You get started on the road to exercising by walking because walking is the easiest and most convenient way to exercise at all levels of fitness and, thereby, reduce stress and improve your health in a vast number of ways.

Part of the magic of walking is that there aren't any rules! True, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends these exercise guidelines: 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. You also can do a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. But, this is what you should aspire to, not necessarily what must be done on Day 1 of your exercise program. Any exercise is better than no exercise.

There are many ways to exercise. Golfing is good exercise but there are a lot rules and you kind of have to play 9 or 18 holes, nobody does 5 or 11 holes of golf. Tennis is good exercise but you have to have a tennis court. Walking is easy, just open the door and take the first step. No special equipment is needed and no special training is required. Simply start off slowly and gradually build up. How many miles you walked and how long it took is not an issue of immediate concern - we'll get to that later. I once had a patient that I had walk 40 feet - to his own mailbox and back again. I had him do this 3 times a day for a week before he could do more without pain. Most people will be able to do much more than that but remember that the whole point is to burn off stress hormones. If you attempt to do more than you're physically capable of doing, in other words, if you stress yourself, you will actually create stress hormones and defeat the whole purpose.

If you are a beginning walker simply go by how you feel. If you experience pain or can't catch your breath you're doing too much. It's okay to feel minor muscle soreness or stiffness after you've done an unaccustomed activity, but the no pain/ no gain cliche we've all heard so often only applies to competitive athletes. Most people can tell the difference between normal muscle soreness and actual pain. For the beginner, decide what is a reasonable distance for you and only walk half that distance. Remember that you can always do more tomorrow, but it's not possible to un-do yesterday. Take into account that no matter how far you intend to walk you still have to return.

Target Heart Rate

As you gain some experience as a walker there’s a simple way to know if you are approaching the Department of Health and Human Services exercise guidelines - calculate your target heart rate. An average resting heart rate is 60-80 beats per minute, but can be lower for exceptionally physically fit people. Your target heart rate which indicates true aerobic exercise is about 220 minus your age times 50% to 85%. So, for example, if you were 60 years old, 220 minus 60 equals 160. During the first few weeks of walking, aim for the lowest part of your target zone (50 percent) or 50% of 160 equals 80 beats per minute. Then, gradually build up to the higher part of the target zone (85 percent) or 85% of 160 equals 136 beats per minute. When you check, and if your heart rate is too high, you’re straining so slow down. If it’s below the zone, push yourself to work a little harder if you can without causing pain to your back, hips, knees, or feet.

How to Check Your Heart Rate

  • Take your pulse on the inside of your wrist, about 1 inch from the middle toward the thumb side, and about 2 inches towards the elbow from where your wrist attaches to your arm.
  • Use the tips of your first two fingers (not your thumb) of the other hand to press lightly in the groove between the tendons of your wrist. You're feeling for the hidden artery between the tendons not the veins on the surface that you can see.
  • Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to find your beats per minute.

After you've done this a few times it will no longer be necessary. You'll be able to tell by how you feel and how you breathe. This is called the "conversational pace" to monitor your efforts during moderate activities like walking. If you can talk and walk at the same time, you aren't working too hard. If you get out of breath quickly, you're probably working too hard — especially if you have to stop and catch your breath.

Determining How Fast You Are Walking

First, understand that how fast you are walking doesn't matter, the point is to burn away stress hormones to improve your health. Stress hormones are burned away with aerobic exercise, and aerobic exercise is attained when your heart rate reaches the target zone as described above. As you become more fit you will naturally have to go faster and faster to reach the target zone. However, if you are curious the math has already been done for you. The easiest way to gauge your speed without wearing a pedometer -- or getting in your car and measuring mileage, which can be pretty difficult unless you walk along a street -- is to count your number of steps per minute. The experts use this number to calculate pace, based on an average stride length of 2 1/2 feet. (Stride length is the distance from the heel of one foot to the heel of the other foot when you're taking a step.)

  • 70 steps per minute equals 30 minutes per mile, or 2 miles per hour.
  • 105 steps per minute equals 20 minutes per mile, or 3 miles per hour.
  • 140 steps per minute equals 15 minutes per mile, or 4 miles per hour.

If you pay attention to your steps, after a while you'll be able to estimate your pace fairly accurately without bothering to count. You'll just know what a 20-minute mile or a 15-minute mile feels like.

See Also

  • Walking is the Best Medicine (Part I)
  • Walking is the Best Medicine (Part II) - a Double Dose of Benefit
  • Walking is the Best Medicine (Part III) - Getting Started
Author's Bio: 


Dr. Michael L. Hall, D.C. practices at Triangle Disc Care in Raleigh, North Carolina specializing in Spinal Decompression for the treatment of acute and chronic neck pain and back pain due to herniated, degenerated discs. This is a conservative procedure, first approved for use in the U.S. in 2001, for patients suffering with bulging or herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, posterior facet syndrome, sciatica, failed back surgery syndrome, and non-specified mechanical low back or neck pain.

My job is to improve a patient's back or neck pain to the point where they do sleep better and have more energy, and get them exercising so they break the stress cycle, stop chasing their tail, and improve their health. For more information call 919-571-2515, click on, or email Type "Free eBook - 101 Things I Need to Know about my Bad Back" into the subject line.