Browsing the archives for the walking tag.
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Getting More Fit Without Hard Work


Between late 2005 and early 2010, I lost more than 60 pounds as I gradually got the hang of exercising regularly and eating well. From a starting weight of 238, I dropped in fits and starts to 175 while adding a substantial amount of muscle. For the first time in my life, people were calling me “thin” and worrying I wasn’t eating enough (though they don’t need to worry: I’m nowhere near starvation). Since then, I’ve remained fit and active, even while my weight goes modestly up and down within a healthy range.

It’s not just about diet
Eating habits are an important part of getting fit, but in many ways they’re both the harder part and the less important part. The other key piece, of course, is exercise. Does the word “exercise” bring to mind images of people sweating on treadmills while being slowly bored to death, or running beside the road at 5:00 in the morning? Because while it can take that form, exercise can also be easy and appealing. After all, it’s not automatically true that when we use our bodies, we’re uncomfortable or unhappy–in fact, the reverse is closer to the truth. If jumping into hard-core, sweaty, “no pain no gain” exercise doesn’t appeal to you, there are many more tempting ways to get started. The wonderful thing about this is that regular exercise, especially in certain forms, becomes a “keystone habit”: that is, a positive change in behavior that encourages other positive changes.

I’ve heard it said that walking burns about as many calories per mile as running, but this turns out not to be true. In fact, if you look at net calories burned (that is, how many extra calories we’re burning while exercising compared to the amount we burn to maintain basic bodily functions even if we’re just sitting on the couch), running burns about twice as many calories per mile. Since a typical running speed is in the neighborhood of twice the typical walking speed, this means running burns about four times as many extra calories per hour as walking. (If you’ve heard that walking and running burn about the same number of calories or are just interested in the topic, see this article for some details and the study on which the statement is based.)

However, so what? The time advantage may mean a lot to someone who has no time to walk, but it’s often much easier to make time for walking than for running. There’s little need for special clothing or for showering afterward, so walking is actually a bit more efficient than it might seem in the time department. Walks are also a good way to spend time with friends or family members and a free activity that’s good for everyone involved. Walking lifts moods and provides a good opportunity for conversation. Walks can provide quality time with a romantic partner, children, or adult family members. They can make it possible to meet and interact with neighbors, and they are often an excellent way to improve mood (see “The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise“). Walking isn’t just exercise: it can be a mood booster, social time, family time, time to yourself, or a way to get from Point A to Point B (and not be dripping with sweat when you arrive).

Other easy ways in
Other easy kinds of exercise can be more strenuous but more entertaining. Dancing, for example, can often keep a person interested and happy for hours while providing anything from a mild to an intense workout. Speaking from personal experience, you don’t even have to be very good at it to both enjoy it and get the exercise benefits.

In the same way, any safe activity that keeps us in motion and keeps us engaged provides an avenue for exercise as entertainment. At our house, for example, both kids and adults play the outdated “dancing” video game Dance Dance Revolution. Taekwondo is nearly always engrossing for me, in the same way that kickboxing or rock climbing might be engrossing for someone else. Other options include team sports, group walks and bicycle rides, hiking, swimming, and paddling.

It’s true that going for a walk twice a week or going out dancing every once in a while alone isn’t likely to make a dramatic difference in health–but it will make some difference, and even if it just means a few pounds lost over a month or two, that’s progress in the right direction. What’s important is that when any kind of exercise–whether it’s easy and entertaining or energetic and effortful–becomes a habit, that habit provides both a sense of competence and a metabolic boost that can set the stage for more improvements, with the end result of a dramatic change for the better.

Photo by Natodd

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Instant Feedback: An Example

Strategies and goals

Back when I first started this site, I mentioned that a key inspiration for my beginning to study willpower was my sister, Su, who had demonstrated how effectively we can introduce changes of habit into our lives. Su is the fitness editor at Health magazine, and one of her recent posts on the Health Web site (“The Easy Way to Up Your Daily Steps (and Why That Matters)”) provides some insight on how instant feedback can help drive change painlessly.

10,000 steps
Her particular topic is the amount of walking we do on a daily basis. You may have heard the recommendation to walk 10,000 steps a day for fitness and weight loss. Apparently the 10,000 steps idea started in Japan as an encouraging guideline without any particular research behind it, but later studies (like the one described in this paper by Drs. Catrine Tudor-Locke and  David R. Bassett, Jr.) confirm that it’s an excellent goal for most people.

So 10,000 steps is good. How many steps do we actually take in a day? Su cites research that finds in America, our average is only half the recommended level (“Pedometer-Measured Physical Activity and Health Behaviors in U.S. Adults,” David R. Bassett, Jr.). This lands the average American solidly in the “not particularly active” zone except for those people who do regular, more energetic exercise that doesn’t involve stepping.

Automatic improvement
Other studies Su mentions seem to show that simply wearing a pedometer tends to result in an increased number of daily steps. This is exactly what Su tried–and it worked. “Eleven months later, the bloom is still not off the rose,” she says, “and I now routinely average 10,000 steps per day (including my workouts) without thinking too much about it. That’s pretty amazing to me, given that when I started out I was averaging around 5,200 or so.”

The tip alone is useful, but there’s also a meaningful lesson we can derive from it: awareness tends to automatically drive improvement. That is, when we have instant feedback on what we’re doing, we tend to do better at it. Competition can help a person do better, in part because they can measure how well they’re doing by comparison to others; using feedback loops provides a reliable, consistent boost to motivation (see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation”); and immediate feedback is a key component of “flow,” a state of optimal productivity and enjoyment  (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“).

So if you want to inspire yourself to do better at a particular task, find a way to add immediate feedback: wear a pedometer, watch yourself in the mirror, time yourself, keep a log of how many words you write per day, use meters and monitors, and in whatever other way you can, try to get instant feedback … because while we human beings may not always be the most industrious creatures on the planet, we do love a challenge.

Photo by Eneas

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