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Walking Your Way to Better Health

By Gay Falkowski
family-2366129_1920.jpgTired of people telling you to exercise? Overwhelmed by the thought of fitness goals? Worried your body can’t handle increased physical activity? Your feelings are understandable. When dealing with multiple sclerosis fatigue, expending energy for any reason can be challenging. However, you may be encouraged to learn that many people with MS (or without MS) who haven’t been exercising at all can accomplish a major fitness goal in a short amount of time — by walking. Walking 30 minutes a day at a moderate pace for five days a week fulfills the weekly exercise recommendation from the government’s national guidelines. As you walk, you’re improving your health in many ways:
  • Walking lowers your blood sugar levels and your overall risk for diabetes, according to the National Diabetes Association. 
  • Regular walking lowered blood pressure by as much as 11 points and may reduce the risk of stroke by 20 percent to 40 percent, according to research studies from two major universities.
  • One of the most cited studies on walking and health, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that those who meet physical activity guidelines by walking had a 30 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with those who did not walk regularly. 
  • A regular walking routine can greatly improve gastric mobility because it utilizes core and abdominal muscles, encouraging movement in the gastrointestinal system.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight is easier when you walk every day. It is one of the most effective low-impact ways to mobilize fat and positively alter body composition. Daily walking increases metabolism by burning extra calories and by preventing muscle loss.
  • Walking strengthens your bones because it is a weight-bearing type of exercise.
  • The endorphins released in your body when you walk help lift your mood.
  • Balance and coordination improves with repeated walking. The less weight you carry around, the less strain on the legs and the better balance you have.
Before starting any exercise program, even one as simple as walking, consult your doctor. Those who use assistive devices such as canes and walkers, or those who have gait issues, can benefit from walking as well, but will likely need guidance from a physical therapist who can instruct you according to your ability. Here are some general walking tips that anyone can use:

Get the right gear. Wear shoes with proper arch support, a firm heel, and thick flexible soles to cushion your feet and absorb shock. Be prepared for all kinds of weather. Cooling accessories such as vests, neck wraps, and hats are “must-haves” to avoid overheating. Wear comfortable clothes. If you walk outdoors when it's dark, wear bright colors or reflective tape for visibility. A fanny pack is great for carrying your cellphone and a bottle of water.

Choose your course carefully. Cracked sidewalks, potholes, low-hanging limbs or uneven turf can trip you up if you’re not careful. If it’s too hot or too rainy to walk outside, consider walking in a shopping mall.

Pay attention to posture. Try to keep your body erect with chin up, eyes forward, shoulders squared, back straight, belly flat, and butt tucked in. Keep your arms close to your torso, bent at the elbow so they swing with each stride. Take a natural stride, landing on your heels, and then rolling forward to push off with the toes. Walk with a steady, rhythmic cadence.

Warm up. Walk slowly for five to 10 minutes to warm up your muscles and prepare your body for exercise.

Cool down. At the end of your walk, walk slowly for five to 10 minutes to help your muscles cool down.

Stretch. After you cool down, gently stretch your muscles. If you'd rather stretch before you walk, remember to warm up first.

Enjoy your walks. If you don't enjoy walking alone, ask a friend or neighbor to come along. Or join a walking group. On the other hand, you might like listening to music or a podcasts while you walk. Keep the volume low, or listen with one ear bud so you can stay aware of surroundings.

Mix it up. Planning different routes keeps you from getting visually bored with your walks. Always let your loved ones know which route you’re taking, just in case.

Forgive yourself. If you miss a walk here and there, it’s okay. Remembering how good it feels to exercise can help you get back on track.

The faster, farther, and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits. When you start walking, keep a record of how many steps you take, the distance you walk, and how long it takes. In several months you’ll be amazed to see how far you’ve come. You are your best source of inspiration.