Starting a walking program isn’t that difficult, but there are several steps that everyone should follow before hitting the road for the first time. First, check in with a doctor or physical therapist who can assess your levels of strength, flexibility and pain. For example, a physical therapist will discuss your arthritis, evaluate your ability, and then tailor a walking program that includes pain control, explains Beth Domholdt, a physical therapist and professor at the Krannert School of Physical Therapy at the University of Indianapolis.
To minimize pain when you start walking, Shirley Archer, a health educator at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., emphasizes good posture: the ears, shoulders, hips and knees should be in alignment, and you should use your eyes – not your neck and head – to look downward.
Once you begin a program, don’t be surprised if you ache a little at the beginning of every stroll, says Domholdt, but it should go away. “There's always going to be a certain amount of discomfort, but you should not be walking with pain,” she says. “The big guideline is the two-hour rule. If there is pain or inflammation that bothers you for more than two hours after the training session ends, that means you worked out too hard. Start gradually and progress slowly.”
Not convinced that walking is a breeze? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that you can still see benefits by incorporating 30 minutes worth of walking, about 3,300 steps, into your day. Try small bursts of walking, which can be just as beneficial as a longer workout.
“If your goal is simply to improve your health, research substantiates as little as 30 minutes a day is sufficient activity to get health improvement, and that time can be split into three 10-minute bouts,” says Archer.
Once you start walking, results are impressive. Researchers at Columbia University, New York, assessed the impact of an arthritis-walking program. The participants who walked during the eight-week study had a 70-meter increase in the distance they could walk in six minutes – three-quarters of the length of a football field. More importantly, test subjects reported a 27 percent decrease in pain and a drop in medication use.
“Personally, we didn’t think that the study would be more than a nice doctoral dissertation. In the end, we were surprised at how widespread and impressive the impact was,” says lead researcher John Allegrante, PhD, professor of health education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and adjunct professor, public health in sociomedical sciences. “People improved and felt better doing it.”
Sandy Lamb, a writer from Denver, Colo., began her walking program to keep herself limber and in shape after osteoarthritis made it impossible to do other exercises without hurting. She learned first hand the “wow” of walking. “Sometimes, when you’re not feeling at the top of the game, it’s hard to go out and push yourself to walk,” she says. “That’s when I use tapes or another incentive to get myself going. By the end of my three-and-a-half mile walk, I feel the pain subsiding.”