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Expert Perspectives

How to Start Walking for Fitness

By Dr. Andrew Miners

Becoming active is the single best thing most people can do for their health—and the first step often is walking.

Raysa Hidalgo, a Toronto-based finance executive, came into Medcan because she had been suffering from neck and shoulder pain. She wanted a fix but made one thing very clear: “I do not like exercising,” she said.

Ms. Hidalgo is not the only one. Approximately 48% of Canadians aged 12 and over — or about 12.7 million people — are inactive, according to research from Statistics Canada. In addition, 25% — or 6.6 million Canadians — say they are sedentary for most of the day.

Seen one way, such statistics are actually a good thing. Because they create the potential for an incredible amount of improved health. Getting active is the single greatest thing you can do for your overall wellness. So, how do we go from having no physical activity to getting in some physical activity? My colleague and recent podcasting cohost, Dr. Nelson Ferreira, a Medcan MD, recommends walking.

“Unless somebody has a disability of some kind, walking is available to everyone—period,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need any kind of expertise. Number two, it can be done virtually anywhere, it can be done any time.”

What’s more, even a little bit of walking can make a significant difference to your longevity. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, going from 2,700 steps per day (2 km) to 4,400 steps per day (3.35 km) can decrease your risk of dying from all causes. And most studies suggest that more is better, up to a point. For example, those walking 8,000 steps have a 50% lower risk of early death, while those walking 12,000 steps have a 65% lower risk.

After examining Raysa Hidalgo, I deduced that her neck and shoulder pain came from the long hours she spent sitting, working, at her finance job. The pain, I suggested, could be cured if she became more physically active. Along with a few simple shoulder, neck and back exercises, I suggested the easiest, most convenient and most cost-effective form of exercise out there: Walking.

And she listened. At the beginning, she trained with a Medcan trainer once a week. In times of poor weather, she walked on a treadmill. When she realized how her body pain improved thanks to the regular workouts, she gradually switched her routine to make sure that she exercised everyday before heading to work. Today, Ms. Hidalgo has become an evangelist for exercise.

“Once you get into it, your body will ask for it,” she says, describing the way more movement improved her pain, her mood, energy levels, and even sleep schedule. Now, she says, “I miss it when I don’t do it.”

For many, walking more represents the single, small lifestyle change that begins a longer fitness journey toward overall health and wellness. Here, then, are five points designed to sell you on the power of walking.

1. Think of walking as a gateway to more exercise.

Going from a sedentary lifestyle to one full of physical activity may seem intimidating for some. And enrolling in a fitness class full of more experienced exercisers, who already are fit, can seem positively frightening. Walking, by contrast, is the opposite of intimidating. You can choose the environment where you conduct your walk, and can make it as private as you wish. It can also be done any time of the day and does not involve equipment.

Dr. Nelson Ferriera began his walking habit because of a TTC breakdown. He walked all the way home after a long day at work only to realize that walking made him feel more refreshed and energetic. He now walks to work at least twice a week, and also goes for walks with his wife on the weekends. “Start off with a walk,” says Dr. Ferriera. “It can be very simple—15 minutes before work, after work, during the lunch hour, and then take it from there. Just start—because I think sometimes the hardest part.”

2. Walking can improve your mental health, too.

Many people use walking to listen to music, a new podcast, or as a time of reflection. It lets us slow down and look at the world around us.

“I actually take it as an opportunity to slow things down, pay attention to my surroundings, and use it as a stress reduction strategy,” says Dr. Ferreira. His morning walk to work clears his mind, keeps him in a good mood, and leaves him energized for the rest of the day.

A meta-analysis conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 75 minutes of brisk walking per week is associated with an 18% lower risk of depression while two and a half hours of brisk walking each week was associated with a 25% lower risk.

3.Walking can benefit far more parts of the body than just your legs.

Walking involves the coordination of the entire body; it includes swinging your hands, bending your knees, stabilizing your core, swiveling your hips, and straightening your back.

It can help improve weak knees or hips, and can help improve the symptoms of mild to moderate arthritis, says Dr. Ferreira. In testament to his personal experience of dealing with arthritis, he said, “I was having some right hip pain and I found that as long as I kept walking my right hip felt dramatically better. And those weeks where I miss a lot of my normal walking routine, the hip starts to stiffen up.”

4.Even a little helps a lot.

A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that as little as 11 minutes of walking per day can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. It also states that one in ten premature deaths can be avoided if everyone strives to achieve 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

“If you’ve been inactive, don’t feel discouraged. Even small amounts of exercise will likely improve your health, make you feel better, and usually leads on to better things in the future, so that you can get on to perhaps an even more vigorous program,” says Dr. Ferreira.

5.Walking can provide social benefits, too.

If you do elect to begin walking more, consider going with a friend, or loved ones—and do it outside if you can. The time that you spend outside walking with others, is time spent away from screens, TVs, and the Internet!

Dr. Ferreira says, “It has a connective kind of value so that people can spend a bit more time talking, connecting, and enjoying nature together.” In fact, walking groups are becoming increasingly popular. “All good for the mind — good for the soul,” says Dr. Ferreira.

Motion is Lotion

Making that transition from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one can feel intimidating—and it’s all about taking that first step. There’s no better way to start than walking, which can be done whenever you wish, wherever you wish, and at absolutely no cost while reaping the full benefits of better health. Whether it’s walking indoors or outside enjoying nature, the most important step is the first one.

Seeking assistance as you look to begin an exercise regimen? Stay accountable to one of our fitness trainers. Start the journey by emailing fitness@medcan.com.

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