As an escape from the screen or an excuse to just talk, the basic walk has been elevated to a wellness ritual. Across Northern Virginia, fitness programs that use the power of group dynamics are motivating people to increase physical activity.
Nancy Jacobson, instructor and program coordinator for the Physical Activity for Lifetime Wellness and Health Promotions Program at George Mason University, has a few pointers for those who want to start a group walking fitness program.
Before You Begin
Before embarking on any physical activity program, Jacobson recommends taking your overall health into consideration. “If you’re older or have preexisting conditions like arthritis, start slower and more gradually.” See a doctor first if you are taking certain medications that affect your heart rate.
Start each walk with dynamic stretching to warm up muscles and get blood moving. Instead of holding individual poses, make a single fluid movement through each stretch. After you complete your walk, that’s the time to do static stretches, says Jacobson, where you hold each pose for 10 to 30 seconds.
She recommends a technique that incorporates a longer step and swinging arms, with elbows bent at 90 degrees. Feet should land under the hips, and you should push off with the balls of the feet. As far as equipment, she says, all you need are decent shoes and a safe place to walk.
How Fit Can You Get by Walking?
“For most people, I use their resting heart rate to determine how in shape they are. The lower the rate, the more in shape they are” says Jacobson. To figure out your resting heart rate, take your pulse and count the number of beats for 30 seconds, and then double the number to get your beats per minute. Jacobson recommends doing this when you get up in the morning for two to three days and then averaging it for the best result. Over time, she says, your resting heart rate will decrease as you become more physically fit.
When it comes to intensity, she mentions guidelines set by the World Health Organization that adults should have 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. She also recommends that people gauge the intensity of their workouts using the rate of perceived exertion, a subjective scale between one and 10, where you increase the intensity as you go.
A more active walk will provide more health benefits, she says. “Walking enhances the mood and relieves stress and increases self-confidence. Research shows that brief exercise improves memory. I take my meetings outside, while walking, and I feel that I digest [the meeting] better.”
Sticking with It
“When you exercise with people you like, [exercise] seems like less effort, your program seems to pass quicker, and you are more likely to stick with it,” Jacobson says. “If I have a walking buddy, I don’t want to skip a day and let them down. There’s also willingness and wanting to [exercise]. Find a place where you like to walk, that you enjoy, and that adds variety [to your program].”
It’s self-defeating to engage in negative talk, so plan ways to avoid it. “We’re wired to be hard on ourselves,” says Jacobson. “If you need a break, preplan them so you don’t feel like you’re failing if you have to stop. [Remind yourself] that we all start at the beginning—even professional [athletes],” she says.
Instead of negative talk, she says to “ask yourself, What can you do to be healthy? If what you can do is stretch, that’s great. Start with that. Celebrate little accomplishments, the baby steps, and don’t let one setback become a bigger setback.”
To motivate yourself, she adds, “The higher the intensity of your daily program, the quicker you’ll see changes. Walking is a great workout that’s not as hard on the knees or joints [as running]. I think people feel like they have to be breathless after a workout, and then [they] equate that to being in shape. ‘No pain, no gain’ isn’t true.”
Where to Walk
If you’re a senior: The Virginia Hospital Center has weekly mall walking groups that include stretching, balance work, blood pressure screenings, and monthly birthday parties. The walks are every Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at Pentagon City or Ballston Mall. virginiahospitalcenter.com
If you’re a mom—or soon to be one: Fit4Mom offers a wide range of walking group fitness classes. In Arlington or Alexandria, Strides 360 classes focus on prenatal physical activity. For moms and babies, there are Stroller Strides, where the kids are taken off your hands while you work out and attended by a caregiver. arlington-alexandria.fit4mom.com
If you want an intense hike: Try the Center Hiking Club Meetup group. A recent trek included a three-hour excursion through Crystal City, exploring the recent developments and history of the neighborhood. meetup.com/center-hiking-club
If you want kid- and family-friendly group walks: Arlington Parks has walking groups designed to meet your needs. New hikes are scheduled to go live this fall. parks.arlingtonva.us/programs
If you’re a dog person: There’s a walk for you with DogOn Fitness. While it focuses on your dog’s fitness, rather than your own, your best friend will get a vigorous daily walk that can incorporate obedience training and brain games. dogonfitness.com
If you just want to try this whole thing out: Arlington County, AVA/America’s Walking Club, and the International Marching League promote walking as a physical fitness activity. They host their 20th annual US FreedomWalk Festival next month, October 15–17. You can register online or attend virtually. usfreedomwalk.org