Gasoline is expensive, money is tight, and obesity in America is at record levels -- three good reasons to make the spring of 2012 the time to get serious about walking.
The most common objection that I hear to walking as exercise is that it's too easy, that only sweaty, strenuous activity offers real benefits. But there is abundant evidence that regular, brisk walking is associated with better health, including lower blood pressure, better moods and improved cholesterol ratios.
Also, a major reason Americans have higher obesity rates than others in the developed world appears to be that we walk much less. A study published in the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine showed that western Australians average 9,695 steps (about five miles) daily, and have an obesity rate of 16 percent. The Swiss average 9,650 steps; their obesity rate is 8 percent. Americans average 5,117 steps, and have an obesity rate of 34 percent.
Clearly, America's dysfunctional food culture must bear some of the blame for our excess pounds, but it's likely our walking-averse lifestyles contribute as well. The net calorie burn of walking (that is, the extra amount of calories burned per mile of walking at a comfortable pace of 3.1 mph vs. resting) is about 45 per mile. A pound of body fat equates to about 3,500 calories. So in a year, assuming equivalent caloric intake, Americans would gain an extra 10 pounds simply because they walk 835 fewer miles than the Swiss or Australians.
Keep in mind that walking as exercise works even better if one walks faster than is typical for most people. (Not a new idea: Thomas Jefferson advised, "Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very fast.") Much of the research I've seen defines an optimal conditioning pace as 3.5 to four miles per hour. This suggests that a good walking workout schedule would be going three miles in about 45 to 52 minutes at least four times a week.
Before you begin a regular walking program, be sure to invest in a good pair of shoes or sandals that are breathable, offer good arch support, are relatively lightweight and have flexible soles to allow the front of your foot to flex comfortably.
One variation you may wish to try is using fitness poles. I came across them in 2001 through a friend of mine, national fitness authority Tom Rutlin. As a cross-country ski instructor, Tom saw the potential benefit of using ski poles with walking and has since pioneered their development and use. His fitness poles have been shown to increase the calories burned while walking by 30 to 40 percent, as well as reducing the impact on knees, hips and legs. Other research has shown that walking with poles increases oxygen consumption by 20 to 25 percent when compared to walking without them. The result is a better cardiovascular and muscular workout with less stress on weight-bearing joints. Fitness poles for walking and instructional videos are now widely available on the internet.
Fitting a walk into a busy life can be challenging, so I suggest walking rather driving to work or to run errands as often as you can -- in other words, think of walking as alternative transportation. I've seen no evidence that our counterparts in the developed world walk more because they are fitness fanatics, doing "laps" around the neighborhood. Instead, a variety of cultural and economic factors -- such as higher prices for gasoline and compact, pedestrian-friendly city layouts -- leads people to walk more simply because it is a practical means of transportation.
Sprawling American suburbs can make utilitarian walking more challenging here, but most of us make at least some trips within a two-mile radius. Resolve to make as many of these as possible on foot. If you want to learn more about stores, restaurants, post offices, banks and other walkable-distance amenities near you, enter your address at walkscore.com and see what's within a walkable distance from your home or work. If you are planning a move, add your prospective home's walk score (an index of how accessible goods and services are to walkers) into the mix of criteria you use to make your buying or renting decision.
As to when to go -- that depends on your tastes, needs and lifestyle, but I tend to side with Henry David Thoreau: "An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day."