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Health Matters: The wonders of walking

Conway McLean, DPM, Journal columnist

The temperatures are rising and hints of spring fill the air. Naturally, many of us are anxious to get outside and enjoy the change. How best to do so, and improve our health at the same time? The nearly unanimous choice: walking. The putting of one foot in front of the other, the act of ambulation, achieving the proverbial “get on down the road.”

More than 150 million Americans list walking as an important part of their physical fitness regimen. That’s roughly 60 % of the adult population walking for exercise, for fun, for transportation, for the dog. This complex act is a necessary component of well-being. The ability to move yourself, to get somewhere, is critically important. We are not talking about getting to California or the East coast but to the bathroom. And walking is the preferred way.

Many would posit walking is the ideal path to health. The benefits of a walking program are numerous, the negatives few, minimal, and easily reduced. Some simple planning, a little forethought, and you too can walk your way to fitness.

As one of many paths to physical well-being, walking has all the usual aids with few negatives. Improved cardiac function, ie a stronger heart, is always a desirable goal. With a well-executed walking program, an individual can expect to develop a stronger heart muscle, even a healthier pulmonary system (breathing and lung function). Further benefits include a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, and improved management of hypertension, high cholesterol, even diabetes.

We all know physical activity is good for muscles and bones, but can walking also provide these benefits? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Walking speed is relevant to this, with a brisk walk providing more muscle work than a slow, leisurely pace. Aerobic activities like walking tend to improve muscle tone as opposed to increasing muscle mass. It also is beneficial for many causes of muscular pain or stiffness, even improving balance. Walking can even increase bone health and bone strength.

Physical activity, when part of a daily lifestyle that includes fitness and good nutrition, is certainly an effective way to assist with weight loss. Many Americans have an important goal of reducing their body fat stores. Once the weight is off, a walking program will help to keep the weight off. To burn significant calories, you need to practice some combination of intensity (eg faster) and/or duration (ie longer).

Emotional health is also a beneficial and important goal. Apparently, walking is an effective way to get there, according to the research. A good walk can do wonders for your mental wellbeing. It improves mood and sleep quality, also reducing stress, anxiety and fatigue. Physically active people have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed, and staying active will help those who are depressed to recover. There even seems to be a relationship between fitness via a walking program and a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. In seniors, an active lifestyle can improve thinking abilities, memory, and attention.

For those readers who are inspired to subsequently take up a walking program, a few words of advice. Make changes gradually, especially when it comes to physical activity. If you have been sedentary, start slow and short. Give your body time to get fit. Experts recommend walking for at least 30 minutes at a brisk pace, but only if you have a certain level of fitness. Then there is the question of what is brisk. A handy definition is where you can talk but not sing. Also important is what you are walking on. Be aware, and plan for, your walking surfaces. Walking on a trail is going to involve more hazards than a paved bike path.

Shoes are important as well. The problem here is that different people need different kinds of shoe. As a generalization, some type of supportive athletic or walking shoe is best. If the shoe doesn’t have laces, straps, or stretch bands (keeping your foot in place in an appropriate way), it is not a healthy shoe. Such a shoe design is more likely to lead to overuse injuries or significant biomechanically-induced problems.

Many of us are not perfect, an accurate statement if ever there was one. This is true for so many components of humanity, including bone structure. Foot and leg anatomy vary greatly, and the further you tend from the norm, the more likely to develop problems. This is not a rule, but absolutely a tendency in nature.

Foot structure has a tremendous effect on function, and that means walking well or having problems. For example, the higher arched foot has its own unique set of problems as compared to the lower arched. And there are numerous other variations from the mean. But these variations from normal tend to increase stress to the musculoskeletal system, including tendons, ligaments, and nerves. A customized support, with an eye to improving biomechanical function, can allow most any foot type to walk to the owner’s content.

If you don’t have the time, or are unable to walk for that long, do more smaller sessions, building up to longer sessions over time. In contrast to cardio-vascular health, losing weight demands activity for more than 30 minutes per day. Try incorporating it into your day in simple ways, like taking the stairs, or walking instead of driving whenever possible. Walk your dog more, or even your neighbor’s dog. Make walking a routine event in your day. Since you use the same amount of calories, no matter what time of day you walk, do what is convenient for you.

This “simple” act requires no equipment other than a pair of good shoes. The road is your fitness center, the great outdoors your stadium. Walk regularly, walk well. Invest in your long-term health by getting out and ‘beating the streets’. You will see the difference that walking can make to your mind and body. We know about the close relationship between fitness and quality of life. How best to achieve this noble goal varies, as much as people do. But, in the immortal words of some advertising executive, just do it. Your body needs you to find a way.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with a move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments atdrcmclean@outlook.com.

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