For many of us, the last year and a half disrupted our daily routines, keeping us indoors, separated from friends and family – a recipe for weight gain and depression. So it’s no surprise that doctors like Kimberly Sikule, MD, of University of Vermont Medical Center’s Family Medicine practice in Milton, are now helping patients cope with the physical and emotional toll of pandemic life.

“People first take note of the physical changes they experienced during COVID-19, often referring to recent weight gain as ‘the COVID 19,’” says Dr. Sikule. “People are having a hard time figuring out how to work physical activity back into their schedule.” 

Kimberly Sikule, MD, of University of Vermont Medical Center’s Family Medicine

One Step at a Time

Walking is one of the easiest ways to get the exercise you need to stay healthy, Dr. Sikule says. The recommendation for everyone, in terms of physical activity, is to aim for a total of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 30 minutes each day, 5 days a week. For those with diagnosed depression, anxiety or ADHD, who are perhaps looking to exercise to help them reduce their dose of medications, the treatment recommendation is 60 minutes a day.

“My advice is: Go for a walk, period. Maybe you start off with just five minutes, and build up to 20 minutes, and go from there, but just start walking.”

Good for the Body – and Brain

The physical benefits of regular movement, are well known. Aerobic activities can:

  • Strengthen your heart
  • Increase blood circulation
  • Increase oxygen and nutrient delivery to your organs
  • Increase lung function
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduce body fat
  • Improve blood sugar
  • Improve cholesterol

But the benefit of improved mental health is often overlooked.

“We often focus on the physical benefits of walking, but the psychological benefits [of exercise] are also pretty significant,” says Thomas Peterson, MD, of UVM Medical Center’s Family Medicine in Colchester. “Aerobic exercise, like walking, stabilizes your blood sugar, which can improve mental alertness and awareness. It is also well known to help with sleep, anxiousness and depression.”

On Your Mark, Get Set, Walk

There’s a lot of talk about getting 10,000 steps per day, but “some people might only be averaging 2,000 steps a day right now, and that’s okay,” says Dr. Sikule. She advises patients who are new to fitness walking to take a different approach:

  • Determine your baseline by recording your daily step count
  • Set your first goal at 10 percent above your baseline.
  • After 30 days, try to increase your activity another 10 percent each week

“People feel a sense of accomplishment from walking,” Dr. Peterson explains. “There’s also some interesting opportunities when you’re walking, to reflect, problem-solve and feel connected to your body. I talk to people who feel like they organize their life during their walks.” That may be why the health benefits – particularly the mental health benefits – of exercise start to accrue at even very low levels of exertion.

“Try to have some fun with it, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t quite meet your goals,” says Dr. Sikule. “Just keep walking, one step at a time.”

How to Start a New Walking Routine

  • Walk with others
  • Ask family members, friends, and coworkers to join you. Set goals together.
  • Join a walking group or club.
  • Set a goal to take part in an organized fitness walk.
  • Walk a dog every day.
  • Plan family outings around walks together. Being physically active with kids sets an example they’ll follow as they grow older.
  • Schedule walks on your daily calendar.
  • Instead of watching TV or going out to eat, go out for a walk.
  • At work, get up and move around once an hour.
  • When possible, walk to the grocery store, doctor appointments, work, school or shopping. You could walk a lap around the grocery store before you start shopping.
  • Park your car farther away than normal from your destination.
  • Walk around your neighborhood or around a park.
  • Walk during TV commercials.

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