Make the most of more daylight: Get out in it

By Andrea Buckler, D.O., family medicine and sports medicine, Providence Medical Group-Mill Plain

Rejoice, 9-to-5ers! This month we gain an extra hour and a half of daylight after work. How will you make the most of it?

I recommend taking a third of it – just 30 minutes – to lace up your walking shoes and get out in it.

The return of daylight-saving time and the lengthening days make March the perfect month to reboot your fitness resolutions and finally begin a walking program. You know it'll be good for you. You know you'll feel better. And you know you'll be proud of yourself. The hardest part is simply getting started. So here is a quick pep talk to get you motivated, followed by some advice to get you on your way.

The pep talk

On those days when you feel like you're just too busy to take a walk, remember: Those 30 minutes help make you a more productive and pleasant person the other 23.5 hours of the day (even when you're sleeping, you'll do that better). A 30-minute walk is the ideal transition from work life to home life. It's a time to mentally sort through all the demands of your work day, to mull over challenges and brainstorm solutions, to refocus on what's important and let go of the junk, to decompress, to de-stress and to reset your mood so you can walk in the door more energized, attentive and present for your family. Don't kid yourself – you can't achieve all that while driving home in rush hour traffic. Fresh air, a body in motion and a surge of oxygen fueling the brain make all the difference.

In addition to those benefits, a regular walking program helps prevent, manage and improve the most rampant health problems out there. Walking can help you lower your bad (LDL) cholesterol and raise the good (HDL) cholesterol that protects your heart. It lowers your blood pressure. And it does good things for controlling blood sugar. In family medicine, we see a lot of patients who take multiple medicines for heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and often, all of the above. Regular exercise helps many of them keep these conditions under control without taking more pills. In fact, increasing physical activity often helps them knock a few medications off their list.

Four tips to get you going

1. Do a little goal setting

Big goals are great, but little goals are what get you there. If your goal is to walk 30 minutes every day but you've never done that before, start small and set realistic goals that will help you build a track record of successes on your way to that bigger goal. For example, “I'm going to walk for 10 minutes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and if that feels good, I'll increase it by five minutes for the next three days.” Reward yourself for each goal achieved, and celebrate as your string of successes grows.

2. As soon as you walk in the door, walk out

The biggest obstacle to starting a walking program may simply be getting out the door. There's dinner to be made and laundry to wash and family to catch up with and the sofa beckoning … and all of that can wait 30 minutes on behalf of your health. It has to, because once you get into that chain reaction of distraction, you'll never get out the door. So don't even think about it: As soon as you get home from work, change into your walking clothes and head right back out. Don't sit down first. Don't check your email. And whatever you do, do not turn on the TV. Television is the death of the walk. Once you turn it on, it's all over. Ask your family to support you in this: You get 30 minutes for your health when you get home. After that, you're all theirs.

3. Give it three months to become a habit

It takes time to make walking a habit. I tell my patients to give it three months. That's about how long it takes for other people to notice that something's different about you – you're looking more fit, you've lost a little weight, you have a new spring in your step. For those first few months, you'll need to push yourself and be patient and persistent. But it will get easier every time you head out the door. By summer, walking will be a normal part of your routine. You won't even think twice about it – it will just be something that you do, and a part of who you are. Won't that be great?

4. Keep challenging yourself

If your walking routine starts to feel too easy, kick it up a notch. There are lots of ways to increase the workout you get from your walks. You can change your route to one that makes you climb more hills. You can shake up your routine with brief intervals of more vigorous activity, like skipping, walking faster or doing jumping jacks. Interval training is very effective for both cardiovascular conditioning and weight loss. You also can alternate walking with jogging, eventually transitioning into a running program if that's your goal and your joints are up to it.

Of course, this advice isn't meant only for 9-to-5ers. It's also for you, morning person – don't worry, that lost hour of morning daylight will be back in just a few weeks. And you, retired person – walking can strengthen your bones and joints and help you stay mobile and independent throughout your retirement years. And you, stay-at-home parent – take the kids with you and set a great example for them. I know the weather here in the Northwest isn't always cooperative, but that's why we have rain gear. And now, we have more daylight, too. Go on – get out in it.