Walk your way to good health

Written by Trish Yerges, Correspondent March 23, 2011 10:40 am

SUMMERVILLE STRIDERS enjoy the benefits of walking and socializing during their routine 3-mile walk on Craig Loop with their dogs. Left to right: Vicki Correll, Trudy Westfield, Diana Dominguez, Michele McCoy, Jennie Tucker, Becky Noll, Sharon Hamilton and Linda Birnbaum. Dave Yerges photo
SUMMERVILLE STRIDERS enjoy the benefits of walking and socializing during their routine 3-mile walk on Craig Loop with their dogs. Left to right: Vicki Correll, Trudy Westfield, Diana Dominguez, Michele McCoy, Jennie Tucker, Becky Noll, Sharon Hamilton and Linda Birnbaum. Dave Yerges photo

SUMMERVILLE — The Greek physician Hippocrates believed that walking was man’s best medicine. Today, health care professionals can’t agree more. Its generous benefits can help improve one’s mental and physical health.

“Scheduling time for the recommended levels of physical activity is essential to overall health,” states a recent Surgeon General’s report. “Physical activity can help control weight, reduce risk for many diseases (heart disease and some cancers), strengthen your bones and muscles, improve your mental health and increase your chances of living longer.”

The Surgeon General recommends at least 150 minutes per week (30 minutes, five days a week) of moderate-intensity physical activity. The “no pain-no gain” adage doesn’t apply with walking. The New England Journal of Medicine reveals that walking as little as half a mile a day reduces mortality.

The idea is simply to keep in motion, which would include walking, general gardening and other aerobic movement. Walking affects every cell in the human body and benefits all six body systems: musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, genitourinary and female.

It is a safe, low-impact exercise that requires no special training or athletic skill. It will lower your blood pressure and your (LDL) bad cholesterol. It raises your (HDL) good cholesterol as well as your mood. It will burn off calories and stress, and it will reduce your risk of or manage type 2 diabetes, trim your waistline, improve muscle tone, and maintain bone density, studies show.

Walking is particularly helpful to the digestive system, stimulating peristalsis and promoting regularity. It also has many heart-health benefits.

“Research shows that regular, brisk walking can reduce the risk of heart attack by the same amount as more vigorous exercise, such as jogging,” states a Mayo Clinic fitness website.

Even patients with serious, chronic illnesses can benefit from routine walking.

“Some individuals who exercise carefully, staying within the limitations imposed by their symptoms, experience significant improvement in depression tests, perceived well-being, work capacity, and blood pressure. Graded physical exercise should become a cornerstone of the management approach for patients with CFS,” the Medical Journal of Australia says.

Some walkers make their exercise an enjoyable social event. Linda Birnbaum of Summerville said that she and her dog have been routinely walking since 2000. She began walking on Hunter Road, when two of her friends joined her. Together they were known as the Hunter Hoofers.

Since then the group has grown to 10 members between the ages of 50 and 70. They have relocated their walking route to Craig Loop where their dogs could safely walk with them. They now call themselves the Summerville Striders, and they welcome anyone who would like to walk with them.

“It’s a 3-mile route,” said Linda. “It’s aerobic and you get fresh air and some socializing too.”

Summerville Strider Diana Dominguez brings her Rottweiler, Dylan, with her to exercise him. She said the positive peer pressure from people like Linda motivates her to keep walking with the group.

“Linda will dress in insulated overhauls and walk in the rain, sleet or even an ice storm,” said Diana. “She is always out walking.”

Like the Summerville Striders, it’s beneficial to select a routine time during the day when you can enjoy your walk. Wear loose, comfortable clothing appropriate for the temperature and in layers that can be stripped off if you get too warm. Choose a good pair of flexible, light-weight walking shoes with a cushioned low heel and a roomy toe box. Wear cotton socks that will protect your skin from chaffing, add cushioning and absorb sweat while allowing the skin to breathe.

Before heading out on your walk, warm up with some gentle, leg-stretching exercises, and then head on out. Start at a relaxed stride for the first five minutes and then pick up the pace. Let your heel hit the ground first, rolling through the stride and pushing off with the toes.

“Using the correct posture and movement is essential,” notes a Mayo Clinic website on walking.

Try to maintain an upright posture with elbows and knees slightly bent and hands cupped, not clenched. Keep your chin parallel to the ground and your focus about 20 feet ahead of you. Relax and walk at a pace that allows you to carry on a full conversation without getting winded.

Set a reasonable goal for the first time out. Seniors and those with disabilities or chronic illnesses may wish to walk inside the house at first, then venture outdoors, gradually increasing your distances. Mayo Clinic recommends easing into your walking routine with perhaps five to 10 minutes at first and slowly building up to 15 minutes.

Walking will increase heart and breathing rates, normal signs of exertion, and it will stimulate mild sweating, the body’s way of excreting toxins. Also for the first few days, you may feel muscles you forgot you had. A long winter or a sedentary job or lifestyle can make the joints feel like rusty hinges, so be kind to your body and ease into your walking routine at a pace comfortable for you.

As you near the end of your walking route, warm down by reducing your pace to an easy walk topped off with some gentle stretching exercises. If you have walked for more than 30 minutes, remember to re-hydrate.

Always pay attention to your body’s response, and before you begin an exercise regimen, consult your doctor, especially if you suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure or some other medical condition.