I am a lone walker. I am not one of the women who walk around my neighborhood park with their dogs. These dog walkers are ubiquitous where I live, women and dogs, and they are a community all unto themselves. They know each other’s dogs by name. They stop to chat about dogs and children. They meander down the street stopping to let their dogs sniff at trees or patches of grass. All those doodles and the occasional poodle and all that early morning camaraderie is what makes my neighborhood so familial and wonderful. But that kind of walking doesn’t really amount to exercise. At least not for me. I’m sure to them, I look like a displaced gazelle balancing on hind legs trying to out-walk a ravenous lion in pursuit. Or worse, a bad dog mother. The truth is, I walk for my heart.
“All walking is not exercise,” says Los Angeles physical fitness trainer Bill Belott. For general health, 30 minutes at a talking pace, with your dog is sufficient. For cardiovascular endurance, he suggests walking three to four days a week for 20 to 30 minutes at a very fast pace. At this pace breathing quickens but doesn’t leave you gasping for air. For weight loss add time to a brisk-paced walk: five times a week for 40 to 50 minutes. “The key,” he adds, “is to keep pushing the envelope.”
I was given a Fitbit for the holidays. The first time I went out walking with my Fitbit and synced it to the app on my phone, I was pretty sure the thing was a crock. After waiting a minute or two, my forty-two minutes around the park, without dog, showed up in exercise category as elliptical. I was about to show my husband his folly in purchasing me another piece of unnecessary technology when I realized it was me who was mistaken. My Fitbit picked up elliptical because of the way I walk. Strenuously, with my arms pumping, sans dog.
I walk this way because of a trainer I hired just before my fiftieth birthday a few years ago. Like giving up mini skirts when you become a woman of a certain age, I stopped skiing at fifty and hired a geriatric trainer. I was terrified of overdoing, and wanted to strengthen my abs so I’d never meet a chair from which I couldn’t get out. And so we began a course of strength training that was measured and, in hindsight, unproductive. He took my fears a little too serious and it became apparent that just because I had passed that milestone b’day into my fifties, I could still muster a challenging workout. But what I did learn from my geriatric trainer, and what has become part of my walking habits, is the swing in my arms that Fitbit registered as elliptical exercise. The added benefit of swinging your arms is that my heart has to pump blood to both my legs and my arms at the same time. This two-zone cardio exercise means my heart is working double time. I’m burning more calories and challenging my heart for a far better workout.
I’m not saying forsake the dog. She needs to get her walk in, too. I am saying, find a happy medium. Walk the dog, but walk your heart to better cardio health.
Here are Bill’s tips for taking your heart for a walk:
1. Wear a good pair of walking shoes and workout clothes. It’s like putting on your best business suit for an interview. You need to dress for success. If you just go out with whatever you have on, you won’t treat this time as exercise.
2. Leave your house or office, shut the door behind you and go! Earbuds in, tunes cranked up. No phone!
3. Watch your posture. Walk tall. Think of elongating your body. Hold your head up and keep your eyes forward. Shoulders should be down, your scapulae should be retracted, chest up and out. Most of all, be relaxed: enjoy this time alone.
4. Always make sure you’re hydrated before your walking workout. Bring cool (not freezing) water with you and a towel (to wipe off the sweat), especially when it starts to get hot.
5. Start your walk at a slow pace. After a few minutes (two or three) stop and do a few stretches. Don’t bounce when you stretch. Hold each position for about 10 seconds. Repeat each two or three times. Then begin to walk your desired length of time, and increase your pace.
6. End your walk (after you’ve completed the final minute of your goal) by returning to the slower pace at which you started. Continue for another two or three minutes, stretch (following the same rules explained above). Hydrate with water, not sugar.
Further reading: There’s more good news on why vigorous exercise is particularly good for women over fifty from the New York Times. Exercise May Ease Hot Flashes, by Gretchen Reynolds.
photo credit: Stephen Allen Jamieson