Feel too unfit or unwell to exercise? Start small by walking

Walking is a great low-impact exercise, helping you strengthen your body and maintain a healthy weight. You can start small, and once you get used to it, challenge yourself slowly and safely. Soon you’ll start enjoying the many health benefits of walking.

You've probably heard the recommended physical activity guidelines for adults before, but where do you start if you're not up to exercising for 30 minutes a day, five times a week? “There is plenty of clinical evidence, as found in studies done by Prof Ulf Ekelund from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, that you can transform your health simply through brisk walking,” says Mari Leach, a Discovery Vitality biokineticist.

“Exercise can reduce stress, give you more energy, help you sleep better and reduce your risk of, as well as help to treat, lifestyle-related diseases. Whether you have a health condition that prevents you from participating in higher-intensity forms of exercise, or you’re just new to exercise and are unsure where to start, walking regularly is a great option, as any amount of physical activity is better than none.”

Walking is a great way to ease into exercise

Walking is easily accessible, and you don't need any special equipment besides well-fitting shoes. If you can, try brisk walking. “A great way to check if you're walking at the correct intensity is the talk test. If you can talk (slightly out of breath) while working out, but you can't sing or whistle, you're exercising at the right level,” says Leach.

5 steps to start walking more

  1. Find a safe place to walk: Start with walking around the block or around the sports field, or go to a park for some nature and fresh air. Organised, group events like park runs are ideal.
  2. Warm up: Even if you start with a gentle stroll, warming up is a good exercise habit that helps prevent muscle injury. Start slowly and add some light dynamic stretching (stretch while moving slowly). Gradually up your pace.
  3. Listen to your body: Only do as much as you can. Walking is not about pushing your limits. When feeling tired or your heart rate is racing, bring the pace down a little or have a quick break to catch your breath. If you're fit, you can walk until you're uncomfortably tired and even start to work in some jogging in between.
  4. If you limp or your steps are uneven, slow down: You're walking to get your heart pumping and body comfortable with exercise, not training to run a marathon.
  5. Cool down: The last phase of any exercise session is always letting your body recover for a few minutes and having your heart to gradually return to its resting rate. A cool down includes slowly decreasing the intensity of your physical activity and stretching.

Walking is a safe exercise for most people. But if you have a medical condition or haven't exercised for a while, you shouldn't rush into anything too fast in an effort to get fit. Speak to your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms while exercising:

  • Chest pain, ache in jaw or neck, discomfort down the arms, pain across the shoulder or back
  • Unusual shortness of breath and trouble breathing
  • Sudden cold or light-headedness (dizziness)
  • A noticeably rapid, strong, or irregular heartbeat

It takes a while to learn the difference between normal stiffness from physical activity (which can last up to 48 hours but is nothing to worry about) and straining your muscles (pain from an injury will persist after 48 hours), says Leach. “If you're new to exercising, have recently had serious surgery, or you have a chronic condition, stop exercising if you feel acute pain or nausea. Knowing your limits is essential for a sustainable exercise routine,” she adds.

Go where your feet take you

When you can keep walking without becoming tired, you can start thinking of yourself as walking fit (and progress from a 2.5 km walk to a 5 km one!) You can even start exploring other kinds of exercise like dancing, aqua aerobics or tai chi. So go where your feet take you, and start your walk to a healthier body and mind today!

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