weeks, months and years of distance walking or running.
• Buy quality running shoes. Get a pair of cushioned stability running shoes. Be sure to allow ½ inch between the end of your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Running shoes provide a bit more flexibility than walking shoes and thus will prove to be more comfortable and allow for a faster gait during the walk.
• Use the buddy system. Walking with a friend once or twice a week will help keep you on your fitness plan.
• Be sure you land on your heel; roll your foot from heel to toe, and then push off forcefully with your toes.
• Keep your chest out and shoulders straight; any slump or rounding of the shoulders and/or back throws off your body's alignment, possibly creating knee and shin problems. Your core muscles must be strong to maintain good posture; walking will help, but you may want to ask a trainer about additional exercises to strengthen your back and other core muscles.
• Faster, faster. Don't strain, but do challenge yourself. As you conquer the slow walk or jog, start to pick up the pace, alternating short, quick strides with longer, slower ones. Faster movement increases your body's metabolic rate; varying the pace prevents overuse to the same muscle groups
• Change your venue. Seek out shaded and safe areas for training. Make it your goal to find a different place to walk or run every week. Perhaps you need to stick to the neighborhood for your pre-work session during the week, but try a local park on the weekend.
• Stretching. Aerobic movement and conditioning in general create muscles. However, these muscles need to be stretched so you can increase your range of motion . When to stretch is a topic of some debate. I recommend stretching the major muscle groups five minutes after you start walking and again when the walk is completed. The major muscle groups include the quadriceps, calves and hamstrings.
• Arms count. Use your arms to help propel your forward motion. Strengthen them with exercises such as alternating forward arm lunges with light weights (not when you're walking, please!).
• Reflect and enjoy. Walkers and runners alike should take time to relax during their outing and reflect on matters that affect their lives. Walking with music or chatting with friends is great, but so is at least an occasional "moving meditation.''