Walking and Running are simple, green, cheap routes to fitness

A step in the right direction can literally begin with just that–a step. Just put on a pair of reliable shoes, and place one foot in front of the other. You can walk, jog, or run in the direction of better physical and mental health.

Moving Ahead

There are many reasons for pounding the pavement. For starters, you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to take to the streets; anyone can do it. There’s no need to shell out for balls, rackets, skis, clubs, or other expensive equipment that could end up forgotten in your closet or make their way to a landfill if you don’t stick with the activity. And on an environmentally conscious level, your feet don’t burn fossil fuels. (See “Green Feet.”) Setting them in motion can improve not only your scenery, but your heart, lungs, bones, joints, and even mood.

Teens need at least an hour of daily physical activity, and aerobic exercise should make up most of it. Aerobic exercise–such as walking, jogging, or running at a steady pace–slowly boosts your body’s need for oxygen. It makes your heart and lungs work harder, which gradually strengthens them. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, reduces your risk of diabetes and some cancers, and helps you maintain a healthy weight. And if all those physical benefits don’t cheer you up, consider this: Aerobic exercise triggers your brain to release chemicals called endorphins into your bloodstream. They block pain and anxiety and lift your spirits naturally.

Walk This Way

Walking may be the easiest exercise to take up. You already have the skills. Step outside and pick up your feet. If it’s raining or snowing, walk in a shopping mall or make tracks inside your house. Walk 10 or 15 minutes at a comfortable pace. When that begins to feel easy, speed up a bit and walk a few minutes longer. Even if you don’t have a big chunk of time, a few short walks each day can provide many of the same health advantages as one long trek.

Kelson G., a high school junior, sometimes walks with her morn for exercise. In 2009, they hiked 34 miles in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. You may not be ready for that kind of mileage, but see whether you can gradually work your way up to walking 30 to 60 minutes a day. Because walking is something you can do on your own, it’s an exercise you’re more likely to continue after high school and throughout your life.

Fun Run

Though she walks and runs now, Kelson didn’t get much exercise before joining the Nittany Track and Field Club in State College, Pa., three years ago. She felt very slow starting out, and she says “being bad” at running made it tempting to quit. “My dad helped me see that I was healthier than I would be if I wasn’t doing it at all,” Kelson adds.

Likewise, Jacob P., 15, wasn’t doing much physical activity when he decided to start running to get in shape for baseball tryouts at his Las Cruces, N.M., high school. His goal was simple: Keep moving forward. “When I cramped up,” Jacob says, “I walked until I could run again. I built my endurance.”

That’s what Jeff Galloway, a columnist for Runner’s World magazine and a former Olympic runner, advises. Want to get the pick-me-up of a good workout while reducing the risk of aches, pains, or injuries? Try alternating periods of running with short walk breaks, Galloway suggests. As you build up your stamina, gradually add minutes to your running time and decrease your walking. But remember: Any time you need to stop running and walk, do it. You never have to eliminate walk breaks.

If you are looking for something between walking and running, try jogging. What’s the difference between joggingand running? “None,” according to Galloway. It’s all about moving forward.

Jacob defines jogging as “a more relaxed pace.” He goes 1 to 3 miles every day after school. “I usually jog the first half,” Jacob says, “then I run faster on the way back.”

He really looks forward to his runs. “It gives me a chance to reflect,” notes Jacob. “I get rid of the stress of the day.” He also credits running with helping him increase his energy and drop extra weight.

And no matter how you are moving forward, don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right. Galloway doesn’t get too hung up on form. The three keys are maintaining an upright posture; taking short, relaxed strides; and keeping your feet low to the ground.

Going for the Goal

The beauty of walking and running is that you can do it casually, for fun, or you can make a sport of it. For instance, Kelson now competes on her school track team. “I don’t run to win gold medals,” she says. “Once in a while, I’ll surprise myself and do better than I thought I could, and that feels great, but I run for me.”

Kelson, Jacob, and Galloway all recommend setting realistic goals. Experts advise increasing your mileage no more than 10 percent from week to week. In other words, if you walked 10 blocks last week, ramp up to 11 blocks this week; don’t jump to 5 miles.

Probably the biggest obstacle to any kind of exercise is making it a habit. “The most common motivator,” says Galloway, “is running in a group.” Walking and running clubs lace up all across the country. Try Web sites such as www.thewalkingsite.com, www.usatf.org, or www.kidsrunning.com to find one near you. Whether your goal is to walk for half an hour or run a race, you can do it. Just start with one step.

GREEN FEET

Walking and running are easy on the environment–the only greenhouse gas those activities produce is carbon dioxide, and plants use that for food. The only equipment you really need is a good pair of sneakers, and even those can have a low Impact on the environment, depending on how you reuse them when you’re done. Donate shoes with good miles left in them to charity. Worn-out sneaks can be recycled and used In surfaces for playgrounds, tennis courts, running tracks, and other places. For more information, check out www.recycledrunners.com.

The Reluctant Runner

Jeff Galloway’s family moved to Atlanta when he was in eighth grade. He was out of shape, overweight, and unhappy. And Galloway’s new school required him to participate in a sport.

“I went to the lazy kids and asked what I should sign up for,” says Galloway. “They said the track coach was the most lenient, and you could run into the woods and hide out until practice was over.” That’s what Galloway did for a while, until some older kids asked him to run with them.

At first, he ran just minutes at a time. “The kids were funny. I wanted to keep up as long as I could to hear their next joke,” he says. As Galloway became able to run farther, his attitude, motivation, and energy level improved along with his physical fitness.

That initially reluctant runner went on to earn a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic track team. He has also completed more than 100 marathons. Now, Galloway writes about running and tries to help people reach their fitness goals. Check out www.jeffgalloway.com for tips and inspiration.

Before Stepping Out, Remember …

Get the nod. Clear exercise plans with your doctor if you have any health concerns.

Ease into a routine. Start by exercising every other day, and work up to five days a week.

Dress the part. Wear well-fitting, comfortable shoes custom-fit to your feet and gait.

Bundle up. Running in winter is possible! In cold weather, layering your clothes is smart. If it’s too cold or icy, try walking in a mall or jogging on a treadmill.

Choose the right path. Select safe, well-lit locations traveled by other walkers and runners, and avoid areas with heavy car traffic. Let your family know your route. It’s safest to run or walk with a friend.

Start and finish smart. If you’re a walker, warm up by walking slowly for three to five minutes. Warm up for a run with a brisk walk. Cool down for three minutes by slowing to a walk if you are running or slowing your pace if walking. While your muscles are still warm, stretch them slowly and gently-no bouncing!

Think About It …

What are some reasons it may be difficult for people to run or walk for fitness? Think of ways to minimize those obstacles.

Key Points

1. Walking and running are both environmentally friendly ways of getting exercise.

2. Walking is, for many people, the easiest activity to start with.

3. Many teens find jogging or running rewarding.

4. Some basic steps can help new walkers or runners get started.

Critical Thinking

What are some reasons it may be difficult for people to run or walk for fitness? Think of ways to minimize those obstacles.

Extension Activity

Find a local fund-raising event that involves walking or running. Organize a group to take part in it, and train together.