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Walk or run toward better health. Here’s how to take the first steps

Spring’s warm weather is the perfect time to head outdoors and walk or run for exercise. Couch potatoes can start with a 10-minute lunch-break walk, while those who have hit the gym all winter can move directly into running. Either way, the result of regular walking or running is improved fitness and health.

Running and walking are aerobic activities, meaning they increase blood flow and breathing rates. To what extent that happens depends on how much effort is expended. A slow walk on a level surface requires less of the heart, lungs and muscles than a fast uphill run.

There are multiple health benefits of running or walking:

  • Improved cardiovascular health. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs and helps them to work more efficiently while boosting “good” cholesterol and lowering “bad” cholesterol levels.

  • Weight loss. The body uses more energy during each step than it does while at rest, helping to maintain or lose weight.

  • Building bone mass. While running or walking, an individual’s hips, legs and feet support the body’s weight, slowing the bone mineral loss that can come with age and lessening the risk of osteoporosis.

  • Reducing health risks. From diabetes to breast cancer to the common cold, the risk of many medical conditions drops when following a regular exercise program, including that of running or walking.

  • Relieving stress. Exercise stimulates the brain and releases chemicals like serotonin that boost a person’s mood. Plus, being in better physical shape leads to a better overall outlook.

Start with shoes

Running and walking require little equipment— basically, a good pair of athletic shoes and a moisture-wicking pair of socks. Beginners should shop in person at a shoe store with knowledgeable clerks who watch their customers run or walk in different models of shoes. This insight will help determine which pair to buy. The right pair of shoes is vital in preventing pain or injury, and different types of feet require different types of shoe support.

Avoid cotton socks, which absorb moisture and can lead to blisters. The thickness of socks worn while running or walking is a matter of personal preference. Some runners like thicker socks for more cushioning, while others prefer thin socks that allow more air flow.

Beyond shoes and socks, plenty of optional gear is available for those who want to make more of a financial commitment. Wristwatch-like fitness trackers offer various features such as counting steps taken, monitoring heart rate and tracking workouts. A GPS device or smart-phone app is a fun way to accurately track distance traveled and plan routes of specific distances.

Runners and walkers going longer distances need some way to drink water along the way, whether from a handheld bottle, a hydration vest or a bottle stored in a lumbar belt. The belt can also be used to carry a snack or sport gel for long runs, as well as a phone for listening to music.

Attire can be as simple as an old pair of shorts and T-shirt dug out of the bottom of a drawer or as fancy as sport-specific clothing made out of moisture-wicking, anti-odor synthetic fabrics.

Increase gradually

When beginning a running or walking program, check with a medical professional first to discuss any health concerns. Start with a slower speed and shorter distances, and gradually go faster and longer as muscles, heart and lungs improve their capacity over the course of weeks and months of regular exercise.

Runners and walkers of any experience level always should warm-up with a slow-paced walk or run of five to 10 minutes before aiming for target pace, and then cool down by moving at an easy pace at the end of each workout. Stretch after warming up or working out; never stretch cold muscles. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses, and dress in layers so an outer jacket or shirt can be removed and tied around the waist as needed.

Each week, aim for at least 150 minutes of walking at a moderate pace or 75 minutes of running. The result will be better overall health for years to come.

Barbara H. Cole, DNP, CRNP, is a nurse practitioner with Penn State Health Medical Group in State College.