Shirley Miller* walks more than two miles on a treadmill almost every day; not bad for someone hooked up to an oxygen tank. Miller, in his sixties, has chronic bronchitis. And emphysema. and asthma. People would understand if she decided to take it easy. But the retired kindergarten teacher from Kissimmee, Fla., plans to put in many more miles in her shoe before she’s done.
Simply put, walking has brought him back to life. He no longer needs to use his oxygen tank when doing chores or shopping. Her new hobby has also made her the perfect role model for anyone struggling with weight. Since she started walking two years ago, she and her husband, George, a retired Disney executive, have each lost about 20 pounds.
In many ways, walking is the perfect routine for weight management. As Shirley Miller clearly demonstrates, anyone can do it. You don’t need any special skills or equipment. It’s relaxing. If you choose to walk outside, you’ll have a chance to catch some sun and compare the barking styles of the neighborhood dogs. Without a doubt, nothing in a gym is as invigorating as a long walk on a beautiful day.
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Most importantly, walking works, says physiologist James Hill, PhD, founding executive director of the Anschutz Center for Health and Wellness at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Hill has been following a large group of people who have managed to lose weight and keep it off. . “Seventy-five to 80 percent of them are walkers,” he says.
Walking is not a miracle cure for obesity. A brisk 40- to 45-minute walk can burn about 300 calories, depending on how much you weigh. At that rate, a typical 150-pound person who walks every day could lose a little over a pound every two weeks.
“You don’t need a 350-pound person to be 120 pounds,” says Hill. “Severely obese people will need something more drastic to reach a healthy weight.” But if you’re looking to lose 10 to 20 pounds, or if you’re just hoping to stay stable, you should seriously consider putting one foot in front of the other.
And according to new research, you don’t have to be a marathon runner to lose a few pounds. In a government study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women were asked to reduce their calorie intake and then given exercise programs that consisted primarily of walking. Some women were assigned strenuous workouts and others less strenuous. At the end of one year, the women in the moderate training group had about the same weight loss as the women in the intense training group.
Walking is especially valuable for people who are trying to keep from regaining lost weight. A study of 74 dieting women published in the Archives of Internal Medicine proves this. The women had lost an average of 30 pounds on very low-calorie diets. They all regained some weight within two years of coming off the diet, but the women who walked two to three hours a week gained about eight pounds less than their inactive peers. You can even lose more by varying the speed of your walk, according to a study.
Even if the needle on the scale never drops, walking is a powerful health tonic. As Shirley Miller can attest, walking can increase stamina, strengthen the lungs, and provide energy to spare. Walking also relieves depression, lowers blood pressure, and helps prevent diabetes and heart disease
Walking can even help you stay alive. A study of more than 72,000 women, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that three or more hours of brisk walking each week reduced the risk of fatal heart attacks and other heart problems by 35 percent. Interestingly, women who did more vigorous exercise, such as jogging or cycling, were no better off than those who walked.
If Shirley is Exhibit A, her husband is Exhibit B. George Miller had sky-high cholesterol and borderline diabetes before he started exercising. Today, both his cholesterol and blood sugar levels are under control. George is helped by the prescription drug Lipitor to keep his cholesterol level low. But once he started walking, he was able to reduce the dose.
You already know how to walk. The question is, can you make walking part of your life? If you want to enjoy the full benefits of walking, it has to be an automatic part of your daily routine, says Hill. Not once a week. Not whenever you feel like it. Every day. (Of course, walking is better than nothing, so if you can only walk three or four times a week, or can only do a five- or 10-minute walk on a busy day, go for it.)
You don’t have to make it a marathon walk, and it doesn’t have to take up a huge chunk of your day. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of walking each day. The National Institutes of Health suggests working on a 40-minute routine divided into three stages: five minutes of slow walking to warm up, 30 minutes of brisk walking, and five minutes of slow walking to cool down.
If this routine is too overwhelming at first, you can start with just 15 minutes each day, including a five-minute warm-up, five minutes of brisk walking, and a five-minute cool down. Each week, add a few minutes to your brisk walk for a total of at least 40 minutes. For a sample walking schedule and more tips on starting your own routine, see the NIH booklet “Walking: A Step in the Right Direction.”
One great thing about walking is that you don’t have to do it all at once. Four 10-minute walks will burn as many calories as one 40-minute walk. Many people find, however, that it’s easier to fit one walk into their schedule than four.
Different walkers find different ways to stick with their routine. Walking with a friend can be a great source of motivation: it’s hard to stay on the couch when someone else is counting on you. Bill and Shirley Poor take a slightly different approach. They both visit the Celebration Health Fitness Center in Celebration, Florida. The encouragement and support of the staff and fellow athletes keeps them going. “It’s easy to find an excuse not to exercise. But once I get to the center, I always do,” says Bill.
The treadmill is ideal for Shirley because she can walk miles without moving her oxygen tank. Bill likes it because he can listen to swing music on his headphones and not worry about traffic. “I would never walk the streets here, the way people drive,” she says.
Crazy drivers aside, walking is one of the safest activities imaginable. Still, some people should proceed with caution. If you already have angina or coronary heart disease, or if you’re at high risk for heart problems, talk to your doctor before starting a walking program. You may need a stress test to see how far your heart can travel safely. Chances are, your doctor is delighted with your commitment to exercise. Walking has saved far more hearts and lives than it could ever harm.
Shirley Miller certainly feels like she got a second chance. She still wants to lose a few more pounds, but more than that, she is aware of all that she has gained. “I’m happy to get my life back,” she says.
*Shirley and George Miller are pseudonyms
Interview with George and Shirley Miller.
National Institutes of Health. Walking: A step in the right direction.
Fogelholm, M. et al. Effects of walking training on weight maintenance after a very low-energy diet in premenopausal obese women. Archives of Internal Medicine 160: 2177-2184.
Manson, J. E. et al. A prospective study of walking compared to vigorous exercise in the prevention of coronary heart disease in women. New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 341(9): 650-658.
Jakicic JM, et al. Effect of exercise duration and intensity on weight loss in sedentary overweight women. JAMA, vol. 290:1323-1330
Seethapathi N, Srinivasan M. The metabolic cost of changing walking speed is significant, implying lower optimal speeds for shorter distances and increasing estimates of daily energy. Biology lettering. September 16, 2015. vol. 11. Number 9