Thirteen years ago, Minako Haynes, 60, of San Diego, Calif., was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—around the same time her marriage ended. To cope with the divorce, she began walking to a nearby estuary to watch the birds. The first month, it took her more than an hour to cover the two-mile round-trip. Then she set a goal to shave one minute off her walk each day. Eventually, what started as a way to handle a difficult emotional period turned out to have major health benefits: She lost 20 pounds, reduced the dosage of her diabetes medicine, lowered her blood pressure and improved her cholesterol numbers. “When my doctor first saw my lab results, he thought the technician had made a mistake,” says Minako.
Like Minako, an estimated 26 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes. Another 79 million people have prediabetes, meaning their blood glucose levels are higher than normal and if something
isn’t done, they’ll develop full-blown Type 2 diabetes.
That’s the bad news. Now here’s the good news: Regardless of which category you belong to, walking is by far the best thing you can do to safeguard your health.
Walking may seem like an over-simplistic solution to a major public health problem, but there’s real science to back it up. The Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study found that overweight people with prediabetes who did regular moderate physical activity and maintained a 7 percent weight loss reduced their incidence of diabetes by 58 percent. Indeed, walking and exercise in general plays such a crucial role that the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that people with Type 2 diabetes or who are at risk for it do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity.
How does walking work? Typically, the hormone insulin helps your body use glucose from food to fuel your cells. Type 2 diabetes occurs when cells don’t use insulin properly or the body doesn’t produce enough insulin. Exercise improves insulin’s ability to utilize glucose, explains Geralyn Spollett, president of health care and education for the ADA. What’s more, regular walking can lower several risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, including excess weight, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
While any aerobic exercise will confer benefits, walking is ideal. Even out-of-shape people who need to be cleared for exercise with a stress test can start walking before they get the go-ahead. All you need is a comfortable pair of walking shoes with support and cushioning. (If you have diabetes-related nerve damage in your feet, check with your doctor or diabetes educator before walking for fitness.)
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The best way to start a walking program is to map out a route in your neighborhood. As you become more fit, gradually increase your distance. You can also use a pedometer, aiming for 10,000 steps daily. Start with a step count you can easily achieve—above what you normally do in the course of a day—upping the number of steps you take over time until you hit the 10,000 mark.
Stick with it, and you may find that walking is a gateway to other types of physical activity. It was for Minako, who recently took up Zumba, the dance-inspired fitness class. Walking, for her, has been a lifesaver and a game-changer. “I wish I could encourage more people to take small steps and change their habits,” she says. •