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A Good Walk Can Make You Young

What would you do to take 20 years off your age? The answer may be as simple as walking, says Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D.

"Starting at the age of 20, we lose about 1 percent of our aerobic fitness each year," Dr. Franklin says. "A walking program can improve that fitness from 10 to 20 percent in three months. That's the same as 10 to 20 years of rejuvenation."

Dr. Franklin runs a cardiac rehabilitation program in Royal Oak, Mich. "Walking is one of the best and easiest exercises someone can do," he says. "You don't need any equipment beyond a good pair of walking shoes. It's a great activity to do with others. And it's safe."

No complications

With almost all other types of physical activity, Dr. Franklin explains, there is some risk for complication involving bones, muscles, heart, or lungs. "But there are almost no reports of complications in adults from walking," he says.

That makes walking a great way to fulfill the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation that we spend at least 30 minutes a day in moderate physical activity, says I-Min Lee, M.D., Sc.D., a Boston epidemiologist. "Moderate activity like walking can extend longevity. It can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It's also been associated with a lower risk for certain cancers, such as breast or colon cancer."

Moderate, Dr. Lee says, is a relative term. It depends on your level of fitness. "For many people, walking between 3 and 4 miles an hour would be moderate. But for people who haven't been active, 2 miles an hour would be fast enough to get the benefits." The way you can tell whether you're at a moderate level, she says, is that your heart rate will go up and you'll sweat lightly, but you should still be able to talk with someone.

Start slow

Thirty minutes a day may seem like a lot of walking if you're not used to it. But you don't have to do it all at once, says Dr. Franklin. "Thirty minutes should be a goal, but you don't have to start there," he says. "Just a few minutes each day provides benefits. The idea is to start slow, going at your own pace."

"People who don't walk might feel a few aches and pains at first," Dr. Lee says. "But those go away." She adds that even people with arthritis find their joints don't hurt as much after they've been walking for a while. "The important thing is to move and not fret about goals," she says. "Work on enjoying it. If you enjoy it, you'll keep doing it."

Both Drs. Lee and Franklin recommend trying to increase what you do a little each week. Trying to walk about 10 percent farther or 10 percent longer each week is reasonable, they say. And if you can't get in 30 minutes all at once, both advise breaking up the time into 10- or 15-minute periods. "Three 10-minute periods," Dr. Franklin says, "will give you almost as much benefit as one 30-minute period."

Dr. Franklin also says you shouldn't limit yourself to a formal walking program. "The key isn't to walk 30 minutes and then say you're just going to watch TV the rest of the day. I sometimes recommend getting a pedometer you can wear on your belt. A pedometer counts the number of steps you take. Then, at the end of the day, you can look to see how much you're walking."

The average person takes between 2,500 and 3,500 steps each day. Dr. Franklin recommends challenging yourself to increase the average number of steps you take on a weekly basis. "The more you move," he says, "the better you'll feel."