It's a myth that only strenuous exercise provides adequate health benefits. Recent research comparing runners and walkers demonstrated that moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, all of which are significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease (coronary artery disease, heart failure and stroke).
There are countless physical activities to choose from, but walking is the simplest change you can make to improve your health. Walking for at least 30 minutes a day can help improve your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, aid in weight loss and maintenance, reduce cholesterol, and lower your risk for diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and possibly even depression.
Remember that physical activity can be cumulative. A 15-minute walk at the beginning and end of each day is just as effective as one 30-minute walk. The same is true if you don't have 30 minutes to devote to exercising every day: briskly walking 150 total minutes each week is equally beneficial.
Walking is inexpensive (requiring only a pair of well fitting shoes) and can be a cheerful — even social — experience. Many people continue their walking program in bad weather by walking in a local mall or "big box" store. Since the thought of being alone can be enough to keep some people from walking, finding a friend to walk with can be enough incentive to maintain an active walking schedule.
If you can't find a mutually convenient time to walk with family or friends, there are numerous walking clubs you can join. The American Heart Association sponsors walking clubs in Kentucky — you can locate one in your area by logging on to (MeetUp.com/American-Heart-Association-Walking-Clubs/.
There is also a free program called "Walk with A Doc" which meets twice a month in Lexington. A physician who also provides information and answers questions about exercise and heart health leads each walk. For more information on Walk with a Doc, log on UKy.edu/hr/wellness/doc or call (859) 257-WELL (9355).
Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, especially if you are a man over 40 or a woman over 50 years of age. During all exercise, pay attention to signs that you may be pushing yourself too hard. You should be able to sing if you are walking at a low intensity level. At a moderate pace, you should be able to have a conversation. Vigorous workouts will make you too short of breath to carry on a conversation. Your doctor can help you decide which intensity level best suits your current state of health.
Dr. Alison Bailey is director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness Program at UK HealthCare's Gill Heart Institute