When it comes to walking, the easy part is understanding the benefits: Regular, brisk walks can strengthen our bones, help control blood sugar, help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and the list goes on. The hard part is finding the time to fit it in.
Engineering physical activity back into Americans' daily lives is the goal of an educational campaign launched by Kaiser Permanente,an Oakland, Calif.-based health plan.
There are tons of tips and resources online, with the goal of creating a culture of walking. Kaiser Permanente even seems to be walking the walk with its own employees.
"We actually do have walking meetings at Kaiser Permanente, believe it or not," says executive Ray Baxter. "My team is pretty productive, so it must be working." Baxter believes walking together — as opposed to sitting down at a table — can change the dynamics of interactions for the better (think consensus building and brainstorming).
So, how much exercise do we really need to get all the benefits that are touted?
A lot of folks here at NPR have signed up for a 10,000-steps program sponsored by our health-plan provider. I've seen colleagues strap on pedometers to keep running tallies, and what they're learning is that it can be tough to get 10,000 steps — which equates to about 5 miles of walking — into a work day.
But experts who have crunched the numbers on how much we need to walk say, instead of focusing on steps, set a goal of 30 minutes of walking a day, five days a week.
Baxter says 150 minutes a week "has some pretty extraordinary effects on your health." That's a lot less than the nearly two hours a day it can take to reach 10,000 steps.
Studies show this 30 minutes a day is the amount of exercise needed to get serious reductions in the risk of lifestyle diseases that so many Americans are living with.
"The rule of thumb is that you get roughly half the reduction [about a 50 percent reduction] in the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes at the 150-minute mark," Baxter says. When people sustain this regular activity, the long-term benefits for bones and weight maintenance are measurable, too.
Of course, for those who are ready to push past 150 minutes a week, more exercise can be better. When you increase the intensity, however, you have to balance the benefits with the risk of injury.
So if you're ready to pick up the pace and you're wondering how high you need to get your heart rate, here's a rule of thumb: Walk briskly enough that it's still possible to carry on a conversation but no longer comfortable to sing.