Looking to improve your health this spring and summer? It doesn’t take a full-fledged workout at the gym. Getting outdoors and walking – and soaking up some sun and fresh air – can “go the distance” for our cardiovascular system, diabetes management, and overall physical and mental well-being.
All kinds of aerobic exercise are important for the heart – walking often being the simplest and most convenient – as they strengthen cardiac muscles and improve circulation. One of the greatest benefits is a reduced risk of blockages (in the heart and legs) and decreased significance of ones that already exist, explains Dr. Timothy Wu, chief of vascular surgery at Jefferson Health – New Jersey.
“Imagine you’re on the Turnpike and there’s a bad traffic jam. Are you going to stay on it, or are you going to go a different way?” Dr. Wu said. “That’s how your blood travels throughout our body. Exercise allows new blood vessels to grow and ‘detour’ the blood to where it needs to be.”
This means exercise can in fact help “reverse” heart disease. Many people with heart disease can still exercise, so you shouldn’t be afraid to move, Dr. Wu said. However, if you haven’t routinely exercised in a while, you should consult with your cardiologist first about what you can tolerate.
Walking is also considered first-line therapy – and the most effective way to manage symptoms – for those who suffer from peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD typically causes painful cramping in the legs, keeping people from walking long distances. Because of this, many people with PAD think walking will be harmful, but it’s the exact opposite, adds Dr. Wu.
How much should you walk? Different recommendations are made for different conditions. For those with PAD, the Society for Vascular Surgery recommends a walking routine of two to three days a week for around 30 to 45 minutes.
“Keep in mind, changes don’t occur right away. It takes around three months for symptoms to start improving,” Dr. Wu said. “It’s a lot of effort, but it’s well worth it, especially if it means avoiding unnecessary surgery.”
Fortunately, anything that’s good for the heart is also good for diabetes management. Walking can improve diabetes control in a number of ways. First and foremost, when you exercise, it pulls energy from glucose (the molecule detected when measuring blood sugars), explains Dr. Bryan Davis, endocrinologist with Jefferson Health – New Jersey. Also, physical exertion increases metabolism and the rate at which fat is burned. Any subsequent weight loss will also help improve blood sugar levels.
If you have diabetes-related foot complications, it may deter you from exercising, Dr. Davis added. “However, if you get permission from a podiatrist, exercise can definitely be beneficial for you. Because it improves vascular blood flow, it can help improve foot health.” (If you’re unable to walk, you may opt for something like aquatic therapy, as any exercise is better than no exercise.)
Finding a supportive shoe can be challenging. You may require additional cushioning or shoes designed for flat or high-arched feet, Dr. Davis said. A good place to start is a shoe store designated for running. Or, if you have a podiatrist, they can help point you in the right direction.
The general rule of thumb for heart health, diabetes, and more, is 30 to 45 minutes three to five days a week. Remember, that this is cardiovascular exercise, so your attention should be focused on increasing heart rate, Dr. Davis noted. A light, leisurely stroll won’t yield all of these great benefits.
How to stay on track:
Finding a walking partner can help keep you motivated and hold you accountable. Plus, setting a daily reminder on your calendar provides helpful visual feedback to whether or not you’re completing your exercises, Dr. Davis added.
Your walking regimen may be complemented with strength-training/resistance activities on other days, Dr. Wu said. Again, specifics about what you can handle should be discussed with a health care provider to help prevent injury.
Keep in mind, walking can’t be the “end-all” answer. For the best possible results from exercising, it’s key to also follow a well-balanced diet and avoid harmful behaviors, such as smoking and drinking. These steps will all work hand-in-hand to support an overall healthier life.