Walking is back in the news. The most recent headlines were about research demonstrating that walking is as effective as running for cardiovascular health. Does that mean running and walking provide the same cardio health benefits? Yes and no.The study, appearing in the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, said that if you expend the same amount of energy walking that you would running, you will get the same benefit. However, since running and walking do not expend energy at the same rate, you would need to walk for one hour in order to get the same benefit you would from running for 35 or 40 minutes.Another study, in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, showed that, in terms of walking, Americans have fallen behind compared with other nations.According to the study, adults in western Australia, Japan and Switzerland averaged 9,695 steps, 7,168 steps and 9,650 steps daily, respectively, while adults in America averaged just 5,117 steps each day.Simply adding 2,000 steps per day, or about 1 mile of walking, which should take about 20 minutes, can make a huge difference. We all surely have 20 extra minutes.Bottom line: Walking works. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that people who live in the suburbs — and therefore drive everywhere — weigh 6.3 pounds more than urbanites who are able to walk more.Here are a few tips to help you walk more (or at all).Map itHaving access to safe and precise walking paths is the surest way to sustain a walking plan. Find parks, trails and paths in your area at sites like TrimbleOutdoors.com, Trails.com, Recreation.gov or TrailLink.com. Look for a walking path by searching the American Heart Association’s Walking Path website, www.startwalkingnow.org/start_walking_paths.jsp. According to the site, new routes are being added all the time.Once you’ve found the trails or paths you’d like to use, go to Google Maps (or other mapping sites such as mapmywalk.com) to create several walking routes.Make it scenicIt’s important to understand your environmental constraints and barriers. The biggest barriers or excuses for not walking, according to a study in the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, are the lack of walking trails or sidewalks, not seeing other people exercising, unattended dogs and heavy traffic. Research shows that the more scenic your walks are, the more you’ll want to take them.Seek out the safest and best-looking walking routes. Some parks offer trails specifically designed for hikers. Grass and dirt paths are flat and reduce shock and stress on your feet. If you want a little extra challenge, find paths with hills, and take a few breaks if you need to.Try to locate walking tours around your city. Sightseeing is very distracting, and before you know it, you’ll have walked a few miles while discovering more about your neighborhood or even a new neighborhood.On rainy or cold days, use the shopping malls — you can get healthier while you window-shop.Apps, pedometers and fitness trackersThere are many great apps and fitness trackers out there, and research shows that accountability helps. Turn your smartphone into a pedometer with the Every Body Walk ( http://everybodywalk.org) app. It allows you to start, end, pause and resume your walk with the tap of a button, and has many other great features.Other great smartphone apps include Walkmeter.com and MapMyWalk. They’re very user-friendly and typically either free or very low-cost.Fitness trackers such as Nike+ FuelBand, FIT LINK by BodyMedia and Fitbit keep track of steps, calories burned and sleep patterns. They are more expensive than the phone apps above, but they are also great for accountability and can make exercise fun. Most of these devices automatically upload info to a website tracker or app. They typically cost around $100.Then there is the basic inexpensive pedometer, which simply keeps track of steps walked. These are widely available, and typically cost about $20 to $40.Get a dogResearch reported in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that “not only did owning and walking a dog impact the amount of walking a person does, but also that dog walkers were more active overall.” That said, you don’t get the health benefits of dog ownership if you simply let your dog out in the yard to do his or her business. And neither does your dog.Make it socialResearch has consistently indicated that social support is a significant factor in determining physical activity participation. Walking in a group will increase motivation and distraction and will help you challenge yourself as you keep up with the group. You can even create a walking club of your own using Twitter, Facebook or sites such as www.startwalkingnow.org. Or go old-school and put up fliers in your neighborhood, school, or religious and/or recreational center.Make it practicalA common complaint is being too busy to exercise. So fit your walking into things you need to do anyway. The kids need to go to school, so why not walk them to the bus stop? If it’s too far to walk all the way to the store or wherever you need to go, drive or take the bus halfway and walk the remaining distance.Walking shoesBefore you go outside and start counting your steps, keep in mind that you need to have the proper shoes. Podiatrists suggest getting cross trainers, or shoes designed specifically for walking or running. And stay away from those “designer” shoes that are all looks but no support.
Charles Platkin, Ph.D., is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.