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Working Out in Moderation

By Joy Davia - Charleston Gazette

On the whole, West Virginians are hefty and don't like to exercise. They battle diabetes, heart problems and other chronic diseases a lot more than other Americans.

But getting healthy doesn't have to mean you pound the pavement or treadmill for several miles or work yourself into a sweaty frenzy.

Instead, walk.

"People think they have to run several miles a day or think they have to bite off more than they can chew," said Cindy Boggs, YMCA fitness coordinator. "But walking is such an easy thing to do. Even five minutes of walking is beneficial if it's more than you're doing now."

Walking tones a person's hips, legs and lower back muscles. The leaner the muscle, the quicker your body burns calories, even when you're sitting or sleeping. It also conditions a person's heart and lungs and reduces stress and the chances of developing high blood pressure, diabetes or other maladies.

But only one in 18 people who said walking was their main mode of exercise were actually doing enough, according to a 1999 analysis by the Michigan Department of Community Health.

An inactive person should take as long as they want to walk a certain distance, Boggs said. People who can should walk 30 minutes at least five times a week and then progress to longer distances to increase fat burning and cardiovascular improvement.

But for a person to reap the full benefits of walking, they must walk at the right "perceived exertion rate," Boggs said.

The rate starts at a level of one — how much energy you exert when you sit — to 10: what you feel like when you're about to collapse. People should walk at an exertion rate of six, when they can still comfortably breathe.

Boggs encouraged walkers to take the "talking test": If you can't hold a conversation or talk in full sentences, you're working too hard.

'It must be a long-term habit'

There's Jane Fonda's "no pain, no gain" motto. Or infomercials that lure viewers with a miracle diet or exercise regiment that promises to rapidly melt away pounds of fat.

But for a person to lose weight — the kind that stays off for several years — they should make simple lifestyle changes in their daily activities, said Ed Haver, director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Unit at Charleston Area Medical Center.

Maybe you can start substituting water for soda. Or walk during your lunch break and climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator.

"Walking is great for losing weight," Haver said. "And the healthiest people make it a habit or a part of their life, but that's not the American way. We think exercise has to be all or nothing. Moderation is not held in high regard."

If a 150-pound person walked 20 minutes several times a week, they may only lose 1 pound a month. But in a year, that person may have shed about 10 pounds.

"Change over time really works so much better," Haver said. "It must become a long-term habit."

Some people get enough exercise during their workday. Others do not. Or if a person gets a new job, they may pack more pounds.

Making communities more walkable

Walking isn't always easy in West Virginia, Haver added. Most Mountain State roads are hilly and without sidewalks. When people walk on them, they often have to navigate blind curbs and narrow shoulders.

"In West Virginia, a lot of people would be in grave danger if they were to walk in their neighborhoods," said Amy Carte, health program manager for the state Bureau for Public Health's Cardiovascular Health Program. "And what I hear from people in rural areas is, 'I can't walk, I'll be hit by a coal truck.'"

That's why officials at the cardiovascular health program are trying to promote a "walkable communities" concept. They've partnered with local planners and renovators and encouraged them to make their projects more walker-friendly.

Constructing sidewalks in a new housing development is one option. So is constructing shops within walking distance of where people work or making jobs available near people's residences.

Using traffic calming devices like speed bumps and turnabouts will also encourage people to walk in neighborhoods or downtown areas.

"The idea is to make people walk without making them know that they are doing it," added Christie Blower, the program's physical activity coordinator.

And with academic excellence often coming at the expense of physical activity time, Carte said she encourages schools to find creative ways to get kids exercising.

At Elkview Middle School, students who eat breakfast there can walk with their friends for 30 minutes around the cafeteria instead of going to the classroom.

"That's the perfect way to make exercise the easy and socially acceptable thing to do," Blower said.

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