Hit the Ground Walking

By Janice Enloe, personal trainer and running coach, RUN Oak Park and Weights and Measures

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Oak Park’s fitness walkers have emerged after a restless El Niño winter, lured by longer days and warming pavements. If this is the spring you join them, you’ll be in good company — walking is the most popular form of exercise in the United States.

Walking has been called “fitness superfood” for good reason. A program of consistent walking has proven effective for improving health and fitness in study after study. Research has shown that a daily brisk walk can help you maintain a healthy weight, prevent or manage conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, and it’s good for your bones. It improves cerebral blood flow, lowers the risk of vascular disease and may help you avoid dementia later in life. Walking also can elevate your mood and enhance mental wellbeing. And a brisk walk in the fresh air can increase your creativity by up to 60 percent.

National Walking Day on April 5 is the perfect stepping off point to get outside and get moving. Whether you are interested in walking for fitness, health, or social reasons, there is no sport more accessible or easier to begin. The only equipment you’ll need is a good pair of athletic shoes and comfortable clothes. A quality pair of walking shoes is a solid investment. They’ll carry you about 500 miles and help absorb impact forces that are approximately two to three times your bodyweight.

The best place to start is with a plan. If you’ve been sedentary, begin with a 10- to 20-minute walk, three to four times a week. Add a minute or two each week, ultimately aiming for the 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity recommended by the Physical Activity Guidelines.

Choosing a route can be as simple as stepping off your porch. Our flat terrain and quiet streets make walking the Village easy, especially for beginners. Build your walking route to include climbing the sledding hill stairs at Barrie Park and torch calories two to three times faster than walking without an incline.

Adding hills to the course provides more bang for your exercise buck by activating three times more muscle fibers and burning up to 60 percent more calories. If you enjoy a bit of history with your rolling landscape, Taylor Park on Division between Ridgeland and Elmwood boasts lovely winding paths, a wetland and gentle hills. Pause at the corner of Berkshire and Elmwood to stand on the Continental Divide, the point that historically separated water flowing down the Mississippi to the Gulf from water that flowed through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. Marvel at the fact that this ancient beach meant Oak Park was once lakefront property.

Share the walk with a buddy for accountability and good conversation. The miles will fly by as you chat, but that conversation also has a purpose — being able to talk while you walk means that you are at a pace that is appropriate. If you can’t converse, you are walking too fast.

A four-legged exercise companion can be even more motivating. Research has shown that dog owners who walk their pets regularly have higher overall levels of moderate and vigorous activity than non-dog walkers and are more likely to take part in other leisure-time physical activity. And they walk faster and farther than their non-pooch owning friends.

Watch your improvement by tracking the time and distance of each outing for a great source of motivation. Additional information like route, weather, and gear can be helpful later. A simple notebook or calendar is perfect but apps like MapMyWalk allow you to create and save a route, track activity, and nutrition and let you share the journey with friends.

This spring, gather up a friend, a pup, or your playlist and hit the ground walking. The path to better health couldn’t be smoother.