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Take a walk — the right way — for maximum fitness benefits

Walkers and runners stretch before a class led by trainer Lynn Gray at the USF track on Oct. 29, 2013. Gray encourages her students to always finish stronger than they start so they’ll recognize the progress they’re making.
Published Nov. 1, 2013

TAMPA — Angela Alexandrow's demanding work schedule made it difficult to get to the gym. Plus, at 47, her metabolism was slowing down. It took more exercise than before to keep her weight in check.

"I needed something that was a calorie burner and an activity that would easily fit into my work and travel schedule," she said.

She decided to give running a try and turned to veteran marathoner Lynn Gray, who has been training runners in Tampa since the 1980s. Gray has written three books on the subject and is founder of Take … the First Step (firststepprograms.com), a walk-to-run training center where she designs individual programs for clients.

Gray told her that she would have to walk before she could run. But in a particular way.

"I can get people running in five to six months, but not until they have a strong core, arms, and legs and flexibility, so the impact doesn't destroy them and cause injury,'' Gray said. "They have to learn to walk properly before I let them run."

Walking is one of the best lifelong exercises. It's low cost and requires no special clothing or gear (except for shoes), the risk of injury is low and Florida in the winter is just about perfect for walking outdoors.

As Alexandrow discovered, walking can also prepare you for more challenging activities like running a 5K or playing kickball with your kids.

Having a coach is ideal, but it's not essential. Just start out slowly.

BayCare exercise physiologist Jeanmarie Scordino has first-timers walk just five or 10 minutes for the first few days. "The idea is to just get them used to moving," she said. "Once out, they usually walk a little further or longer than planned. But pace and distance will increase as they get more fit."

Scordino says the average person should work toward walking a 15-minute mile. If you can't walk in an area where the distance is already measured, such as on a park fitness course or a track, get in your car and map out a 1-mile route around your neighborhood. Then time yourself walking that route. At first it may take a half-hour or longer to walk a mile, but now you have a goal and can walk a little faster each week to improve your time.

The payoff

Gray recommends walking at least four days a week to see improvements in blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. At first, make it your goal to walk for half an hour a day, then as you build strength and endurance, work up to 45 minutes, then an hour.

"It depends on your weight, your physical strength, how your joints feel and your posture — you need to have good form to prevent injury," said Gray. "And you need to have a rest day when you either don't walk or run, or you do something different that doesn't impact your joints, such as biking, spinning, swimming, yoga or strength training."

Pump up the effort

There are many ways to make your walking workout more challenging.

You can walk briskly for 30 seconds or a minute and then do the same amount of time at an easier pace, and so on. Eventually make the quicker-paced intervals longer and the easier intervals shorter until you can sustain the quicker pace for most or all of your walk.

Pump your arms while you walk and you'll get even more benefit. "I have my clients bend their arms at the elbows and pump them back and forth like they are pulling a rope," Gray said. "When your arms are just hanging down by your sides you're not working hard enough." Gray says you can alternate between vigorously pulling on that imaginary rope and letting your arms rest at your sides.

Change the scenery

Another Florida-friendly way to increase the intensity is beach walking.

Scordino recommends walking on the hard sand closer to the water at first, and then, as you get stronger, in the soft, deeper sand.

Away from the beach, "some parks have crushed-shell paths that are also a little more challenging than a hard-top path. Walking in grass is also good. If you're worried about uneven surfaces, use a walking stick or take along a buddy who can help with your balance," she said.

She also recommends walking on bridges, where it is allowed, because they offer something that's hard to come by naturally in Florida: incline.

"I like the bridge to Clearwater Beach. It has a neat spiral, which is fun. Also the Belleair Bridge is good," she said.

One of Gray's favorite places to walk is Lake Park, at 17302 N Dale Mabry Highway north of Gaither High School in north Tampa. "The 2 ½-mile loop has a soft, mostly flat surface, lots of hydration stops and lots of shade."

Team up

Yet another way to get a great workout is the tried-and-true buddy system.

Sherry Turner, 67, has been power walking under Gray's tutelage for about two years to become more active and improve her balance. She also dropped 15 pounds, without dieting. She power walks with a group of Gray's clients weekly at the University of South Florida, following the runners around the track, arms pumping above her heart. Then she quickly walks up and down steps in the stadium seating area. She's winded and sweating, but heads back out to the track again and again.

"Walking with all these people motivates me, makes me accountable," she said. "Plus, when you're exercising, you just naturally seem to eat less. I've lost weight and I've been getting fitter."

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@tampabay.com.

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