One day, Anella Swingle was shopping at the mall – and she was struggling. She had to rest frequently along the way. Anella hadn’t exercised much over the years – contrary to what her doctor recommended. The 77-year-old had severe osteoarthritis in her knees. She didn’t realize her health would be worse for it until then.

Anella decided she wouldn’t let arthritis stop her from enjoying another day at the mall, so she hired a trainer to help her build strength, and began walking regularly on her own.

“It was tough in the beginning, but the more I kept moving, the less pain I had,” she says. Anella credits her walking program with also increasing her endurance and ability to handle stairs – and go the full length of the mall – without being out of breath. “I walk every day. I feel too good now to stop.”

By walking regularly, Anella and millions of others are not only following doctors’ recommendations, but the federal government’s, too. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently conducted a major review of the science on how physical activity benefits health. As a result, it released 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The report recommends exercising at a moderate intensity for 130 to 150 minutes a week for optimal physical and mental health benefits. A reduced time commitment – 75 minutes a week – is allowed, if the workouts are no shorter than 10 minutes each and consist of vigorous movement, such as racewalking, swimming or singles tennis.

And people who are older or have health issues, including arthritis, are expected to follow the same guidelines, to the extent their conditions allow.

Everyone – including, again, those who are older or with health problems – are strongly encouraged to surpass even the high-end targets. The guidelines are emphatic: The more vigorous, the longer and more frequent the exercise, the greater the benefits to health.

“These new guidelines are a wake-up call for all of us,” says Patience White, MD, a rheumatologist and professor of medicine and pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Exercise plays a critical role in keeping us healthy and independent.”

Dr. White points out that the report specifically mentions arthritis as a condition that will improve with exercise.  

Walking is a great way to meet the new guidelines, because it’s so easily adapted to the needs of the walker and can be effective for people at every level of fitness, from sedentary to active.  

“We know walking can prevent and relieve many of the consequences of arthritis,” says Dr. White, who is also the chief public health officer of the Arthritis Foundation.

PROGRAM 1: GET OFF THE COUCH!

Starting a walking program is simple. Just get going. Buy a good pair of shoes and start out on level ground at a comfortable pace. If you experience pain, talk to your doctor or physical therapist and ask them about switching to a pool and walking in waist-high water to start.