The easiest fitness activity is plain old walking. It’s a great way to improve and maintain your health, anyone can do it, it can be done anywhere (even in-place, while watching TV) and all you need are supportive shoes.

However, since humans are involved, injuries can happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that every day about 430 Americans are treated in emergency rooms for traffic-related pedestrian injuries; about 13 pedestrians are killed every day by traffic accidents.

If you don’t stay aware of your surroundings or don’t observe gym or track rules, you might find yourself sidelined before you get started. Let’s review some safety tips.

  • Get permission to start a walking program from your doctor. This is essential if you have chronic health problems, have been inactive for a while or are older and inactive.
  • Wear supportive shoes – they’re the only “equipment” you’ll need. Don’t wear worn-out shoes because they lack the support needed to avoid injuries. Socks help prevent blisters and there are many options from all-cotton padded socks to “wick-away” blends.
  • Consider using a pedometer. They’re a handy, inexpensive tool to track your progress. It’s also a great motivator – pedometer users average 2,000 steps a day more than nonusers.
  • Always take ID that includes an emergency contact number. A whistle is a good piece of safety equipment to let others know if something is wrong.
  • Don’t stress over what to wear – it doesn’t need to be complicated. Wear clothing that will let your skin breathe. Dress in layers you can remove in the winter; breathable fabrics and sunscreen in warm weather. Be sure others can see you with bright or light-colored clothing or reflective gear at night, dawn and dusk.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water before you start and more after you return. If you’re going to be exercising for a while or it’s very hot and humid, take water with you. Water is best; don’t waste your money on expensive sports drinks. Only extreme exercisers or long-distance athletes need to replace electrolytes. Don’t drink alcohol before you walk. Fully a third of all pedestrian deaths occur in people who are intoxicated.
  • Check the weather and avoid days when the air quality is dangerous.
  • Check your pace by using your breathing as a guide. You should be able to carry on a conversation without gasping for air when walking or running. Breathing in through your mouth and nose and out through your mouth lets you take the deepest breaths. This method delivers more oxygen to your muscles; exhaling though your mouth removes more carbon dioxide. Try to breathe from your belly; chest breathing is too shallow.
  • Maintain good posture because it helps you breathe deeper and provides support. Don’t hunch over or lean forward. Keep your back straight, shoulders relaxed and head in line with your body. Try to focus on the horizon to support your head and neck. Tighten your core muscles as you walk to reduce lower back pain. Swing your arms from your shoulders, not elbows. If you feel your shoulders tensing up, shrug your shoulders and let them relax several times. Don’t clench your fists – it can raise blood pressure.
  • Land on the middle of your foot and roll to the front of your toes if you are jogging. Landing on your heels means you’ve overstrided, and it wastes energy and can cause injury. If you are walking, hit the ground with your heel and roll through to your toes. Be sure toes are pointed straight ahead to avoid injuries from walking with them pointed in or out. If your stride is too long, it can cause injury to your hips, knees and ankles.
  • Choose safe areas that are well lit, frequently used by others, or gyms, tracks or malls. Vary your route to prevent anyone from memorizing your routine. And, a different route is more interesting. Trail hiking or wilderness treks require constant attention to the walking surface. Wear hiking boots to protect your feet from rocks, roots and other hazards. If you’re hiking in a remote area, go with a hiking partner. Whenever you’re walking solo, always tell someone (or leave a note) where you’re going and when you expect to return.
  • Be polite to others by observing a few simple rules, including: Walk or jog single file if you’re with a group and on a narrow path. If you’re on a road, no more than two abreast so others can pass. Stay on the right unless you’re passing. Check for other walkers or cyclists behind you before passing others.
  • Always, ALWAYS face traffic when walking or jogging on a street. You need to be able to see vehicles to avoid them. Never assume they can see you. In fact, assume drivers cannot see you and act accordingly – make eye contact with drivers or wave at them. Be especially careful at the crest of hills and blind curves. Drivers can be suddenly blinded by sun glare, on-coming headlights or other distractions. Be careful at driveways as drivers are watching for traffic, not walkers. Always cross the street at designated crosswalks or intersections. Driveways, crosswalks and intersections are prime locations for accidents.
  • Be sure you can hear other people or bicyclists behind you. Listen for their warnings: “passing on the left/right” or just “left/right.” In turn, call out when you start to pass someone. It’s safest not to listen to music at all unless you’re on a treadmill.
  • Avoid distractions such as using your cell phone because you’ll be less aware of traffic dangers, tripping hazards and other people. Potential criminals see distracted walkers or joggers as easy targets. If you see something suspicious or “get a feeling,” be prepared to alter your course or go into a public building to avoid them. Do not go immediately to your car or home – a public area is safer.
  • Walk with a friend because it’s safer and certainly more fun. A walking buddy is a good motivator because you don’t want to disappoint someone who is waiting for you.
  • Take a cell phone for emergencies. But, do not text or use it when walking. A surprising number of injuries occur when walking and using a mobile device.
  • Know when to stop, such as when you feel lightheaded, weak, nauseated, get a bad headache or have any muscle, joint or chest pain.
  • Improve flexibility at the end of your walk by stretching your warmed-up muscles.
  • Set goals and once you reach them, set bigger goals in terms of distance or time spent walking. Tell family and friends about your walking/jogging goals so they can help keep you motivated.

Using a track 

  • Follow the posted usage rules, including which direction to run or which lanes to use. Outer lanes are usually for walkers or slower runners.
  • Don’t stop in traffic if you need to tie a shoe or take a drink. Always move to the side or off the track. First, check behind you to be sure you’re not stepping into someone’s path.

Using a treadmill

  • Step on a treadmill carefully, never while the belt is moving at full speed.
  • Find the emergency stop switch; clip the safety-stop cord onto your body so the treadmill will stop if you stumble or fall.
  • Start at a slow rate of speed and step on while holding onto the railing.
  • Increase speed only after you’re walking comfortably.
  • Do not hold the handrail or console because you cannot move naturally or use a good stride. If you feel uncertain about using a treadmill or your balance is shaky, walk more slowly until you gain confidence. However, if you have a disability, use the handrails and consult a physical therapist about achieving good walking posture while holding handrails.
  • Do not look down or hunch your shoulders to avoid low-back, neck or shoulder pain. Try to look forward. Position your video or reading material so you’re looking straight ahead. Try not to lean forward; check your posture regularly while walking to reinforce correct posture habits.
  • Don’t over-stride. Land on your heel but keep your foot close to your body. Your back food remains on the ground longer to give you more pushing power. This may mean shortening your stride. It’s the back foot push off that gives you more speed and works your muscles more efficiently.
  • Avoid the flat-footed stomp that some treadmill walkers use. Land on your heel and roll through to your toes is ideal form. Be sure your shoes are not too stiff and allow the rolling motion of your foot.
  • Experiment with the incline feature because the steeper the incline the better the cardio workout. Most treadmills have additional features you can try out: heart rate or pulse monitors, programmed workouts provide some variety, calories burned, personal workout history and others.
  • Add running to your workout to increase fitness. Start with a three- to five-minute brisk walk to warm up. Follow with short intervals of running, then walking.
  • Do not let children play anywhere near a treadmill.

Mall walking

  • Malls are probably the safest and most accessible place to walk. They’re free, available most days of the year, weather controlled, secure and free from traffic dangers.
  • Malls offer free water, parking, restrooms and places to sit down. Ever-changing store windows help keep you from getting bored.
  • Mall-walking groups offer socialization and serve as a motivation to get moving.
  • Even for walkers who prefer the outdoors, the heat, humidity, cold, ice and snow can stop your daily walks. Before weather stops you, scout out a mall or other weather-controlled location where you can walk on bad-weather days.

How far to fitness?

  • To keep fit, most experts recommend 10,000 steps a day.
  • To lose half a pound a week, you’ll need to walk at least 40 minutes daily at a pace of four miles per hour. The faster you walk, the more calories you’ll burn.
  • Boost the calories burned by about 25 percent by walking in hilly areas.
  • Power walking (walking fast and pumping your arms) is a good way to strengthen muscles and burn as many calories as jogging.
  • Don’t use hand or ankle weights when walking. Experts caution against them because they can cause injuries to your joints, ligaments and tendons. And, they will not increase the number of calories burned.

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