Exercise is for everyone

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— You probably know someone who started running or biking - "just for exercise and weight loss" - and got hooked on the activity. As you see him bounding out of the driveway, leans as a greyhound, you think: "That's fine for him, but not for me."

Exercise is for you, however. Study after study has demonstrated that regular physical activity is good for just about everything - controlling weight, toning muscles, strengthening the cardiovascular system and lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes and many cancers.

If you want to exercise, but are insecure about your ability or just not interested in becoming as fanatical as Charlie, walking may be the activity for you. Everyone knows how to walk, and you can start at any pace or distance that suits your level of health and fitness.

Whereas running attracted enthusiasts in the 1980s and biking in the 1990s, walking is taking its place today as a favored activity. The National Sporting Goods Association estimates that 80 million Americans walk for exercise and one third of that number walk three times a week or more.

Following a report of a panel of experts in 1995, the American Heart Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and many other groups endorsed a plan recommending 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise such as brisk walking. This can be done continuously or broken up into smaller segments - such as two 15-minute or three 10-minute sessions.

More recently, the Institute of Medicine said that 60 minutes a day of vigorous physical activity would be more beneficial. Walking still qualifies, however, as a good choice.

It gets the muscles moving and the heart pumping for an extended period without putting excessive impact or stress on the joints or muscles.

The more, the merrier

While some individuals don't have the time or inclination for 60 minutes a day, studies have confirmed that the more exercise you get, the better. A long-term study of 17,000 Harvard alumni found that men who exercised regularly lived longer than those who were sedentary, and the health benefits increased with the amount of calories consumed during exercise - at least up to about 2,000 calories a week.

The ongoing Women's Health Study, with data from 73,000 women, concluded that those walking two and a half hours a week had a 30 percent reduced risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular problem during a six-year period. In this study, the benefits increased with a faster walking period.

The most obvious benefit of walking - or any exercise - is weight control. Excess weight, like physical inactivity, is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Each mile you walk uses up about 100 calories, so 20 miles of walking a week adds up to more than half a pound of weight lost (or not gained). Faster walking, or jogging, allows you to cover more miles in the same amount of time, and there is some extra benefit from the intensity.

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