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Take one step at a time

By Scott Scanlon refresh Editor

Want to live longer? Get a dog.

That will force you to take walks – and walking will improve your health.

“A dog helps keep you accountable,” said a smiling Courtney Moskal, a health coach and registered dietitian with BlueCross BlueShield of WNY.

Except for the very young and very infirm among us, we all can walk. There are strategies to get the most out of a walk, but the benefits of getting up, out and on our feet create an abundance of good reasons to do so:

• Walking can add years to your life, ward off sickness and prevent the onset of chronic disease as you age, according to a recent report by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the Cooper Institute.

• Other research has shown that a brisk walk, most days a week, will help with weight loss, “which in turn will help to lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol profile, and improve your blood-sugar control,” said Dr. Brian Riegel, of Buffalo Cardiology and Pulmonary Associates in Amherst. “Stress reduction and sleep quality are also a part of that,” he added.

• A walking versus running study released this month shows walking may be more effective than running when it comes to better health, though both are good.

There are other ways to get the health benefits of a brisk walk, but walking is accessible to almost everyone, in almost all conditions, including indoors at malls and museums when the weather outdoors stinks.

Walking a mile burns off about 100 calories. You want to aim for about 10,000 steps a day, or about 5 miles, Moskal said. Those with office jobs, who spend most of the work day sitting, walk an average of about 2 miles a day. That’s why a 3-mile walk after work can be a great way to stay in shape, she said.

There are several ways to get the most out of a walk, according to Moskal, Riegel and Dr. Robert Gatewood, also with Buffalo Cardiology and Pulmonary Associates:

1. Buy the right shoes: Go to a store that specializes in walking and running shoes. Yes, the price will be higher, but employees will put you on a treadmill and watch how you walk, giving you the best fit possible. Such stores include Fleet Feet, Free Speed and Runner’s Roost.

2. Stretch before and afterward: Start with stretches that work on your hamstrings, quadriceps and hips. “If you’re walking at a brisk pace, the last couple minutes just take it easy, slow down and pace a little bit, and stretch out your core muscles in your legs,” Moskal said. “It allows your heart rate to go back to your normal pace.”

3. Use the right technique: Stand straight as you walk, drop your shoulders back a bit, keep your eyes forward. Swing your arms, Moskal said. Walk smoothly, rolling your foot from heel to toe. Gently tighten your stomach muscles. “It should feel like you’re pushing yourself,” Gatewood said, “but it shouldn’t be to the level where you … couldn’t can’t carry on a conversation.”

4. Build momentum: “Start 10 to 15 minutes twice a week,” Moskal suggested, “and then work your way up to a goal of 30 to 60 [minutes] as many days as you can every week.” Break down that time into two daily walks if that’s easier, she said.

5. Walk with friends: This improves safety, assures more accountability and tends to make a walk more fun.

6. Variety helps: Take different routes, walk at different speeds, maybe even jog part of the way, and switch between walking on flat and hilly landscapes.

7. Walk instead of ride: Take the stairs at work instead of the elevator; if you have a short errand, slip on the walking shoes instead of slipping into the car.

You have to walk twice as far as you run to get the same health benefits, Riegel and Gatewood said, but there is a silver lining in that statistic – walking is easier on your joints and the University of Texas study showed that walkers tend to meet their exercise goals more often than runners.


Related: See findings of an American Heart Association study on walking versus running, and find out how you can take the Western New York Healthy Walking Challenge, Page 10