One of the best things about taking a daily walk is that it is such a natural and easy thing to do. You need no special equipment - apart from a good pair of shoes - and because the easy flowing movement of putting one foot in front of another can be so wholehearted it often brings a sense of freedom to the body which so many more mechanical approaches to exercise miss out on.
A number of studies show that for a variety of reasons walking is the best form of aerobic exercise available for most people - provided it is done regularly, briskly and with true enjoyment. There is another important proviso too: vigorous exercise in any form will serve you best, and you will only avoid strain and injury if you have worked out enough of your chronic residual tensions to enable you to give your body over to the rhythmic movements it involves. Outdoor sports such as tennis, golf, riding and sailing can be fun and helpful although, unlike walking and the other specifically aerobic activities, they do not create a steady demand on your body because of their stop-and-start nature, so it is best to include some aerobic exercise in your lifestyle even if you are an avid games player.
If you like more challenging activities than walking, try jogging or running, rowing or swimming, cycling or cross-country skiing—all excellent aerobic activities. Like regular brisk walking they too get heart and lungs working well and help keep you young-looking and feeling. They are great if you want to achieve a high level of fitness and most important of all if you really like doing them.
This sense of enjoyment is a central consideration in whatever exercise program you choose for ageless aging. Any physical activity which you carry out with your teeth gritted virtuously thinking that you are, after all, doing your duty though you hate every minute of it, can only be counterproductive. For mind and body are inextricably linked and for you to get all the benefits of exercise you need to make that link a positive one.
mind and body flow
That's why, for most people, walking is so good. There is something quite extraordinary about the way that walking briskly in low-heeled shoes - particularly if you can walk in the country or in a park amidst trees and flowers - seems to revitalize the body while it sets the mind free for thought.
Thoreau used to say, `The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.' And Dr George Sheehan, the highly respected cardiologist, sports-medicine expert and passionate marathon runner, wrote of walking, `You will read of this phenomenon again and again in the journals of the great thinkers, writers and artists. They were all great walkers. They found that not only can one train the body while one is using the mind, the mind actually works better when the body is in motion.'
Some interesting scientific studies confirm the notion that walking helps clarify mental processes. At Purdue University, after giving subjects psychological tests to determine their decision-making abilities, researchers put people into a fitness program in which regular walking was a central feature. They found after six months on the program that they had improved their decision-making skills 60 per cent more than subjects in the control group who did not exercise. George Macaulay Trevelyan, Britain's highly respected historian, who had a real passion for long walks used to say, `I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.' Research into the effects of regular brisk walking more than bears out his belief that this kind of moderate exercise can play a central role in keeping the body healthy, young and fit. Besides, walking is the form of exercise least likely to cause injury, it is inexpensive to practice, natural, and efficacious. It will lift your spirits and keep down your weight, tone your muscles and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
walk your way to wellness
So good is brisk walking as a means of strengthening heart and lungs and improving cardiac resistance that in some studies of different forms of exercise it comes out better than cycling or running. At the University of Wisconsin, for instance, when researchers examined the effects of brisk walking (at a rate of 4 miles an hour or more) on men they found that it pushed some heart rates up to 87 per cent of capacity, which was the same as the cyclists achieved and only 3 per cent lower than the runners. This measure of maximum heart rate is a useful one, whatever kind of exercise you choose to follow. It is determined by subtracting your age from 220 beats a minute. And it will tell you just what kind of workout you are giving yourself.
In an interesting study by David Mymin and Dan Streja, researchers discovered that the rejuvenating effects of strenuous exercise such as running - including a significant increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and decreases in circulating insulin levels - also take place when people are put on exercise programs based on walking even at a pace lower than 4 miles an hour. HDL is a lipoprotein in your blood. Generally speaking when it is high the chances you will suffer a heart attack are low. Before the Mymin study it was assumed that only long-distance runners and other active exercisers would have high levels of HDL in their blood. But the study showed that such beneficial changes can take place just from walking. Walking's ability to lower circulating insulin levels is also important for high-level wellness and age retardation. Many people past the age of forty have disturbed insulin levels which can lead to adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. The walkers in Mymin's program experienced a definite decrease in circulating insulin. Other research confirms the Manitoba findings and shows as well that walking is an excellent way of increasing the amount of oxygen that reaches the cells all over the body. Like any form of rhythmic aerobic exercise it improves lymphatic drainage, stimulates arterial and venous circulation, and promotes the elimination of wastes and morbid materials that can cause free radical damage and cross-linking on a cellular level. It also brings increased blood supply to all the body's organs. Brisk walking is particularly good for people whose work tends to be mentally or physically passive because it counteracts the tendency of their circulation and their eliminative processes to become sluggish. Max Bircher-Benner always insisted his patients rise early. Then he sent them out into the hills and forests around Zurich for an hour's brisk walk before breakfast. Walking was an important part of his `order therapy' and still is in every naturopathic clinic in Europe.
free and often
To get the most out of walking do it every day. Choose some place you want to walk to, and wearing low-heeled shoes and loose comfortable clothes, set out with your arms swinging free from the shoulders. Breathe deeply and carry your body high. Every few minutes draw in a breath and then after a few seconds, without exhaling, draw in another and after a further interval of a few seconds still another. After the third inhalation vigorously expel all your air. This helps inflate your chest to its full capacity. Most of us don't breathe fully and deeply. We therefore miss out on the full benefits of oxygen for brain and body. After a walk of, say, 2 or 3 or 4 miles, if possible, take off your clothes and rub down your skin with a flannel which has been dipped in cold water or take a brief cool shower followed by a brisk rub with a Turkish towel. It will leave you refreshed and renewed with energy to spare in the hours ahead.
And how intense should an aerobic activity - walking or other - be for best results? Most experts insist you should exercise somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent of maximum capacity. This you can figure out by following a few simple steps:
- 1. Find out what your resting heart rate is by taking your pulse for six seconds and multiplying by ten while you are seated comfortably. You do this by putting two fingers on the artery just inside your wrist.
- 2. Subtract your age from 220 to determine your maximum heart rate. For instance if you are fifty then your maximum heart rate would be 170.
- 3. Now find out your heart rate range by subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate. Say for example you are fifty and your maximum heart rate is 170 with a resting rate of 70. Then your heart-rate would be 100.
- 4. With this information you can now calculate your best exercise level to achieve a good anti-stress, anti-aging effect. Calculate 40 per cent of your heart rate range (which is 100 in our example) which is 40. Now add this to the resting rate of 70 and you get the figure 110 beats per minute - your target heart rate for exercise.
- 5. For middle-aged and older people who are not athletes walking moderately or briskly will raise their heart rate to that target rate, which is 40 per cent of ultimate capacity. Younger people and highly trained people will need to run or exercise more vigorously to reach it.