Health & Family

Step quickly for health benefits

Q. I've heard many recommendations to use a pedometer and try to walk 10,000 steps a day. I've been using one for years and usually meet or exceed the target. But most of my steps are at a normal walking pace — just to get wherever I'm going. What I usually don't manage is 30 minutes of exercise a day. The steps can't be the same thing as 30 minutes of exercise. How do these fit together?

The 10,000 steps suggestion is a helpful starting point, but its relevance depends on the individual needs of the person. Those 10,000 steps you take are a terrific indicator that you're getting more activity than the average person and warding off disease in the process, says Melissa Johnson, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. However, she wouldn't have exercise newbies go that far. “We want to encourage sedentary people, and that figure could be daunting,” she says.

The council's baseline recommendation, therefore, is actually 8,500 steps a day.

That's the 5,000 most people rack up in the course of a day with an extra 3,500 tacked on from a half-hour of brisk walking.

In other words, the 30-minutes-a-day exercise standard can be part of the 10,000-steps goal as long as you're moving quickly enough to raise your heart rate. And it doesn't have to be done in one chunk. “Bouts of 10 to 15 minutes are great,” Johnson adds. So if your main concern is merely meeting these two standards, just put a bit more spring into your step during longer treks.

Starting a running program

Q. I'm 30 pounds overweight and am whittling that down via a healthier diet and an intense kickboxing class three to five times a week. I'd like to start running but am nervous about the strain on my knees and hips (notorious weak points in my family). Any suggestions for starting a running program?

If chunky people couldn't jog, you'd have a heck of a time explaining the existence of John “The Penguin” Bingham, the Runner's World columnist whose whole shtick is that he transformed himself from a 240-pound lump into a marathoner.

Bingham, also the author of “Running for Mortals,” credits his success to his slow and steady approach: He began with walking, gradually blended in running and made sure never to do anything that left him achy.

“It took me six months before I could walk/run three miles,” he says.

Maggie Shapiro, a triathlete and coach, teaches her runners a similar lesson. “We advise everyone to go in with a plan and build carefully,” she says. “It needs to be pre-thought, or that excitement of feeling good can set people on a slippery slope.”

That's because injuries happen not because of your family history of weak knees, but because of overuse and misuse. Given the proper buildup, footwear and recovery, your body will learn how to handle these stresses, she adds. And thanks to your cardiovascular health, you may find out that not only can you be a runner, you can be a pretty good one.