Starting a Walking or Running Program

By Lindsey Townsend

Spring’s warmer temperatures make it the ideal time to begin an exercise program. You’ll find people out strolling the park as well as pounding the pavement in their quest for fitness. So how do you know whether to lace up your shoes for a stroll or a serious sprint?

If you don’t exercise regularly, experts agree that a walking program is the safest, most accessible way to get started. “Walking is ideal for older people or anyone wishing to start and maintain a program of physical activity. It’s easy, it’s safe, you don’t need any special equipment except for a good pair of walking shoes and you can do it anywhere, anytime,” says Andrea Kriska, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Last fall, researchers at the School reported that starting and maintaining a simple walking program may be the best way to prevent heart disease and reduce surgeries and hospitalizations later in life.

As a general rule, any exercise that causes your heart to beat fast and can be sustained for more than 20 minutes is good aerobic exercise. With walking, in a sense you’re really targeting one main muscle-the heart. For walking to be truly aerobic, though, you must walk energetically, not merely stroll, for at least 20 minutes three to four times a week. “I tell women to walk like they’re in a hurry to get to a sale!” says Loren Middaq, a physical therapist with Peak Performance Physical Therapy in Los Angeles, California.

Ideally, while you walk you want to remain within your target heart rate for 30-60 minutes, but if you’re just starting out, adjust down accordingly. To determine your target heart rate, first subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate. Your target heart rate is 60-80% of this number. For example, if you are 35, your maximum heart rate would be 185 beats per minute, and your target heart rate would range from 111 to 148 beats per minute. If figuring out your heart rate is too much of a hassle, try the “talk test” instead. During your workout, you should be breathing hard but not too winded to carry on a conversation.

Stretching is also an important part of any exercise routine, even walking, to prevent injury and muscle soreness. “Walk first for five minutes, then stretch your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps and back muscles, holding each stretch steadily and not bouncing,” says Mark Feiger, owner of Healthy Images Personal Training in Las Colinas, Texas.When you're finished with your workout, take another five to 10 minutes to repeat the stretching exercises you did after your warm-up.

While walking is the safest form of exercise, nothing beats running for cardiovascular conditioning and working the large muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals. But there are definite hazards are associated with the sport. “If you’re an exercise beginner, I never recommend running. There’s too much risk for injury such as shin splints, knee problems, and tendonitis,” says Middaq. People with previous knee, hip or back problems or a history or risk of cardiovascular disease should avoid running. Tom Brunick, technical editor for Runner’s World Magazine and director of the Athletes’ Footwear Test Center at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, adds, “Running doesn’t do anything for skeletal strength or flexibility. To round out a running program, you should add a stretching and strength conditioning routine.”

If you still want to feel the wind in your hair by running, begin with a walk/run program to avoid injury. Budd Coates, four-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, recommends that a person with no running background begin with eight straight days of walking-first, four days of 20 minutes, then four days of 30 minutes. After that, introduce two minutes of running alternating with four minutes of walking. Repeat this five times for a total of 30 minutes per workout.

For walking, try lightweight walking shoes, and replace them every six months. You’ll find many elements of running shoes in walking shoes, particularly shock-absorbent heels and midsoles and extra heel padding. Dr. Carol Frey, M.D., associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, suggests replacing running shoes every 300 miles if you run on hard surfaces and every 500 miles if you run on soft surfaces. While your local athletic store offers a myriad of options, keep in mind that the salesperson may or may not be knowledgeable. Bob Wischnia, shoe advice columnist for Runner’s World Online, recommends spending at least $75 but no more than $90. For more information, check out the Running Shoe Database of the American Running and Fitness Association at

If possible, try to run on even, soft surfaces to help avoid ankle twists and sprains. If you must run on the roads, the Road Runners Club of America recommends that you run against oncoming traffic, and choose blacktop roads whenever possible. If you’re walking or running at night, remember to wear reflective clothing for safety and stay on familiar, well-lit streets. Finally, before you hit the road, “I’d walk over to see my doctor first for a complete checkup,” says Brunick.

Remember, sticking with any regular exercise program is a marathon, not a sprint. “Too many people try to do too much too fast and end up getting hurt physically, emotionally, or both. Never increase mileage more than 10% a week, and if you have any pain, that’s a warning sign. Stop and get it checked out right away,” he advises.


  • Benefits: Improves cardiovascular fitness; lowers blood pressure; reduces the risk of bone loss; can do anywhere, anytime; low risk of injuries; only exercise virtually guaranteed to lengthen your life.
  • Cons: low on speed and action; for true cardiovascular conditioning you may need to pick up the pace
  • Must-Haves: Good walking shoes, safe place to walk.
  • Cost: $150-$180 year (based on two pair of walking shoes).
  • The Walking Personality: Very appealing to non-athletic types who are intimidated by gyms as well as those with a history of injuries; excellent for older people.


  • Benefits: Superior aerobic exercise; good for weight management; minimal equipment needed.
  • Cons: Hard on bones and joints; impact injuries common; shoes must be replaced regularly; may be intimidating to novice exercisers.
  • Must-Haves: Good running shoes, safe place to run.
  • Cost: $150-$180 year (based on two pairs of running shoes).
  • The Running Personality: Tends to be driven, Type-A types who enjoy using running time for “decompressing” and problem-solving.