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Pair Up for Walking for a Better Walking Workout

By Maggie Spilner - from Runner's World Magazine

To reap all of the physical and mental benefits of walking, you need to do it every day -- or almost every day -- for the rest of your life. That's a tall order, even for a dedicated walker like yourself. I know I have moments when I'm short on time, energy, or motivation, and I need a little extra nudge to put on my walking shoes. Of course, once I'm out walking, I feel great.

The fact is, as much as I enjoy the solitude of my walks, sometimes I need a buddy to get me going. Many walkers would agree. For us, teaming up with a partner keeps our motivation from sliding and our walking programs on track, even when we're convinced that we have other "more important" things to do.

Of course, you can undertake a walking program on your own if you want. But studies show that few people stick with a fitness routine of any kind unless they have a partner. We humans need social support. Even when we join walking groups, we usually do it with someone else.

Anyone can become your walking partner: a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, even a dog. Be open to whomever happens to come your way. You may not find one person who's willing to walk with you every day. But you can likely recruit two or three people, each of whom can keep you company at various times throughout the week.

To maintain your motivation, you and your most frequent walking partner should share the same agenda. Maybe both of you want to lose weight, improve your fitness level, or work off stress. Or maybe you enjoy bird-watching or window-shopping while you walk. Whatever your mutual goals or pleasures, they'll keep the two of you coming together for regular, consistent workouts.

Stepping Out with Your Spouse

When you're looking for a walking partner, you may want to start your search close to home. That way, each time you exercise, you have an opportunity to strengthen the relationships that are most important in your life, those that contribute to your sense of happiness and well-being.

If you're married, you may want to ask your spouse to walk with you. Some marriage counselors believe that walking together can improve the way that you and your significant other relate to one another. So you not only add miles to your exercise log, you also bring harmony into your home. Susan Johnson, Ed.D., director of continuing education at the Cooper Clinic for Aerobics Research in Dallas, refers to this phenomenon as sweat bonding.

How can walking strengthen marital ties? For one thing, it removes you from all the duties and distractions that take the fun and romance out of a marriage -- things like paying bills and doing household chores. For another, when done outside in the sunshine, it raises levels of a feel-good brain chemical called serotonin. Serotonin helps adjust your frame of mind, so you're better able to address any issues that you and your spouse might want to discuss.

Walking also stimulates the release of the mood-boosting compounds known as endorphins. You feel more optimistic, more upbeat -- and if you're with your spouse, you may associate the good feelings with him or her. You may see the other person in a more positive light, which can help smooth over any anger or disenchantment with your relationship.

In fact, many couples say that they have an easier time communicating with each other when they're walking. They're more comfortable opening up to their partners because they're side-by-side rather than face-to-face. And because walking can release tension, they're more likely to feel calm while discussing sensitive or divisive issues.

If you and your spouse use your walks to reminisce about your relationship, the two of you may remember what brought you together in the first place. That's important, because as one marriage counselor points out, spouses today tend to think of themselves as married "singles" rather than as married couples. By walking together, you and your spouse may see each other as "we," not as "you and me."

Connecting with Kids

If you and your spouse can't always walk together, ask your child or grandchild to join you instead. Kids can be great walking partners, provided you choose a destination that's of interest to them.

Don't just suggest going for a walk; there's a good chance that you'll be ignored. Instead, offer it as a trip to a video arcade, an ice cream parlor, a school playground, or a park. Most youngsters will gladly go the distance if the end goal seems enticing enough. But most important, you'll have lots of fun -- and get plenty of exercise -- en route.

If you're walking with very young children, remember: You're the one with the ability to adapt. Slow down to match the child's pace. Walk too fast or too far, and the child may not want to go with you again.

And don't view your stroll as an opportunity to lecture to a captive audience. Just smile and relax. Let the kids do the talking, and enjoy their company.

Walking on the Job

Outside your family, you may be able to find a walking partner or two among your coworkers. The workplace can be fertile ground for walkers. Everyone gets breaks, and using that time to go walking can do more to de-stress and re-energize you than coffee and a doughnut.

Try to block out at least part of your lunch hour for walking, too. You definitely don't want to skip your lunch completely, but save 10 to 15 minutes for a walk. It can be a great stress reliever. (Ideally, you should eat after your walk, so you don't tax your digestive system. If you opt to eat first, keep your pace leisurely to avoid cramps and indigestion.)

Keep an extra pair of walking shoes and socks at your desk, so you can be ready at a moment's notice. For really brisk walking on warm days, you may want to change into workout clothes. But on cool days, just slip on your shoes and socks.

Try to choose a walking partner who is a good match for you in terms of fitness level, pace, and stamina. You may want to have several partners -- one who likes to stroll for when you don't want to work up a sweat, another who's up for a half-hour of hill walking when you want more of a workout. Just don't push yourself to keep up with someone who walks a lot faster than you. It isn't worth the risk of injury. If you're gasping for breath while your partner carries most of the conversation, you need to slow down.

Walking with coworkers gives you an opportunity to get to know each other away from on-the-job pressures. You improve your rapport with fellow employees -- and get a better-toned body to boot.

Partner with a Pooch

When you're in the market for a walking partner, don't overlook the four-legged variety. Walking with a dog isn't for everyone, and I certainly don't advise adopting a dog just for your walking program. Pet ownership is a big responsibility. But I'm convinced that a pooch can be a most devoted and reliable walking partner.

The great thing about dogs is that they always want to go for a walk. They remind you when it's time to go, in case you've gotten too comfortable in front of the TV. And they make wonderful company: If you want to talk, dogs will listen without complaint; if you prefer to walk in silence, they won't feel slighted.

Some dogs need obedience training to prepare them for a walking partnership. But most are natural, able partners right from the start. If you have a dog that hasn't been exercising regularly, get him checked out by a veterinarian before you start working out. Ask the vet to recommend a training program to ease your dog into exercise.

If you don't currently have a dog and would like to adopt one, a veterinarian or kennel club can help you find the breed that best suits your lifestyle. Ideally, you want a dog that's friendly to other people and to other dogs, one that is strong and can tolerate the temperatures where you live.

If you just want a walking partner, not necessarily a full-time companion, ask friends and neighbors to "borrow" their dogs. Or contact your local animal shelter -- often they're in need of volunteer dog-walkers.

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