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Updated: April 22, 2010 16:16 IST

Walking can work wonders

NYT News Service
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PUT ON THOSE SNEAKERS And take the first steps to fitness Photo: K. R. Deepak
PUT ON THOSE SNEAKERS And take the first steps to fitness Photo: K. R. Deepak

Just when exercise can do them good, many women throw away their walking shoes. But here's why they shouldn't give up

We'll bet our pedometers: If you asked your doctor to write one prescription that could boost your health, ward off disease, and keep you trim and upbeat, the Rx would be walking. Unfortunately, some side effects of aging — joint and back pain, foot problems, fatigue, and poor balance — make many women chuck their sneakers just when exercise could do them the most good. But don't give up, says JoAnn Manson, MD, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

“There are very few women who can't overcome these obstacles.” In fact, she says, most women can stick with a walking programme for a lifetime. Whether you're starting out or ramping up, or just want to maintain your pace for the long haul, here's how to walk past any roadblock.

1. Ease back and knee pain

When you're aching from arthritis, an injury, or everyday wear and tear, it's easy to let your workout slide, but walking has been proven to reduce all these pains, says Roger Chou, MD, a professor at Oregon Health and Science University.

If your joints are really complaining, it helps to shed extra weight. To feel better instantly during your walks, try slowing your pace. Researchers at the University of Colorado found that obese walkers cut the stress on their knees by 45 per cent by downshifting from 3 mph to 2 mph. And as long as you cover the same distance, you'll actually burn slightly more calories because you're exercising for a longer period of time.

Strengthen key muscles

Adding moves such as squats and leg extensions to your routine two or three times a week will work the quadriceps, the muscles on the fronts of the thighs that support the knees. Do one or two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions. Also make sure to include gentler movements: “Slow, controlled activities with some twisting or sideways movement — such as yoga and tai chi — can improve knee function and reduce pain,” says Katherine S. Rudolph, PT, PhD, of the University of Delaware. A couple of times a week, pop in a yoga or tai chi DVD.

Move through moderate back pain

If it's your back that's keeping you sidelined, remember this: Studies show that you'll heal faster if you stay active.

“It might hurt a bit while exercising, but you won't do permanent damage — and you'll recover faster,” says Chou.

Keeping your back strong may prevent muscle spasms and tightness, experts say. What's more, you might also find yourself coping better psychologically.

“If you learn that you can function despite having some pain, you'll be less likely to limit your activities,” he says.

2. Banish fatigue

For years, research has shown a link between regular exercise and decreased fatigue. A recent University of Georgia analysis of 70 studies confirms that working out boosts energy levels by about 20 per cent. The lift may come when exercise triggers the release of dopamine, a “feel-good” mood-regulating neurotransmitter, says Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia. Lace up your shoes and log 20 minutes or more of walking at least twice a week, and you'll feel more charged up and less tired in as little as 4 weeks.

3. Fight foot ailments

Plantar fasciitis is a condition in which the tissue connecting the heel bone to the toes becomes inflamed. It's common in active people, particularly in middle age, when the ligaments in the foot get slack, putting pressure on the arch. It may start as a mild pain that feels like a bruise under the heel, and it often becomes severe. Try this stretch Sit in a chair with one leg crossed over the other. Take hold of top foot and pull toes back toward shin to stretch arch. Hold to a count of 10; repeat 10 times. Do this stretch first thing in the morning, plus 2 or 3 more times each day. You could experience a significant decrease in pain.

4. Find your balance

A bone-crunching fall may not be your number one worry, but if your balance isn't quite as good as it used to be, you may think twice about travelling uneven sidewalks, rough trails, and slopes. Do the basic balance training moves below and stay steady on your feet.

Try a balancing act

One study found that adults in their 70s who took up balance exercises for 8 weeks such as walking on foam and standing on one leg scored 35 per cent better on a balance test than a group that did no exercises. You can practice similar moves at home, says lead author Kelly Westlake, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco. Use a strip of tape on the floor as a balance beam, stand on a couch cushion, or buy a rocker board. Start by standing on each surface with feet side by side, then try it with one foot in front of the other. Next, stand on one leg, first with your eyes open, then closed. Do a couple of balance moves three times a week.

Strengthen legs

Along with good balance, strong legs can prevent a trip from becoming a nasty fall. In one study, volunteers who did a 16-week resistance-training programme of knee extensions, leg presses and calf raises improved their overall leg strength by 7 per cent — the group who did no strength work experienced an 8 per cent drop — and recovered from tripping 20 per cent more often. A few times a week, break up your walk with a few calf raises and step-ups on a curb.

Keywords: exercisehealthfitness

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