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Structuring Your Walking Program

You can modify three different variables to make your walking and fitness program harder or easier: frequency, intensity, and time. Before you can begin manipulating each variable, you need to understand what each variable is.

Frequency

Frequency refers to the number of times you work out per week. The number of your weekly workouts often has a direct impact on how quickly you achieve your goals.

The American College of Sports Medicine, among other respected organizations, recommends that everyone do some sort of activity that exercises the heart at least three times a week. At this minimum level of activity, you can achieve certain health goals, such as increased stamina, lower cholesterol, and protection from heart disease and other forms of chronic illness. However, if your goal is to lose weight or train for an athletic event, you need to walk more often to achieve results.

The type of walking you do may also dictate the number of times that you need to exercise per week. If you’re a lifestyle walker, try to walk every day or nearly every day because lifestyle walking is a relatively low-intensity activity. On the other hand, if your primary form of walking is high-energy or walk-run, take at least one day off a week to prevent injury and workout burnout.

Intensity

The word intensity means how hard you’re working. You can measure intensity in three ways: You can take your heart rate, rate your level of exertion by using a tool called the RPE scale, or take the talk test. Familiarize yourself with all three ways and decide which way works best for you:

  • Heart rate: Measuring your heart rate during your workout is the most precise way to track exercise intensity. How fast your heart beats corresponds directly with how hard you’re working. Your goal is not to hit an exact heart rate each time you work out but rather an entire range of heart rates. This range is called your target heart-rate zone. To estimate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220 and then follow these guidelines:

    • When you’re lifestyle walking, aim for a target heart-rate zone between 50 and 60 percent of your maximum heart rate.

    • When you’re fitness walking, aim for a target heart rate range between 60 and 75 percent of your maximum heart rate.

    • When you high-energy walk, aim for a target heart rate range of 75 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate.

    • When you walk-run, aim for a variable target heart rate that spans your entire target range, depending on whether you are running or walking easily to recover from a run.

    If you are taking any medications or if you are pregnant, get your doctor’s advice about what your maximum heart rate and training zone should be.

  • Rating of perceived exertion (RPE): Having an overall sense of how hard you think you’re working is a good way to measure intensity. The RPE scale helps put a number on your general psychological impressions of intensity by rating it on a scale of 1 to 10. A rating of 1 on the RPE scale represents a level of activity that is really, really easy; a rating of 10 represents a maximum level of activity.

    • For lifestyle walking, an RPE of 4 to 6 is ideal.

    • For fitness walking, an RPE of 6 to 8 is ideal.

    • For high-energy walking, an RPE of 8 to 9.5 is ideal.

    • For walk-run, strive for an RPE of anywhere from 4 to 9.5, depending on what phase of the workout you’re in.

  • The talk test: The talk test is the simplest way to gauge exercise intensity. By talking aloud as you walk, you can tell how hard you’re working. Here are some talk test guidelines:

    • You should be able to carry on a slightly breathy conversation during a lifestyle walk.

    • You should be able to offer snatches of breathless conversation during a fitness walk.

    • You should barely be able to speak during the peak of your high-energy walking workouts, although you should be able to throw out a breathless word or two here or there.

    • Your talk test will vary during your walk-run, depending on whether you are involved in a high-intensity or low-intensity phase.

Time

Time represents how long your walks last. The length of your workouts is dictated by many factors:

  • Frequency: You may choose to walk more often instead of doing a long workout three or four days a week.

  • Intensity: The higher intensity your workouts, the shorter they will be. You can’t keep up very high-intensity exercise for long periods of time. On the other hand, if your walks are pretty low-key, you should be able to walk for an hour or more without feeling so tired that you have to stop.

  • Schedule: You may not have an hour every day to walk. If your time is of the essence, then that factor probably dictates the length of your walks. However, you always have the option of splitting your walks up into two or three mini-sessions a day.

  • Fitness level: The fitter you are, the longer you can walk. When you first start out, you may get winded after 20 minutes. After you’ve been exercising for a while, you may be able to go as long as 45 minutes without getting tired.

  • Goals: Sometimes your goals — such as preparing for a trekking trip in the Grand Canyon, or for a triathlon or marathon — will determine how much time you spend walking.

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