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    Time to March … and Walk!

    By Jamie Leno Zimron–

    While it’s March and we’re on the march, it seems like a great time to write about walking! For most of us lucky enough to have both our legs, in working condition, walking is akin to breathing and eating—one of the most natural and closest parts of our daily existence. While it’s easy to take these basics of life for granted, engaging in them consciously can bring amazing rewards.

    If you’re temporarily unable to walk due to injury, you probably miss it and can hardly wait to heal up. If, somehow, you’ve lost or don’t have your ability to walk, you probably use and enjoy every other way(s) you have to move your body and to get around in the world. We really need to keep it moving, as much as possible and every way we can.

    Before extolling the virtues of daily walks, here’s a little of my story. In my 20s and 30s, I was a running fiend and ungrateful snob about walking, which I judged as boring, un-athletic and of little health value. I’d jog at least 6 miles every day, almost never taking time off to let my body rest. At least I had the good sense to stretch first, and a sixth sense for finding dirt trails, even in cities, to somewhat minimize the pounding on my joints while maximizing getting outside into nature. I still love running, but after 20 nonstop years of wear & tear—plus martial arts, rafting rivers, playing golf, and climbing a few mountains—my back, hips and knees just said no!

    When it hurt to roll over in bed, or get up in the morning, was when I was forced to quit everything. Fortunately healing happens and I got better. But it took more than a year of feeling sad on the sidelines, a lot of rest and rehab, good nutrition and bodywork—and transitioning from Runner to Walker! I became such a full-fledged convert that my wife laughingly calls walking my “religion.”

    When I was a runner, the pavement was just too hard on my back and knees, so I had to search and drive to where I could run on a softer dirt trail. With walking, I’ve been thrilled to just pop out the door and take off—rain, snow or shine—from home or wherever I might be in the world. Walking is refreshing, low impact, takes no special athletic skills or training—and it’s free! You don’t need a gym, fitness trainer, or any special equipment beyond comfortable walking shoes and perhaps a pair of orthotics for proper foot support (either from a drugstore or sporting goods store, or fitted for you by a podiatrist or chiropractor).

    A walk can help you cheer up or calm down. It gives you time to think and improves mood, mental clarity, balance, and coordination. Walking boosts your nervous system and immune function. It reduces body fat, firms your glutes, quads, and butt. It prevents muscle atrophy and falls, and so is important for older people and as we all age. Walking increases oxygenation, respiration and circulation. It helps with digestion and regularity and supports good sleep. It improves body awareness, self-esteem, sex drive, and overall energy. It can tone muscles that prevent miscarriages in pregnant women. The list of benefits is long and goes on!

    For weight loss, the calorie-burn may not be impressive, but daily walks definitely help to control weight. Studies show that overweight people who go on regular walks do trim down, even without changing any other habits, and walkers maintain a healthy weight over time far better than their sedentary counterparts. Research is also scientifically demonstrating that 30–60 minutes of daily walking effectively:

    • reduces ailments from depression to osteoporosis, to incidence of the common cold, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes;
    • statistically lowers risk and incidence of breast, colon, liver and other cancers—even better than other types of exercise;
    • lowered the risk of heart disease by 82% in a 10-year study of 229 post-menopausal women who walked a mile every day, compared to a control group who didn’t;
    • supports brain function, activates the genes that control cognition, lowers cortisol that shrinks the hippocampus and reduces the risk of dementia. How cool is it that the parts of the brain in charge of thinking and memory have actually been shown to be larger in people who walk and exercise regularly?! Our mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade. While her decline was sad and steady, it seems like a lot of walking and love (plus the drug Aricept) helped to slow things down and keep her quality of life up. Memories of walking with Mom through the mall and around the block are many and priceless, and she remained mobile almost until her last days at age 91.

    The new recommended goal for walking is 10,000 steps, or about 5 miles/8 kilometers, a day. A portion of that accumulates from simply walking around doing your day, with the rest coming from walks. It’s fun to park a little further than closer, take the stairs instead of elevators, and build up to 10,000. Fitbits are the rage for good reason, and apps like MapMyWalk are free and work great for tracking steps and other fitness stats.

    Who doesn’t need to de-stress these days? Taking leisurely walks is a wonderful way to de-pressurize from the daily rat-race and news cycles, and to re-connect with the basics of natural moving and breathing. It’s all the better if grass and trees and sky are a part of your walk.

    Meditating and creative thinking often happen naturally as you walk. Conscious Walking Meditation is a beautiful Buddhist practice, for example. Sometimes strolling with a friend is the best therapy, or listening to the birds or music you love, or just being quiet. I walk at least an hour every day and admit to loving “walk-n-talks,” where I double-purpose the time and relieve work-stress by getting phone meetings in or handling business while cruising along.

    Try walking backwards every now and then. Just turn around and walk, carefully so you don’t trip or bump into anything! It makes you think and works your postural and movement muscles opposite from their usual, which expands function and resilience both physically and mentally. Walking backwards downhill gives a great stretch to your Achilles and adds interesting sensations and views! Something really fun, and challenging, is to converse face-to-face with a friend as one of you walks forward while the other is stepping back.

    There are many ways to turn walking into a more strenuous workout if you want, which also add variety and cost little to nothing. Here’s a good list of ideas:

    1. Walk at a brisk pace or do the power-walking thing.
    2. Mix up your pace with intervals (e.g. interspersing 1–3 minutes speed or power walking with a more regular or leisurely pace.) Use your phone or count steps to track each interval.
    3. Add weights to your belt or ankles, or hold in your hands. Wear a backpack with weight inside.
    4. Add exercises along your way. For example, raise and lower your arms (as in jumping jacks) as you walk. Do occasional series of long deep-lunging steps. Do 5–10 series of 10 high knee-raise steps. Clasp your hands behind your back, pulling your shoulders up and back, walking with your upper chest open, abdominals firm, and breathing deeply. Add clapping your hands together behind your back as you move along.
    5. Mix up the terrain, including hills and elevation changes in your route.
    6. Walk with a buddy, each taking turns setting the pace and changing things up with intervals, exercises, hills, etc.
    7. Try “Total Body Nordic Walking”: Use walking poles to add an upper-body and cardio workout. The poles also reduce pressure and wear & tear on your ankles, back, neck, knees and hips. (The gear is available at Dick’s or other sporting goods stores, or Exerstrider.com). It was amazing to introduce the poles to my 90-something Dad, and a group of seniors in Balance Class. Most were on walkers, which was causing slumping and shuffling, while the poles instantly engaged their postural and walking muscles and seemed to remind their brains and bodies how to stand and walk naturally again.

    Walking itself is a weight-bearing and balance-inducing activity, building bone and muscle. It’s also lungs- and heart-healthy, yielding mild to sweaty aerobic exercise. Just 5–10 minutes of walking warms me up, and I enjoy the challenges of hills and cool windy weather as much as the pleasures of easy strolls. After being used to intense sports and workouts, I’m constantly surprised and grateful to see how relatively mild walks and exercises keep me in fine shape. Many walkers attest to having better post-surgical and injury recoveries, thanks to having maintained a regular level of physical fitness—and being ready and willing to embark on rehab regimens when necessary.

    While I’ll always prefer a lovely trail in a park or the countryside, and I always pay attention to the safety factor of where I’m walking, it’s fantastically freeing to have a form of exercise that isn’t dependent on special equipment, places, or affordability. All you need is your own willingness, or your dog or a friend’s dog who has to go out a couple times every day and will leap for joy for their W-A-L-K even when you’re not. It’s really not hard to get hooked on fresh air and some daily time to yourself in the great outdoors. It’s free and keeps you looking good, feeling good, and living longer.

    Walking is a simple, but great, and profound pleasure. Eat, pray, love. Bike, swim, run. Use it or lose it. And walk, walk, walk!

    Jamie Leno Zimron is a Corporate Speaker, Executive Trainer, LPGA Golf Pro, and 6th Degree Aikido Black Belt. Check out her website: http://www.thekiaiway.com