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Your heart is the single most important muscle in your body, but keeping it in shape doesn't require a fancy gym membership or hours of grueling workouts. Squeezing a few brisk walks into your week is all it takes -- and because heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in America, you should get moving now. If you're over 40, a walking program can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 40 percent, as well as lower your blood pressure, make your heart pump blood more effectively, and improve your circulation. Studies show that regular aerobic exercise, like walking, also reduces stress and burns fat, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of New York University's Women's Heart Program.
Our plan is based on the latest recommendations from the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine, which suggest two different walking strategies, depending on your fitness level, to help keep you healthy: walking moderately for 30 minutes, five days a week, or striding at a more vigorous pace for 20 minutes, three days a week. First, take the fitness test on the next page, then pick the routine that's right for you. And don't forget to check with your doctor before starting this regimen or any new exercise program.
Use your car to clock an exact mile on a straight, flat road. Then use a stopwatch to see how long it takes you to walk briskly from start to finish (or head to your local high school's track and time a one-mile walk there). "Most moderate exercisers should be able to walk at a 2.5- to 3.5-mile-per-hour pace, which means a mile would take between 17 and 24 minutes," says Barry A. Franklin, PhD, director of the cardiac rehabilitation and exercise laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital, in Royal Oak, Michigan. You finish the mile in less than 17 minutes, you're probably ready for a bigger challenge and your heart will benefit more from the vigorous three-times-a week workout.
The Moderate Workout
How long: 30 minutes
How often: 5 days a week
Get started: Walk at a leisurely pace for a minute, then pick up speed to increase blood flow to your muscles. During this walk, your target heart rate should reach the moderate range for your age (see "Are You Working Hard Enough?" page 3). If you're pressed for time, you can accumulate 30 minutes in 10- to 20-minute increments throughout the day. "But you need to do a minimum of 10 minutes to reap cardiovascular benefits," says Dr. Franklin. Take it to the next level after several weeks or months, you'll start to find it takes less effort to walk moderately. To sustain the training effect, you should do one day of faster walking or move on to the vigorous program.
The Vigorous Workout
How long: 20 minutes, plus warm-up and cool-down
How often: 3 days a week
Get started: Kick off this more intense walk by gradually warming up for several minutes as you work toward your vigorous heart-rate range. Twenty minutes of fast walking, end with a short cool-down. "Cool-down walking allows your heart rate and blood pressure to normalize," says Dr. Franklin, who recommends adding a few minutes of stretching after each walk as well. Take it to the next level as vigorous walks become less challenging, add five minutes to each walk or schedule a fourth weekly workout. Another way to push yourself is to walk uphill or exercise at the even more intense "athlete" heart rate (see "Are You Working Hard Enough?" page 3) once or twice a week.
The best way to tell is to measure how fast your heart is beating, either by using a heart-rate monitor or by taking your pulse and doing the simple calculation below (step 2).
Step 1: Find Your Target Heart Rate
You need to do this whether you use a monitor or not. Follow this formula: Calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from the number 220. A 45-year-old woman, for example, has an MHR of 175.
Then, figure the heart-rate range that's right for your workout by multiplying your MHR by both of the following percentages:
50% to 65%
65% to 80%
80% to 100%
If our 45-year-old wanted to do the Moderate Workout, her target heart-rate range would approximate 88 to 114 beats/minute (175 X .50 = 87.5 and 175 X .65 = 113.75). For a simple chart, go to lhj.com/heartrate.
Step 2: Monitor Your Heart Rate
If you don't want to spring for a heart-rate monitor, it's easy to learn how to take your pulse as you walk. Place your index and middle fingers directly under your ear, then slide fingers down until they're under your jawbone and press lightly. Start with zero on the first beat and count for 10 seconds, then multiply by six for an approximation of your heartbeats per minute. Check your pulse several times per walk.
Alternative: The Talk Test If counting seems like too much work, there's a simpler way to test yourself. If you can comfortably carry on a short conversation as you walk, either moderately or vigorously (no gasping for breath), you're walking at the correct intensity for your fitness level. But if you can easily talk at length, you need to move faster.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2009.