Here’s a straightforward recipe for heart health: Get off the couch and move.
For some people, that means heading to the gym, but others may be more inclined to take in some fresh air. Starting an outdoor walking or running program can be a great way to improve fitness, burn off extra pounds and improve cardiovascular endurance.
“You want to just get moving,” said Chris Tafralian, coordinator at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Eichenbaum Fitness Center on Fairfax Avenue. “It improves your heart rate, it improves your circulation, it improves your brain function, also. Cardiovascular exercise helps keep your cognitive abilities very strong.”
Walk It Off
Whether you decide to start walking or take up the more vigorous challenge of running will depend on your fitness level. For people with little or no physical conditioning, walking is the best place to start, exercise experts agree.
Susan Murray, a certified personal trainer at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, which offers a weekly walking program, said walking is a great exercise because it’s accessible to almost everyone. However, people who are seriously overweight or suffer from health problems should consult a doctor before starting a walking routine, she cautioned.
“It’s less scary for people to start with something like [walking] if they’re intimidated by going to a gym,” she said. “It’s the kind of exercise anybody can do.”
People who are new to exercise or who haven’t exercised for a while should aim to walk for 10 to 20 minutes at least two to three days a week, Murray said. As their bodies adapt to the routine, they can gradually increase walks to 30 minutes or more. Ultimately, walkers should up the frequency of their exercise sessions to four or five days a week, she said.
The goal should be to walk at a comfortable pace that’s still fast enough to feel a little challenging, Tafralian said. She tells walkers to be aware of their posture, keeping their shoulders back and spine straight. They should also pump their arms, with elbows bent as they walk, rather than letting their hands swing loosely at their sides, she said.
“The more you walk, the better you’re going to feel,” she said. “Walking is really good for your heart rate. It’s also weight bearing, so it helps to prevent osteoporosis.”
Walking is a particularly good exercise for seniors, helping them stay mobile and maintain good balance, Tafralian said. It’s wise, she said, to incorporate resistance training and stretching two to three times a week to build muscle mass, either with a home exercise video or at a gym. The Eichenbaum Fitness Center offers fitness assessments and training programs to people age 50 and older for $25 a month.
If you’re already a regular walker, you can increase the intensity — and calorie burn — of your outdoor workouts by running. Just don’t expect to become a marathon champion overnight. The key to succeeding as a runner, or sticking to any exercise regimen, is to set realistic goals, several trainers emphasized.
“Most people who give up, their expectations are greater than what they can actually achieve,” Murray said. “We tell people to set a goal that is manageable.”
For prospective runners, a realistic goal is to complete a “Couch to 5k” program, an exercise regimen designed to gradually build up a participant’s stamina over several weeks until he or she can run a 3.1-mile race. Most of these programs, which can be found online or put together by a trainer or running coach, begin by interspersing walking and running, and then shortening the walking intervals over time.
Sample programs can be found on sites such as Active.com and Coolrunning.com. Local running clubs or specialty running stores also may offer beginner programs, or you can work with a fitness trainer to design your own personal regimen.
A good program should include three to five days a week of running, two or three days of cross-training and at least one rest day when the participant does not exercise, said Jennifer Fah, president of the L.A.LEGGERS, a running club in Santa Monica. Cross-training can be swimming, yoga, cycling or walking.
“Anything that’s not running,” Fah said.
Cross-training helps you improve your overall fitness and avoid injury by exercising muscles not directly employed during running. A rest day is important because it helps the body recover, she said.
One great advantage to running is that it’s cheap. The only essential is a good pair of running shoes, Fah said.
“The most important thing I’d tell a beginner is: Don’t just go to the sporting-goods store and find the cutest pair of shoes,” she stressed. “Go to a specialized running store and have them analyze your gait and recommend shoes for you. If you get the wrong shoes, you can get hurt.”
New runners should also pay attention to how they run. For efficient movement and to avoid injury, make sure you hit the ground with the ball of your foot first and never on the heel, Fah said.
Be cautious when running downhill. The upper body tends to want to move faster than the lower body, and it’s important to take small, quick steps instead of wide lunges, to avoid falling over, she said.
Hydration is another key component, particularly with longer runs, Fah explained. Runners should drink 4 to 6 ounces of water every 20 to 30 minutes. If a run is longer than 90 minutes, Fah suggests a sports drink with electrolytes to replace lost sodium and other minerals.
Like walking, running can result in many health benefits, including weight loss, stress relief, and improved lung and heart function. But some people struggle to stick to a running program.
Kirsten Bell, who runs KapaBle Koaching in Culver City and specializes in training people for 5k runs and triathlons, said she’s seen many people quit halfway through a program.
For some, family commitments get in the way. Others try to go too fast too soon and end up not enjoying running. Beginners should maintain a conversational pace when running and not push themselves too fast, she said.
To avoid those pitfalls, Bell recommends creating a clear vision of where you see yourself by the end of the program. You can even make a board with photos or drawings of how you would like to look at the end of the program, as well as inspiring words to help you stick to goals.
Running with a buddy or in a group is not just a good safety precaution in case someone gets hurt; it’s a great way to stay motivated, several trainers said.
“I find most people, if they’re accountable to somebody else … they’re less likely to let that person down, “ Murray said. “And if you have somebody who’s trying to do the same thing you’re doing, it’s much easier to stick to a program.”
Ultimately, whether you choose to run, walk or do a completely different type of exercise, the most important thing is to do something, Murray said.
“We just want people to get off the couch and try something, and not to get discouraged,” Murray said. “Exercise should be something they start and they end up liking, and it just becomes part of their daily routine.”