It's easy, inexpensive, amazingly good for you, and has few undesirable side effects. Yet it's all too often overlooked when people consider which form of exercise is best for them. It is walking, and the evidence continues to mount that three brisk walks a week may be the most health-conscious thing you can do for your body.

The results surprised even JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, DrPH, and she's supposed to know all about the subject.

"No, I didn't realize just how effective walking was," says Dr. Manson, the co-director of women's health at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "We always knew that walking was effective, but after looking at the results, I'm surprised that walking isn't readily adopted by more people."

The results came from a study presented by Dr. Manson and her colleagues at a meeting of the American Heart Association. The study, part of an eight-year research project of 84,000 female nurses ages 40-65, reported that women who walked for at least three hours a week had a 40% lower risk of ]]>heart attack]]> and ]]>stroke]]> than women who didn't walk. The study also suggested that the brisker the walk, the greater the health benefit.

"The benefits of walking are just not well appreciated," says Dr. Manson. "There is still a misperception among the public that in order to achieve any health benefit, you have to exercise vigorously or be a marathon runner. And that's just not true."

Walking Offers a Variety of Benefits With Few Risks

Results from the Nurses' Health Study demonstrate the following benefits:

  • It's inexpensive, requiring little equipment other than a pair of sturdy shoes. There are no fees to pay, no courses to drive to, and it's as easy to do as strolling around the block.
  • It's probably the safest form of exercise. Walkers stand little chance of developing ]]>shin splints]]> , ]]>tennis elbow]]> , or torn muscles, cartilage, or ligaments. "About the only way you can hurt yourself is by tripping on the sidewalk," says Robert Vaughn, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the Tom Landry Sports Medicine and Research Center at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. In one study, 70-year-olds suffered twice as many injuries from running as they did from walking.
  • Walking is one of the most efficient, low-impact workouts available. Walking and running burn about the same amount of calories per mile. (The benefit to running comes from the fact that you can cover more miles running than walking in the same amount of time.)
  • Walking offers a host of long-term benefits, which were outlined in the study. Among the findings: women who walked briskly (3-4 miles per hour, or one mile every 15-20 minutes) had a 54% lower risk of heart attacks and strokes. Walking also lowers ]]>blood pressure]]> , improves the ]]>cholesterol profile]]> , lowers the risk of ]]>osteoporosis]]> , and may lower the risk of certain kinds of ]]>cancer]]> . There is also evidence that walking helps reduce stress. "I really feel it on the days when the weather is too bad and I can't walk," says Joan Bondioli of Dallas, who walks her dog 40 minutes a day. "I just don't feel as good. I feel like there's something missing."
  • Walking may also reduce the discomfort of the commonest forms of ]]>arthritis]]> . In addition it can help with weight loss, one of the most commonly recommended interventions for osteoarthritis.

Getting Started

Although walking is safe and dependable, don't start any sort of exercise regimen without first consulting your doctor. Once you've received a clean bill of health, keep these points in mind.

Start Slow and Build Up

If you are what the experts call chronically sedentary, don't try walking 10 miles the first time you get off the couch. "See what you're capable of," says Dr. Vaughn. "If you walk five minutes around your yard, and then don't feel like doing any more, then don't do any more. But the next time you walk, try to go a little longer. Eventually, you'll be up to that 10 miles."

Keep in mind, especially if you're just starting to walk, that you have to come back from where you have walked. Make sure you can cover the entire distance comfortably, and not just the first part of it.

Walk Briskly

The Nurses' study defined "briskly" as 3-4 miles per hour. Dr. Manson adds, "If there's one thing to keep in mind about walking, that's it. If you walk two miles per hour or less, your health benefits aren't going to be as great, especially if you already engage in moderate exercise."

That brisk pace is not as daunting as it seems. It works out to a mile every 15 to 20 minutes, which many people can cover when they're walking their dog. And people who are new to exercising don't have to hit that speed immediately to benefit from walking. The Nurses' study pointed out that people with a slower pace had a 32% reduction in heart disease compared with people who didn't walk at all.

Find a Friend to Walk With

It not only makes the time go faster, but the companionship makes it easier to go walking on the days when the last thing you feel like doing is exercising.

Buy and Use a Pedometer

A pedometer allows you to measure how many steps you take daily. With a pedometer you can incorporate walking activities into your daily life and keep a record of how far you walk. Pedometers are now readily available and quite inexpensive. They can help you guide and evaluate your exercise activities.

What It Won't do

Walking, despite its strengths, is not a panacea for the ills of the modern world.

Walking strengthens the large leg muscles, including the quadriceps and the gluteus muscles, but it won't give you a body-building physique. If you want that, you'll have to ]]>lift weights]]> . Walking alone is not a terrific way to ]]>lose weight]]> —you've got to combine regular exercise with a reduced-calorie diet.

Do expect walking to make you feel better, both physically and mentally.

Dr. Manson hopes that more people will realize what walking has to offer. So, get up off the couch, lace up your sneakers, and go !