The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 1, 2000
Keeping fit

Put on your walking shoes
By A. J. Singh

DO you want a stronger heart, sleeker physique and lower stress levels? If so, put on your walking shoes and take a walk or stroll. Research has now proved something that our great-grandfathers already knew and practised: Exercise will keep people living longer and healthier. The better news is that all it takes is a daily walk.

This has recently been proved in a study, spread over 12 years and conducted on 707 non-smoking elderly men of Japanese origin living in Hawaii.

In this group, men between 61 and 81 years, who walked just 3 km per day even at a leisurely pace — were found to have reduced their risk of death from all causes by half.

Every extra 1.5 km they walked daily, lowered their death rate by 19 per cent. Those who did not walk were found to be 2.5 times as likely to die from all types of diseases than those who did at least 3 km a day.

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By the end of 12 years’ study, 208 men had died. Of these, 41 per cent used to walk less than 1.5 km a day. No one knows how a stroll or leisurely walk protects bodies. It is likely to be a combination of keeping weight down, raising HDL or (good) cholesterol and boosting the circulatory or immune systems.

How come that people who take to walking hardly ever give it up? Sixty-year-old Dhyan Singh thinks that walking puts a person on an incredible high that only walkers or runners can understand. "I feel as free as a bird when I hit the walking trail," says he. "No matter how frantic the day has been, I return from my walk feeling refreshed and ready to face the world again."

Another thing Dhyan Singh has felt is that the problems that seemed unsurmountable to him all day long suddenly become manageable after the walk. Apart from making you live longer, regular walking can bestow other health benefits on you. It can help you obtain from cigarette smoking.

Salem had a 20-year-old smoking habit. One day he resolved to quit it and he did. Now every time, his craving for a smoke overtakes him, he puts on his walking shoes and goes out for a walk on the road or streets. This has been going on for almost three months now. As a result, he is in such a good shape that his friends tell him that he looks 10 to 15 years younger than his chronological age.

Walking may help you to take off that extra weight that you may be carrying. Sunita was overweight by 15 kg. She wanted to have a baby. The doctor advised her to lose weight first.

She started walking her way up from two km to four km a day over a period of several months, losing as much as 17 kg weight in the process. She was thrilled.

But as she became pregnant, she became lazy and stopped walking. By the time she delivered her first baby, she was overweight again. On top, she began to suffer from postpartum depression. She took to walking again and gradually the depression lifted. Her weight also began to decrease. In a couple of months, she lost weight and with that returned her zest for living.

How to improve your ability to walk for health and fitness? For that you should keep the following guidelines in mind. They are meant to help you get more power, more stamina, more relaxation out of your walk.

What you should do:

Discover your proper stride length. Some people tire themselves by taking exaggerated steps. To find your proper stride length, stand, lean forward at the ankle, let yourself fall forward and catch yourself by extending one leg. The is your natural stride length. Now walk it.

Bend your arms at the elbow (at a right angle), swinging back and forth as you walk. You’ll feel an extra boost in your speed.

On the forward swing, your arm should cross your body slightly, but your hand should not be higher than the top of your breast. On the back swing, the hand should go back no further than the centre of your hip.

* Relax your upper body. It is important to keep your shoulders down when you swing your arms. When you hunch your shoulders in an effort to go faster, you get tension across your chest, your shoulders and the back of your neck.

* Become more flexible around the hips and torso. People should straighten their knees when the knee comes under the body so that the body rides on the bone, not the muscle.

* Pointing your feet straight ahead and lending your feet directly in front of each other (like in tight rope walking) helps rotate the hips horizontally around the spinal column, an area where people are most often rigid. Doing wind-mills (rotating arms backward, like during the backstroke) helps create flexibility in the upper body. Stretching exercises for the hip and waist can help too.

* Use the psoas (muscles located just below the rib cage) for more muscle power. To walk with more power and better balance and posture, imagine that your legs begin two inches above your navel. In a sense they do. The psoas muscles, attached to the lower spine, the pelvis and the femur bone in the thigh, are like a bridge between your upper and lower body.

By sensing that the action of your legs really begin with the psoas, you’ll develop a fluid, gliding-walking-style — more like skating along than lifting the leg and trudging. Let your hips swing freely. You’ll feel a more powerful stride because you’ll be using more muscle power. This single tip has the greatest impact on people’s ability to walk with power and grace.

Why walking is the single most important thing you can do for your health? Doctors say that not doing some type of exercise is the worst thing you can do to your health. In fact, a sedentary life is worse than smoking cigarettes, now considered to be the public enemy number one.

In addition to helping you to manage your weight, tone your body and increase your sense of energy and well-being, regular walking (or any other aerobic exercise) helps maintain a healthier heart by increasing circulation and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Regular walking (or exercise) has been linked to a lower risk of certain kinds of cancer and the onset of diabetes. By reducing stress, walking also plays a greater part in keeping walkers healthy. Walking or exercise is, indeed, nature’s safest tranquilliser. The right kind of exercise (or walking) can also help people cope with chronic conditions like arthritis and asthma.

Walking is the safest, easiest, least costly way of making regular exercise a part of your everyday routine. Make a start right now by putting on your shoes and stepping onto the road or street or park or a treadmill, as you please.

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