The Medical Minute: Improved Health is a Few Steps Away

When it comes to exercise, many Americans just don’t do it for a variety of reasons.

Lack of time.

Lack of athletic ability.

Lack of money for special equipment or a gym membership.

Yet one of the best forms of exercise is one that requires little to none of these elements – walking.

“You can pretty much do it anytime and anyplace, and it’s pretty easy on the joints,” said Dr. Larry Sinoway, director of Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute.

Those who lack time can sneak small spurts of walking into their regular routines by parking in the back of a parking lot, using stairs instead of elevators or taking 10 minutes of a lunch break to get up and walk around.

“These are simple things, but if you’re doing a little bit all the time as part of your daily life, you’ll be amazed how much it adds up,” Sinoway said.

That’s the idea behind insurance companies and employers giving pedometers to employees in their wellness programs so they can count how many steps they get in a given day. Ten thousand is the goal, Sinoway said.

“I think our lives have begun to center around our vehicles,” Sinoway said. “Unless you live in a big city, some things drive you away from walking, and a lot of people have sedentary jobs.”

Why is walking so important?

A number of studies show that people have better health when they are active. More specifically, regular walking has positive effects on the blood vessels, heart, muscles, joints and mood.

“In fact, one of the most effective interventions we have in cardiovascular medicine is exercise,” Sinoway said. “Exercise is the primary reason cardiac rehabilitation after a coronary event is so beneficial.”

The recommendation is that people engage in moderate-level physical activity for about 20 minutes every day. For most, a moderate walking pace is 3 miles per hour or faster. And it doesn’t much matter whether you walk twice a day for 10 minutes at a time or twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes, according to Sinoway.

Of course, as with any activity, there are some people who may notice they feel light headed or experience pain or discomfort while walking. Sinoway suggest stopping the activity and checking with a doctor if you sense a problem, but absent that, there is no reason not to get up and put one foot in front of the other.

These days, technology is making the task easier than ever. Swap your desk chair for a treadmill, slap on a FitBit device or download an app that allows you to record data you can use to track your own progress or compete with others.

“What you did yesterday is gone,” Sinoway said. “You can only plan for today and tomorrow, and walking a little more today and tomorrow than you did yesterday is a great start.”

With the country set to celebrate National Walking Day April 2, there’s no better time to take a step forward toward better health. For more information, visit the American Heart Association’s walking information page.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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