Alison Sweeney may live in car-centric Los Angeles, but this actress and author knows how to hoof it: Walking has become one of her go-to ways to exercise and connect with family. It's also a time to dream up new projects — like Opportunity Knocks, her dishy, Hollywood-inspired third novel, out last spring — and kick around ideas for Murder, She Baked, the movie series she executive produces and stars in for the Hallmark Channel.
She's got a lot going on, but this is a balanced kind of busy compared with the punishing routine she kept up through 13 seasons on The Biggest Loser (plus starring in Days of Our Lives — sheesh). What Sweeney really loves about her new schedule is that it usually lets her drop off her kids (Ben, 11, and Megan, 7) at school and be there for homework help and dinner prep when they get home. There's even a little time to hang out with her husband of 16 years, David Sanov, an LAPD detective.
With her days set on "play" instead of "fast-forward," she's come to believe that a good workout doesn't have to be frenetic either. "There's an all-or-nothing mentality that if you're not drenched in sweat and red in the face, then you haven't done anything, and that's not true," she says. Prime proof: the many health- and mood-boosting benefits of a nice, long walk (there's plenty to be said for shorter ones, too).
Hiking, especially, is her new passion. When she showed up for this interview, she pulled out her phone to share "How amazing is this?" photos she'd taken on a recent trek in Vancouver, where she films the Murder series. "There was a time when I used to consider any exercise, even walking, as a punishment," Sweeney says. "I'd think, Oh, I have to work out because I have to lose weight. I don't see it that way anymore." Now she stays fit so she can take advantage of the other things in life that she wants to do, like ski with her kids in the winter and hike and swim with them in the summer.
"We treat the local state park like our backyard," she says. The whole family — even rescue dog Ozzie — does a two-and-a-half-mile circuit. Plus, they walk plenty in their actual backyard, a deep garden with a winding path down a hill. That's where they feed Megan's rabbit, Magic, then pick the herbs and veggies they need for dinner.
Sweeney is enthusiastic about how walking has improved her life — and it can change yours, as well. Imagine a workout that feels like a treat, not a penalty. Then count up the payoffs: Done regularly, walking can dramatically improve your health, help you untangle twisted-up emotional issues, strengthen your body, and burn calories (about 350 an hour if you walk a mile in 15 minutes).
So what do you want to get out of walking? Pick your main goal; you'll reach it faster than you think.
Walk Your Way to Healthy
Your body is an amazing machine, and the simplest no-cost, no-prep way to help it run better is to walk. You'll help lower your blood pressure and strengthen your heart just by walking moderately and regularly.
You don't even need to break a sweat: Simply getting up to walk for two minutes every hour may lower your risk of dying earlier than your sedentary peers by 33 percent. Three 10-minute walks a day could lower your blood pressure, says Glenn Gaesser, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Arizona State University. Take it up to a brisk pace and you'll get a workout that's just as good for your heart as running is.
Roughly 30 minutes a day may also cut the risk of type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. It could even protect against glaucoma and colds. That's major motivation to get your daily steps — 10,000 is a good goal, but 6,000 has some benefits too. You don't have to get hung up on specific numbers; just take more steps each day than you did before, Gaesser says.
Walking in nature may boost well-being and lower rates of depression. "I'd never been an outdoor workout person, even in L.A., which is crazy," Sweeney says. Then she started training for the 2012 Los Angeles Marathon. A friend suggested doing the longer runs outside instead of on the treadmill — "I don't think I've been on one since!" she says.
Walk Your Way Slim
Sweeney likes to set a brisk pace and push herself. Follow her lead, especially if you want to lose weight. "For the best results, you need to get out there most days of the week, and three of those walks should include intervals that make you challenge yourself," says walking coach Michele Stanten, author of Walk Off Weight. Use her plan, below, to gear up; by Week 3, you should start losing about a half pound a week, even if you don't cut calories.
Shift your diet and do some strength training, and your weight will change faster, Stanten says. Add these Walking Booster workout moves to your routine two to three times a week to increase muscle and calorie burn.
Week 1: Make It a Habit
The goal is to walk every day. Aim for 30 minutes at a moderate pace on at least three days. The other four days, get out for at least 15 minutes. Being consistent is more important than walking for long periods of time this week.
Week 2: Go a Little Longer
Build your endurance by walking farther three days this week (try extending your 30-minute walks to 45 minutes). On the other days, walk for at least 15 minutes (30 is great too!) and keep a brisk pace.
Week 3: Kick It Up
You'll burn more calories when you add intervals to your walks. On three days, alternate one minute of fast walking with two minutes of moderately paced walking. You'll also do another long walk this week to continue to build endurance.
- Sunday: 20-minute interval walk
- Monday: 15-30 minutes
- Tuesday: 20-minute interval walk
- Wednesday: 15-30 minutes
- Thursday: 20-minute interval walk
- Friday: 15-30 minutes
- Saturday: 55 minutes
Week 4: Put It All Together
Intervals, long walks, and a routine: You've got all the tools now! If you need a rest day, take it between interval days.
- Sunday: 30-minute interval walk
- Monday: 15-30 minutes
- Tuesday: 30-minute interval walk
- Wednesday: 15-30 minutes
- Thursday: 30-minute interval walk
- Friday: 15-30 minutes
- Saturday: 60 minutes
Note: Feel free to change the schedule around within the week. Just don't do intervals on back-to-back days.
While You're Out: Walking Boosters
Add a few muscle-building moves to your walks twice a week for extra calorie burning. We got Sweeney to demo four good ones to do midwalk. Add to the benefits by doing planks and push-ups once you get home.
Start standing. Step out to the left, bend left knee and push your butt behind you. Keep right leg straight, foot flat on floor. Push off left foot to come back to start. Do 10 reps, then switch sides.
Begin standing. Step forward with left leg. Bend left knee and lower your body until right knee is close to the ground. Return to standing and repeat with right leg. Take 8 steps, alternating legs.
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Bend knees and lower body as if you're about to sit on a chair. Keep knees over toes. Hold for 1 count, then stand back up. Repeat 10 times.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, right arm raised, fingertips to the ceiling. Lift left knee up and bring right elbow in front of your body to meet it. Keep back straight, letting abs do the work. Return to start. Do 8 reps; switch sides and do 8 more.
Walk Your Way Happy
Whether you want to work things out, dream things up (Sweeney often thinks about her next novel), or just feel a little brighter, walking delivers, and fast. As few as 10 minutes can pep you up and make you less tense and tired, according to Iowa State University exercise psychology researcher Panteleimon Ekkekakis, PhD. "Those are feelings people pay a lot of money to get via caffeine, energy drinks, and sugary snacks," he says.
Not to mention antidepressants. One study of nearly 2,000 women with symptoms of depression found that walking about 30 minutes a day improved how healthy and energetic they felt. Three ways to tap into the mind-changing powers of a walk:
1. Make walking meditative.
Tune in and become aware of every physical detail — the feel of your feet hitting the ground, the swing of your arms — while silently repeating a soothing word like peace. This turns walking, even a short trip to your car, into a meditation that helps quiet mental chatter.
2. Gab and go.
Your favorite people can talk you down or cheer you up, even if you didn't know you needed it. Plus, social contact is essential for health and longevity. Sweeney gathers her girlfriends for walk-and-talk sessions instead of drinks. They tag pictures on Instagram of different places they want to see and sometimes team up and meet there to go for walks, she says.
A great playlist keeps you in the groove on a long walk. Sweeney also loves podcasts like Serial and Truth & Justice. Stay-safe secret: Pick headphones that are designed to let in ambient sounds so you can hear any traffic along with your music or podcast.
This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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