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Dr. Susan Mathison, Published March 16 2014

Positively Beautiful: Walking toward wellness

Seeing the snow start to disappear during our few days of warmer weather gets me thinking about family walks around the block.

We try to do this a few times a week during the summer. I have fond memories of my father-in-law Howard, who made daily walks a ritual.

My son and I have taken a few short winter walks, but they are usually pretty slow for me as I wait for him to conquer every mound of snow taller than 3 feet.

But I’m gearing up to make it more of a habit for the family, as well as solo for me.

Experts sing praises for walking. It’s free, easy to do, low-impact and suitable for almost everyone. It also has the lowest drop-out rate for any form of exercise.

Hippocrates said, “Walking is man’s best medicine.”

Start slow, especially if you haven’t exercised in a long time. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor if you have questions or an existing condition that might be aggravated when exercising. The American Heart Association has some great tips on a special website called www.StartWalkingNow.org.

Begin with 10 minutes a day. Be easy on yourself. Work your way up to 30 minutes a day

Do your thing anywhere: In a park, on trails, at a gym, around the track, at the mall, inside your house or around your backyard.

Consider doing a walking meeting with a colleague. Have a walking buddy from your family or circle of friends. But don’t be afraid to go solo sometimes, and enjoy your own thoughts.

Here’s the healthy round-up of the benefits gained from taking a brisk walk for 20-30 minutes a day, most days of the week:

1. Cardiovascular benefits

Walking lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases HDL (good) cholesterol. It strengthens the heart muscle and decreases blood pressure, lowering risk for heart attack and stroke by as much as 27 percent.

2. Blood sugar control

Regular walking can reduce rates of non-insulin dependent diabetes by as much as 60 percent. It makes your cells more sensitive to insulin so blood sugar is used more effectively.

3. Lower cancer rates

Cancer is obviously a multi-factorial problem, but regular activity lowers risk of certain cancers by 20 percent.

4. Toning and weight control

Walking helps burn calories and improves muscle mass. It tones legs muscles, arms, the abdominal wall and glutes.

Good posture while walking is important. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back and hips tucked under.

Walking speeds up your metabolism, so you burn more calories even at rest. It also seems to reduce food and tobacco cravings.

5. Bone health

Even though it’s low impact, walking strengthens bones because it’s a weight-bearing activity.

And if you walk outside, you’ll have the extra benefit of increased Vitamin D production, which has many health benefits, including stronger bones.

6. Immune Function

Walking increases the number of cells that fight infection.

7. Brain health

Walking improves blood flow to the brain, improves cognitive function, minimizing atrophy and lowering rates of dementia.

8. Mood boost

A quick walk after lunch can boost your energy, since it helps circulation and increases oxygen supply.

9. Better sleep

Walking improves sleep consolidation, helping you sleep longer and better at night. This in turn helps daytime energy levels.

10. Mental health

Walking is a great way to proactively, rather than reactively, deal with stress. It can be like a moving meditation, helping you process concerns and feelings.

Walking wakes up the “feel good” endorphins in your brain and primes norepinephrine to get involved in the job. And those amazing neurochemicals working at their best are exactly what you need to fight stress, anxiety and depression.

Studies have shown regular, moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) to be as effective as antidepressants in cases of mild to moderate depression.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at info@catalystmedicalcenter.com.