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Sun, Feb. 16

Does joint, muscle pain keep you from walking?

Walking is hands-down one of the best forms of exercise, offering a host of mental and physical health benefits. It's easy and - other than the cost of a good pair of walking shoes - free.

Unfortunately, pain in one of the many joints, muscles and tendons involved in walking can sidetrack even the most determined walker's routine. A sore back, aching knees, stiff hip, tender ankle or throbbing toe can make taking a stroll difficult. Fortunately, most common injuries are treatable, so if pain is keeping you from starting a good walking program, see your physician.

Getting a leg up on common injuries

Here are some injuries and conditions that may have an impact on your ability to walk comfortably:

• Shin splints. Common in new walkers, shin splints is pain in the lower leg. It may be caused by frequently walking down hill, over striding or wearing heels that are too high.

• Plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis can cause severe pain and occurs when the tissue connecting the heel bone to the base of the toes becomes inflamed. Walkers who exhibit over-pronation (rolling the foot inward excessively with each step) may be prone to this condition.

• Achilles tendon injuries. The Achilles tendon - the thick tendon that connects the heel and foot to the back of the calf muscles - can become inflamed or even rupture due to repetitive stress, an accident or injury, or improper footwear.

• Knee and hip pain. Pain in the knees and/or hips may be the result of arthritis, an accident or injury, inflammation or misalignment of the joints.

• Foot pain. Bunions, toe fracture or ill-fitting shoes can contribute to aching feet.

These boots aren't made for walking

One of the simplest ways to prevent walking injuries is to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes that have a low heel and flexible sole. Avoid high heels and shoes that are too tight, too loose or are old and have lost their inner support.

Other tips:

• Stretch your calves and shins before you start your walk.

• Start off slowly and increase walking speed gradually.

• Watch out for cracks, uneven areas or other obstacles on the sidewalk or walking path.

• Be aware of your surroundings and don't wear headphones (they can block out the sound of approaching traffic or bicyclists).

• Dress appropriately for the weather.

• Stay hydrated.

• Walk in a safe place, preferably with a walking partner (or take the dog along for company).

The benefits of walking

Need a reason to take a walk? Studies indicate that a regular walking program (working up to at least five walks a week of at least 30 minutes each) may:

• Increase your energy level.

• Enhance your mood.

• Lower stress.

• Reduce depression.

• Improve sleep.

• Help you lose weight.

• Help control blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

• Strengthen your muscles and bones and reduce your risk for osteoporosis.

• Improve fitness and stamina.

• Provide an outlet for socializing.

• Lower your risk of certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and heart disease.

Be sure to consult your physician before beginning an exercise program.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, www.nih.gov; AARP.com.

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