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Woman walking with dog on a snowy path.

Walking is the First Step to Preventing Heart Disease

August 24, 2017

Loyola Medicine cardiologist Khaled Dajani, MDBy Khaled Dajani, MD

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and 55 percent don’t get enough physical activity.

Walking and exercise have been shown to be good for one's health, and it is never too late to start. Evidence shows that walking leads to weight loss, lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, especially in people over the age of 50. In addition, people who are engaged in physical activity have a decreased risk of developing chronic heart disease, Type 2 diabetes mellitus and colon and breast cancer.

Regular, consistent physical activity strengthens the muscles and bones and decreases the risk of falls. Physically active individuals also have better sleep and an optimistic outlook on life.

If you are over age 50 and not used to exercise, you need to talk to your doctor to get medical clearance. I recommend starting slowly and building your endurance. Start with 10-minute increments twice a day.  For those with limited mobility, starting with easy chair exercises is a great way to increase fitness and confidence. It is important to warm up and cool down to prevent injury.

In order to gain benefit, you need to commit to an exercise schedule so it becomes a habit. Always listen to your body. Stop if it hurts or if you feel drowsy, have chest pain or shortness of breath.

In order to stay motivated, get support by involving your family and friends. Exercise is a great family social event. Keep a log of your accomplishments and focus on short-term goals. Before you know it, you will notice improvements, such as a better mood, weight loss, stress relief and a higher level of fitness.

Walking is the perfect, natural way to increase your physical activity. It is easy to do and simple to find a place to walk. You need no special equipment – just a good pair of supportive, well-fitted shoes. The average American walks 5,900 steps a day. The Centers for Disease Control recommends the average adult walk 7,000-8,000 steps a day or get in a total of 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. This translates into adding 30 minutes of brisk walking to your day. Using a smart pedometer or fitness tracker like a Fitbit is a great way to set up goals and stay on track.

Other ways to stay active that I encourage include stair climbing, dancing, cycling and kickboxing. Senior sports or fitness classes are a great way to relieve stress and get support from friends and other participants. Water aerobics classes reduce stress and strengthen joints. Yoga helps with strength, flexibility and balance. Tai Chi improves balance and strength.

In summary, it is important to educate yourself, set up realistic goals and develop an exercise plan. Follow through and stay committed so physical activity becomes a habit. Every step helps, and the goal is to live a long healthy life.

Khaled Dajani, MD, is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in cardiology and certified in cardiovascular computed tomography (CT) and echocardiography. Dr. Dajani is director of cardiac rehabilitation and the preventive cardiology and lipid clinic at Loyola Center for Health at Burr Ridge. He sees patients at Burr Ridge, the William G. and Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine at Loyola University Medical Center and Loyola Center for Health at Homer Glen.