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Walking: The Easiest Exercise

Improve your health in the new year

En español | I have two doctors, my left leg and my right leg," wrote British author George Trevelyan in 1913 about the health benefits of walking. Nearly a century later, modern medical experts echo the same advice: Get up and walk.

Walking may be the single best — and easiest — exercise you can do to improve your health in 2012.

See also: Sitting too much may be hazardous to your health.

Not only will going for a daily walk help you feel better now, it will help you maintain your independence and ability to do daily tasks as you age, says Barbara Bushman, a health professor at Missouri State University who has helped older, sedentary men and women start a walking routine.

Research also has shown that walking regularly can help protect the aging brain against memory loss and dementia, help cut the risk of heart disease, and reduce the chance of developing type 2 diabetes in high-risk adults by a whopping 60 percent.

And we're not talking marathon walking either. The peak benefits come from 30 minutes of exercise several times a week, say experts.

Most of us do need to move more: Only 30 percent of people ages 45 to 64 say they engage in regular leisure-time physical activity, and that drops to 25 percent for those 65 to 74, according to the National Institute on Aging, which has launched a "get off your duff" campaign called Go4Life.

And even if you weigh 400 pounds and can't climb a flight of stairs — you can start walking. Just ask Rick Genter.

Rick Genter before losing 200 pounds by walking and eating right.

Photo by Jonathan Sprague/Redux

Rick Genter before weight loss.

Genter, a 51-year-old software engineer in Redwood City, Calif., was morbidly obese 10 years ago. He lived in the Boston area then and spent his whole day sitting at a computer. Walking up a flight of stairs left him gasping for breath.

"My whole family is obese," he says. "My mother died at age 56. My father is at least 150 pounds overweight and on all sorts of medication. I had high cholesterol, high triglycerides and I was convinced I was on my way to diabetes, a heart attack, or both."

Genter joined a medically supervised weight loss program. They told him he needed to do some kind of exercise every day.

Rick Genter after his 200 pound weight loss, walking in a park.

Photo by Jonathan Sprague/Redux

Rick Genter after he lost a total of 186 pounds by walking and eating right.

"They said, 'Do anything as long as you like it,' " he recalls.

Walking seemed doable, so he started out slowly, walking 30 minutes each day on his lunch break.

"I found I really liked it. And as I started to lose weight, it got easier," Genter says.

As the pounds came off, he began walking to work — seven miles each way — even in winter.

"It felt so great. It made me understand what was meant by 'a runner's high.' "

Nearly a year after he started dieting and walking, Genter had lost 186 pounds and was down to his goal weight of 200 pounds. He got a new job in Northern California, and last year he got married.

He and his wife now have a dog, and walking it twice a day for 20 to 25 minutes is part of his daily exercise routine.

He also makes sure he gets up from his computer at work several times a day and takes a brisk 30-minute walk.

Today he weighs 195, he says proudly. "It's been nine years and I've kept it off. And walking is a big reason why."

Genter didn't join a gym, hire a trainer or buy an exercise machine. He just walked.

So how do you get started? Slowly.

"Don't set a really large goal. Set a small one first, like walking one block, then gradually add on to that," suggests Sharon Brangman, M.D., chief of geriatric medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. Her patients are all over 65, many in their 80s and beyond.

"I've had women in their 70s who tell me they feel sluggish and can't lose weight even though they eat like a bird," she says. But once they start walking daily, "they sleep better, feel better and even lose some weight. One woman told me, 'I don't know why I didn't do this before.' "

Start with a short walk, even five to 10 minutes, and gradually increase to 30 minutes five days a week. "And it doesn't have to be 30 minutes continuously. You could even split it into three 10-minute walks during the day," says Bushman, who is also editor of the new American College of Sports Medicine's Complete Guide to Fitness and Health.

Just be sure to check with your doctor before you start any exercise program, especially if you recently have been inactive or are substantially increasing your activity level.

Also of interest: Exercise tips for boomers. >>

Candy Sagon writes about health and food for the AARP Bulletin.