Walk this way, live longer

If you're a walker and you've been pacing along doing 10,000 steps, around an hour and a half of walking, almost every day, we have good news (you're slashing your risk for dementia, cardio problems and mobility issues), followed by even better news (read on).

But if you haven't joined the millions of North Americans who purposefully stride through parks, along city streets and in malls every day, don't lose heart (that's something we want to help you protect!).

If you start to put one foot in front of the other, you'll not only discover that walking is fun and relieves stress, but as you head toward a much younger RealAge, you'll cut your risk of premature death by up to 50 percent. So, here's how to get started and how to measure the health benefits you gain.

Step One: Assess your current walking pace for 1/4 mile on a local running track or a treadmill. Your first "pace off" should be untimed; instead, monitor how your effort feels. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "I'm barely moving," and 10 being "I'm breathing hard and sweating," aim for about a 7.

It should feel a little challenging, but you can talk comfortably and are breathing more deeply than normal. If that's too intense, dial it back to a 6.

Step Two: Walk as quickly as you comfortably can on a treadmill or a track for six timed minutes. Check your distance. Then multiply it times 10. That'll give you an estimate of your speed and how far you can go in an hour (mph).

Depending on your age, how tall you are, how much you weigh and the terrain you're walking, a normal walking pace varies between 3 and 3.5 miles per hour.

From there you can build more speed and intensity.

Step Three: Step it up three times a week for 20 minutes. Do a steady-pace walk on other days. Here's the drill: Warm up for five minutes. Then move at your regular pace for about a minute, followed by a 20- to 30-second burst of faster walking. Repeat this pattern (we call it interval training) for 20 minutes; cool down for five minutes. As you become stronger, try equal-length bursts of fast- and regular-pace activity.

The Benefits: Pushing yourself even for short intervals of time during a workout burns more calories and more fat, improves blood sugar levels and enhances heart and blood vessel functioning. A livelier tempo also invites the power plants inside every cell in your body (mitochondria) to work smarter, so you're more energetic.

An important new study tracked the walking speed and health of almost 39,000 walkers. It found that those with the very slowest speed had the worst health results.

If you're a slow walker and you're willing to step it up, you don't need to worry. We loved learning from this study that bumping up your speed just a little bit has huge health benefits: Folks in the second-slowest walking group, in some cases they walked just a minute faster per mile than the slowest strollers, reduced their added risk of early death by more than 50 percent.

Plus, moving faster by just 60 seconds also translated into a 2 percent to 6 percent lower risk for diabetes, dementia, heart disease, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

As you get stronger and faster, the benefits pile up. In the study, the fastest walkers were 44 percent less likely to meet an early end compared with those who took 24 minutes or more to cover a mile (2.5 mph).

So grab a walking partner (both of you stay motivated) and a pedometer (it lets you see your progress) and put on those walking shoes (get fitted at a store where they know about foot fall and how to make sure you're injury free.)

You'll walk your way into a longer life, a happier outlook and a better body (always fun).

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into "The Dr. Oz Show" or visit www.sharecare.com.

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