At your last visit to the doctor, you may have received one of the most important prescriptions of your life, one that only you can fill at a nominal cost: exercise. Or it may be one of your New Year resolutions. But how do you begin? If you have never had a formal exercise programme, or your exercise routine lapsed over the years because of illness, changes in schedules, increasing demands during the pandemic; the idea of starting now may seem daunting. What kind of exercise should you do and how much? How can you be sure you will obtain the health benefits?

Health Plus recognises those concerns and will share helpful hacks that will ease you into an exercise routine. Today we start with: WALKING. Putting one foot in front of the other is a simple way to trigger a cascade of health benefits.

Is walking too boring?

Just one problem: some people find walking boring. Boredom may diminish your motivation and interest in exercising. Before that happens, mix up your regimen with different types of walking that maximise physical, mental, and emotional health benefits.

Regular brisk walks help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol; control blood sugar; and reduce the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Brisk walks also strengthen muscles, burn calories, and lift your mood. What’s more, it eases arthritis and preserves independence while trimming your waistline. Put simply, exercise helps you feel better, look great, and live a longer, more joyful life.

What’s the recommended time?

An update to the Physical Activity Guidelines may motivate you to move a little more. The new guidelines (2018) by Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) break from the old rule that physical activity had to be accumulated in bouts of at least 10 minutes to count toward your weekly total. Now the evidence shows it does not matter how long an exercise session lasts; it’s the total volume of activity that counts, even if it’s in short bursts. While, upholding previous recommendations that urged at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, the new guidelines means you can jog to your mailbox, do jumping jacks during TV commercials, or skip to your car in the parking lot; any bursts of activity that get your heart and lungs pumping will count toward the weekly goal, and they will contribute to enhanced health.

An interval-training walk

While all brisk walking is good aerobic activity, you will boost physical benefits even more if you incorporate other exercises in your regimen.

Adding brief bursts of speed during a brisk walk boosts cardio fitness. “You speed up, push your intensity, recover, and then pick up the pace again,” says a Harvard fitness consultant. It’s recommended to time yourself for 15, 30, or 60 seconds at the heightened intensity and then double that amount of time to recover at your normal pace. “If you need longer to recover, that’s fine too. When you feel ready, pick up the intensity and go faster.” If you don’t want to time yourself, use landmarks: speed up as you walk past two houses, go slower for four houses, and repeat.

Meditative walking

The repetitive nature of walking makes it a natural activity for incorporating meditation or self-reflection. Try one of these:

A breath-focused walk. The combination of breathing and stepping creates a rhythm that helps quiet the mind. Breathing and counting are key, so match your footsteps to your inhalations and exhalations. Take four steps as you inhale, take four steps as you exhale. You can lengthen those counts as you relax.

A mindful walk. Use walking as an opportunity to become more mindful. Really be present in your walk. Pay attention to what’s going on around you and feel the breeze and the sun on your body. Pay attention to what you are hearing, the birds chirping, the rustle of leaves. Mindfulness is a cognitive exercise that adds calm to your daily routines.

Social walking

Think about walking as a time for social interaction, even while maintaining physical distancing and mask wearing. A walk with a family member can even be bonding time, Some possibilities include:

A chatty walk. Instead of sitting and talking to catch up with loved ones, chat during a walk in the morning, afternoon, or evening. The more you walk and talk, the more exercise you will fit into your day.

A heart-to-heart walk. If you need to have a tough conversation with someone, walking can make it easier. Walking relaxes your body, and you don’t need to make eye contact with the other person when you’re walking, thereby making it a perfect session for healing.

Texting while walking is NOT advised

Yes, texting is a form of communication, but we recommend you avoid texting during a walk; the distraction can lead to a fall or keep you from seeing oncoming traffic.

Consider your technique

– Turning your normal walk into a fitness stride requires good posture and purposeful movements. Ideally, here is how you’ll look when you’re walking:

– Your head is up. You’re looking forward, not at the ground.

– Your neck, shoulders and back are relaxed, not stiffly upright.

– You’re swinging your arms freely with a slight bend in your elbows. A little pumping with your arms is ok.

– Your stomach muscles are slightly tightened and your back is straight, not arched forward or backward.

– You are walking smoothly, rolling your foot from heel to toe.

Don’t forget: Warming up and cooling down

The best way to warm up is to walk slowly. Start off each walk at a leisurely pace to give your muscles time to warm up, and then pick up the speed. Afterwards, gently stretch your leg muscles, particularly your calves and front and back thighs. Stretches should be held for about 20 seconds. If you feel any pain, ease off the stretch. Don’t bounce or jolt, or you could overstretch muscle tissue and cause microscopic tears, which lead to muscle stiffness and tenderness.

Footwear for walking

The wrong type of shoe or walking action can cause foot or shin pain, blisters and injuries to soft tissue. Make sure your shoes are comfortable, with appropriate heel and arch supports. Take light, easy steps and make sure your heel touches down before your toes. Whenever possible, walk on grass rather than concrete to help absorb the impact.

Stay motivated

Starting a walking programme takes initiative. Sticking with it takes commitment. To stay motivated:

Set yourself up for success. Start with a simple goal, such as, “I’ll take a 5- or 10-minute walk during my lunch break.” When your 5- or 10-minute walk becomes a habit, set a new goal, such as, “I’ll walk for 20 minutes after work.”

Take missed days in stride. If you find yourself skipping your daily walks, don’t give up. Remind yourself how good you feel when you include physical activity in your daily routine, and then get back on track.

Once you take that first step, you are on the way to an important destination: optimising your health.