Walking is the single best thing you can do for your health. I view it as the fountain of youth. In my RealAge book, I showed how aging has little to do with calendar years. A 50-year-old man could have the arteries and immune system of a 75-year-old. Someone else might be 75 but have a RealAge—measured by the risk of disease, disability or death—of a 52-year-old. Exercise is a key factor in reducing your RealAge—and just 30 minutes of walking a day can make you healthier, more energetic and, in a real sense, younger.

Health Benefits

Walking is easy to do, doesn't require any special equipment (except walking shoes) and conveys many of the same health benefits as more strenuous exercise.

Walking helps prevent fatty buildup in the arteries. When your arteries are clogged with fatty buildup, your cardiovascular system ages more quickly, and so does your entire body. Aging of the arteries brings on cardiovascular disease, the major cause of heart attacks and strokes. It also leads to loss of energy, memory loss and, in men, impotence. Walking can help keep arteries young and healthy.

Walking every day also decreases the risk of such conditions as macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in people over age 50) and arthritis. The long-running Framingham Heart Study found that people with arthritis who walked daily for 30 minutes and supplemented their diets with vitamins C and D and calcium were able to stop the progression of joint damage, Walking also prevented osteoarthritis in patients who didn't already have it.

Walking can even reduce the risk of some forms of cancer by as much as 50%.

Get Ready

Studies show that people who walk as little as 10 minutes a day—or even just once a week—on a regular basis have less risk of dying prematurely than those who are sedentary. For optimal health gains, you should walk for at least 30 minutes daily. People who take three 10-minute walks each day have about the same health gains as those who walk for 30 minutes straight. Helpful…

  • Warm up before walking. Walk more slowly than usual for the first several minutes. This warm-up heats the muscles and makes them more flexible and efficient and less prone to injury. It also increases circulation in the joints.
  • Wear a watch. Measure time rather than distance. Time is easy to count, and you can walk for 30 minutes at a comfortable pace. You don't need to follow a track or a premeasured route—and you won't try to force yourself to go a certain distance.
  • Don't miss a day. Make 30 minutes a day of walking a priority. Things like yard work and housecleaning help, too, but they can't take the place of your daily walks.

Malls are terrific places to walk if the weather is bad, and most YMCAs have walking tracks and treadmills. If your budget permits, buy a treadmill so you can walk any time of the day or night without leaving home.

Post-Walking Stretch

Once your routine becomes ingrained, set aside two to three minutes to stretch after you're done walking. Stretching improves joint range of motion. Without a normal range of motion in the joints, daily activities become more difficult and the risk of musculoskeletal injury increases. Some people find that stretching also reduces soreness, though I can't find hard evidence to support that claim.

To perform a stretch, move slowly into the stretch position until you feel a gentle pulling sensation, not pain. Hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds without bouncing, Repeat each stretch two or three times.

Here is a sample post-walking stretch for each key muscle group…

  • Hamstring. Sit on the floor with both feet straight out in front of you. Keep your left leg extended, and bend the right so that the sole of your right foot is against the inner thigh of your left leg. Lean forward over the left leg until you feel a gentle stretch along the back of your extended thigh, keeping your back as straight as possible. Repeat with the right leg extended.
  • Quadricep. Stand on your right leg, and bend the left so that your left knee is pointed toward the floor. Then reach your left hand behind you and take hold of your left ankle. Your hips should be pressed forward so that you feel a gentle stretch along the front of your left thigh. (You may need to stand near a wall for balance.) Repeat, standing on your left leg with the right leg bent.
  • Buttock. Lie on your back, and bend both legs, keeping your feet flat on the floor. Cross the ankle of your right foot just above your left knee. Lift your left foot off the floor, and bring both legs toward your chest. Hold on to your left thigh to help pull your legs closer to your chest until you feel a gentle stretch near your right hip and buttock. Repeat with the other leg
  • Adductor. Lie on your back, and bend both knees. Open your knees out to the sides, and place the soles of your feet together. Pull your feet in toward you, allowing your knees to drop toward the floor until you feel a gentle stretch in the groin and inner-thigh area.
  • Hip flexor. Stand with the left foot in front of the right, with your weight centered evenly between both feet. Keeping your back straight, bend your knees slightly, lowering yourself toward the floor and tucking your hips under. You should feel a gentle stretch along the front of your right hip. Repeat with the right foot in front of the left.
  • Calf. Sit on the floor with both feet extended in front of you. Keeping your back as straight as possible, flex your toes toward you until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of both legs.
  • Lower back. Sit on the floor cross-legged. Keeping your head in line with your spine, lean forward with your upper body and reach your arms out in front of you until you feel a gentle stretch in your lower back.

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