Walking is terrific exercise — if you do it regularly. Here’s how to make the habit stick
If reaping the amazing health benefits that come with regular walking is your goal, here are two key steps to make that happen: Get out the door today, and get out the door every day for the next 65 days. That, at least, is what one bedrock study on the psychology of habit found really makes this kind of regular practice part of your routine.
“It is only when you repeatedly take steps on a consistent basis that change begins to happen,” Portland, Ore.–based walking coach Judy Heller explains.
So what should your daily walk look like? That part is more individual. “With some people, just getting out the door and walking to the end of the driveway and back is an accomplishment,” Heller says. And that’s OK. What’s important is figuring out the length, time and type of walk that works for you (maybe strolling every other day for 66 days is more realistic). Your focus should be on upping the chances that your new routine will take hold. These strategies can help.
Accept where you are. “If you can only walk 15 minutes in the morning, just do it,” says Michele Stanten, an American Council on Exercise–certified fitness instructor and walking coach. “It doesn’t matter if you do it all in one chunk or break it all up.” In fact, one study published in Diabetes Care found that people who walked on a treadmill for 15 minutes after meals regulated their blood sugar as well as those who walked continuously for 45 minutes.
Don’t compare yourself with anyone else or focus on anyone else’s accomplishments. “When the emphasis is on self-criticism, people stay stuck where they are,” Heller says. “Self-acceptance is the right frame of mind from which to grow. Value and appreciate your body for what it can do, when it can do it.”
Keep it doable. Once you lace up and head out, give yourself a little slack at first. “You don’t have to do more and go faster right now,” Heller emphasizes. “You can add more time and increase your pace in weekly increments, if you want. Even just adding two minutes to your walking the week after you start is a success.”
Make it enjoyable. When your schedule allows, trying adding a walk in a beautiful locale once a week. Studies show that nature walks offer health benefits that suburban or urban ones can’t. But, more importantly, if you choose an activity that you genuinely like, such as a woods hike, you’re much more inclined to stick with it over time, according to the research, notes Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Change.
Bring a friend. Have a buddy go out with you, or create a local walking group to make your time exercising more fun — and more likely to happen. “A friend of mine regularly sends out an email to 60 people every time she’s going to walk,” Heller says. “She says where she’s walking and when, and if people want to meet up with her, they do.”
Challenge yourself. Once your daily stroll starts to feel a bit too easy, it’s time to take things up a notch to help you stay motivated. Create step goals and track them with your phone or a simple pedometer, then increase your daily steps every other week. Sign up for a longer charity walk several months away, and create a plan for how you’ll work up to the distance. Explore walking vacations through organizations like Backroads (backroads.com).
You could also try out a new type of walking, say, Nordic walking, suggests fitness pioneer and New York Times best-selling author Kathy Smith. “Nordic walking is a low-impact total body version of walking,” explains Smith, who uses walking poles to boost her routine in the hills near her Utah home. “All ages and all fitness levels can do it.”
Don’t get discouraged by setbacks. Sickness, injury, weather and aging can derail your routine even after it becomes a habit. “For me, a setback is an opportunity to learn what’s working and what isn’t,” says Heller, who is currently nursing an unexpected meniscus injury. “Life ebbs and flows. Life happens. Injuries happen. Respect that.”
If you miss a walk, focus on making your next scheduled one happen by, say, laying out your exercise clothes and sneakers and setting up the coffee to start brewing a little earlier the next morning. Experts say that such little conveniences can’t be underestimated in helping to make any bigger fitness goal a reality.