Harvard Heart Letter

Marching orders: How to start a walking program

Walking with a friend or spouse may help you stick to your fitness goals.
Image: Thinkstock

This simple activity is one of the best ways to protect your heart.

To start walking for exercise, all you really need is a comfortable pair of shoes (preferably sneakers). That's just one reason that this low-impact, do-anywhere exercise is so popular. But the health benefits of walking are the real bonus. Brisk, regular walking is an effective way to lower blood pressure and stave off diabetes, both of which lower heart disease risk. In fact, two large, long-term Harvard studies suggest that walking for about 20 minutes a day may cut your risk of heart disease by as much as 30%.

Still, many people need some added inspiration to start and stick with a walking program. One of the best ways is to find walking buddies, says Dr. Lauren Elson, physical medicine and rehabilitation instructor at Harvard Medical School. "I find that if I can get someone to walk with a partner—a spouse or a friend—that helps a lot." Even better is getting several friends to walk together, because they all hold each other accountable. "They call each other up and say, 'Where are you?'" Dr. Elson says. For additional suggestions for group walking opportunities, see the websites from the American Heart Association (www.health.harvard.edu/walking-clubs) and Walk with a Doc (www.walkwithadoc.org).

Keeping track

Other people find motivation by using a pedometer to track their steps and distance, says Dr. Elson, who is also the medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Walking for Health (www.health.harvard.edu/walk). One review of 26 studies found that people who used pedometers raised their physical activity levels by nearly 27%, adding about 2,500 steps a day. Most stores that sell exercise equipment have inexpensive pedometers. If you have a smartphone, you can download a pedometer app such as Moves, Breeze, or Pedometer++.

Start by tracking your steps from when you get up in the morning to when you go to bed at night. Take the average of your total steps for two or three days, then aim to increase your daily total by about 1,000 to 2,000 steps. Every week, keep increasing your steps by the same amount until you reach at least 10,000 steps per day.

If you have heart disease

If you've suffered a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart disease, walking is an ideal exercise because you can easily adapt your routine depending on your fitness level. If you have heart failure, ask your doctor to recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program so you can safely reap the benefits of exercise. This type of supervised exercise is particularly helpful if you haven't been active for a while.

Whether you start a walking program on your own or with supervision, plan to start slowly and work gradually toward better fitness—and follow these safety tips:

  • Always warm up with five minutes of easy walking to prepare your muscles and heart for exercise. At the end, cool down by slowing your pace.

  • Don't push through fatigue. If you feel tired or have any heart symptoms, stop.

  • Walk in an indoor shopping mall if it is too cold, too snowy, or too hot to exercise outside. Ask your doctor if you should take any additional precautions.

Two months to a goal

If you haven't been exercising, the eight-week workout (see "Get started walking") is a great way to begin. You'll gradually increase the amount of time you're walking, building up to the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. That means brisk walking, as if you're in a bit of a hurry. Your breathing rate should increase, but you can still talk in full sentences. Pay attention to your posture—stand tall with your head up, shoulders down and back, and abdominal muscles tight.

Get started walking

This eight-week program will take your walking from just 10 minutes a day up to 30 minutes, allowing you to build up gradually.

Week

Sessions per week

Warm-up (time and pace)

Walking (time and pace)

Cool-down (time and pace)

Daily total

Weekly total

1

7

3 minutes slow

5 minutes moderate

2 minutes slow

10 minutes

70 minutes

2

7

3 minutes slow

10 minutes moderate

2 minutes slow

15 minutes

105 minutes

3

6

3 minutes slow

15 minutes moderate

2 minutes slow

20 minutes

120 minutes

4

6

5 minutes slow

5 minutes moderate,
5 minutes brisk, 5 minutes moderate

2 minutes slow

20 minutes

120 minutes

5

6

3 minutes slow

5 minutes moderate,
10 minutes brisk, 5 minutes moderate

2 minutes slow

25 minutes

150 minutes

6

6

5 minutes slow to moderate

12 minutes brisk,
3 minutes moderate

5 minutes slow

25 minutes

150 minutes

7

6

5 minutes slow to moderate

15 minutes brisk

5 minutes moderate to slow

25 minutes

150 minutes

8

5

5 minutes slow to moderate

20 minutes brisk

5 minutes moderate to slow

30 minutes

150 minutes