Healthy Steps

One of the simplest and most pleasant types of exercise refreshes the mind as well as the body.
Kate Greer

It's January. The leaves are off the trees, and early mornings are awesomely silent. Fitness walking at this time of year is special--maybe more invigorating.

The benefits of walking are numerous, from aiding in weight loss or guarding against gain to improving circulation and stamina, not to mention helping to prevent osteoporosis, increasing your energy level, and instilling a sense of well-being. By nature a weight-bearing exercise, fitness walking also qualifies as aerobic. Swing your arms vigorously (but keep your shoulders down), and it's even more so. Halfway through your walk, stretch up to the sky, bend to each side. Feels great.

A reformed runner, I should mention that I wasn't always so enthusiastic about walking. It was when the doctor I had consulted about back and leg pain flat out told me that if I didn't stop running, he would be doing surgery on my back within a year. That got my attention. Walking suddenly became very attractive. Now, that morning hour is the most treasured of my day. Reliably, I'm out the door at 5:30 a.m. At this time of year, it's still dark then, but the stars and the moon shine bright. I carry a small flashlight, wear a reflective vest, and focus on the sounds of silence.

Like Clockwork
When people question my doing this, day in and day out, I explain that it's no big deal. It has become as much of a habit as brushing my teeth. I just can't imagine not getting up at 5 a.m., suiting up, and heading out the door.

Some friends opt to walk at night for relaxation, and many would rather walk with partners or friends. Whatever works for you is what's important, and the same principle applies to the distance you cover. My pattern is about 2 ½ miles on weekdays and 3 ½ on weekends, when I choose a different route just for variety. A brisk pace to work up to is about 15 minutes for a mile on level terrain. But remember, this is not a competition.

Not Just a Fair-Weather Fan
What about when it's raining? Cold and windy? My only weather limitations are electrical storms and ice. Winter-weather-wise, we have it far easier than our cousins up North. However, Southern winters can produce some decidedly gusty, cold days. On balmy days, with sweats or leggings and a windbreaker, I'm set. But when the mercury falls, I'm less concerned about fashion and more interested in function: staying warm, but not too warm.

I have pieced together a wardrobe that goes on in layers. Silk long johns are a blessing in that they're soft, light, and warm, and they make a perfect first layer. Over that go knit pants or leggings and a fleece shirt. Then I pile on a windbreaker suit, hat, scarf, and gloves. November to March, I apply a protective face cream.

On to the most important item--shoes. I've worn cheapies and expensive ones and can tell you it makes all the difference in the world to shop at an athletic footwear store with a knowledgeable staff. The wrong shoe can hurt you. The right shoe will align your feet, legs, hips, and shoulders so that you walk properly and remain injury-and strain-free.

If it's raining, a slicker goes over the whole ensemble, rubber boots take the place of shoes, and I add an umbrella. Remember how much fun it was as a kid to go out in the rain with boots and an umbrella? Try it. It will take you back in time.

Before and After
A few stretches before and after you walk will keep your leg muscles flexible, and if you vary your pace, you'll ensure that you get the best workout possible. I supplement my walking three times a week with about 15 minutes of free weights for upper body strength and firming. Garage sales are an excellent source for weights and exercise equipment in general. I found my weight bench with a full complement of weights for a bargain $25 several years ago. It serves just fine to this day.