From power walkers to dog walkers to seniors and couples, walking is in. The activity became one of the few things people could do to get out of the house when the pandemic forced the shutdown of many businesses and fitness centers. It has remained popular, and that’s a trend that bodes well for our overall health and well-being, according to Katie Nowakowski, manager of Bon Secours Surgical Weight Loss Program in the Upstate.
Walking may be one of the most accessible forms of exercise – It requires no special equipment; can be done anywhere, even inside and by anyone of any age; and even the lowest level of effort has some important mental and physical health benefits.
With winter coming, you can effectively walk inside. Nowakowski points to YouTube walking videos – think aerobics class but you’re always on your feet – that can help you stay motivated through the colder months as you follow along with online classes.
If you just want some fresh air and to get out of the house, leisure walking is for you. But even though you may not be trying for health benefits, you’re still going to get them, Nowakowski said.
“Any activity level that’s more than what you have been doing is really helpful,” she explained. “On a ‘nice stroll’ you’re going to see improvements in balance, in your mood and even in your sleep.”
One often overlooked benefit of leisure walking – and all activity – is the social aspect.
“When people see others doing it, there’s encouragement and motivation. It helps us to stay more consistent and continue with it, which is what we want,” explained Nowakowski.
At this level, you may not be bothering to track your pace. But if you are, you may be at 2 mph to 2.5 mph.
Walking for general health
To increase the health benefits of your walks, you’ll have to step it up a bit. Nowakowski recommended a 3 mph to 4 mph pace for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, five days a week – or a total of 150 minutes. Moderate activity means you’ve gotten your heart rate up to a higher level. Nowakowski explained that the effort required to reach those target heart rates may be different for each person, so she advised to focus on your exertion. Exercising at a moderate level, “you should be able to carry on a conversation, but it should be more difficult to shout or to sing.”
With your heart rate in the target zone of 50% to 70% of your maximum, she outlined the benefits of “improved blood pressure, blood sugar levels and pulmonary function.”
Nowakowski suggested starting with 10 minutes of activity at one time.
“Even though we want 150 or 300 minutes a week, we can do it in 10-minute bouts that are easier to cram into a busy life. A walk around the block at lunchtime, walking videos, walking in place are all great places to start.”
She also suggested checking out “Couch to 5K” walking plans. Although they emphasize the ultimate goal of walking 3.1 miles, they emphasize the importance of staying on a plan and working up to a goal.
Walking for weight loss
This is a tougher one because – and we all know this – walking alone just won’t cut it. Nowakowski recommended doubling your weekly activity minutes to 300, or roughly an hour, five days per week. A good goal is weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week on a plan that incorporates walking and reducing your calorie intake.
Whichever walking plan you choose, it’s important to look beyond steps, calories and pace.
“A lot of our lifestyle revolves around numbers,” Nowakowski noted. “But it’s important to use them as tools. Numbers alone don’t give us the full picture.”
The Benefits of Walking
Walking may be the Ibuprofen of the exercise world: It’s good for just about everything at some level.
Here are the top 12 benefits, as outlined by the Arthritis Foundation:
- Improve circulation;
- Strengthen your bones;
- Increase longevity;
- Improve your mood;
- Lose weight;
- Strengthen muscles;
- Improve sleep;
- Support joint health;
- Improve your breathing;
- Slow down age-related memory decline;
- Lower your risk of Alzheimer’s;
- Reduce the risk of physical disability.
Tips for a better walk:
- Vary your routes. “Different routes will have different elevations, which will give your body the variety it needs. If we do the same loop every day, our bodies get used to that and adjust,” Katie Nowakowski explained. “That can reduce the efficiency of the exercise unless we adjust as well.” Changing the route, increasing speed and carrying hand weights are among her recommendations.
- Keep your eye on the road, not on your tracker. Fitness trackers have become ubiquitous, and Nowakowski agreed they are important when we use them to “see victories and identify ways to improve.” But don’t let the tracker be the ultimate goal. “We as humans tend to focus – even hyperfocus – a lot on the data we get, when, in reality, we want to look at the bigger picture because it tells us so much more than just what a set of numbers will.”
- Don’t be a slave to steps. Just last month, new information was released that moved the needle of recommended daily steps from 10,000 down to 7,500. Nowakowski encouraged people to “look for ways to use our number to challenge ourselves.” The “steps” metric can be useful if it serves as motivation: “If you’re getting 5,000 steps per day, challenge yourself to get 250 more steps tomorrow.” But always remember the important thing is that you did the work, not how it looks on your tracker.
- Break up your sedentary day. If your lifestyle or work has you sitting all day but you go to the gym and treadmill for a punishing hour, is the impact the same as incorporating more walking activity throughout the day? Sitting for long periods of time is bad, no matter how ripped your abs are or how healthy your diet. Nowakowski suggested getting up and moving for a couple of minutes every half hour but admitted that is not going to elevate your heart rate to the levels needed to provide pulmonary benefits. “There are flaws in both examples; I would look at a combination of the two.”
- Although walking offers few risks for most people, Nowakowski stressed the importance of checking with your physician before embarking on any new exercise regimen.
The Importance of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential element of our bodies’ infrastructure, protecting our bones, skeletal and muscle health – and yet 42% of us are deficient.
You may be thinking you probably aren’t in this group. After all, you just spent a summer at the beach, you walk, play with the kids outside and participate in other outdoor activities. Sorry. That’s just not going to be enough, according to Dr. Bijal Desai, who practices with the Bon Secours Internal Medicine and Diagnostic Group in Greenville.
She explained that to absorb vitamin D organically just by being in the sun, your skin must be unprotected. Most of us have gotten the message over the years that the sun’s unprotected rays are dangerous, so we lather on sunscreen. That’s important to protect from potentially cancer-causing exposure to UV rays but it also blocks vitamin D absorption.
To complicate matters, she explained, “Testing for vitamin D is not routinely recommended for low-risk patients.” So normal blood tests are not going to give you an important heads up.
Vitamin D’s critical contribution to our health is in strengthening bone and muscle health, which can help prevent the risk of falls and of more serious breaks if you do fall. Common signs of vitamin D deficiency would be fractures that don’t heal or take longer to heal, general fatigue and muscle pain or weakness.
Certain health conditions and medications can contribute to the deficiency, such as Celiac disease, liver or kidney disease or taking steroids or anticonvulsant medications, Dr. Desai noted.
Demographically, if you’re older, the news is good. This is one area where you are no more vulnerable than a 30-year-old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk for deficiency increases in the young but levels off in men after age 30 and women after age 18. But the deficiency disproportionately affects those with dark skin. The National Institutes of Health reported that the highest rates are seen in African Americans at 82% and Hispanics at 69%.
Diet is also not a significant source of Vitamin D. Dr. Desai noted that oily fish like salmon and sardines, milk, egg yolks and fortified foods and cereals will provide some additional vitamin D – but probably not enough.
Dr. Desai recommended that everyone take a daily supplement of 600 to 800 IUs each day. She warned, however that even over-the-counter supplements can have consequences, depending on each individual’s health condition. So make sure you speak to your doctor before taking vitamin D or any other supplement.
Those who are homebound, institutionalized, suffering with osteoporosis or who do little outdoor activity may need more than an over-the-counter dose.
By Laura Haight