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Ease back into fitness with this simple 31-day walking plan

This year, slow and steady wins the race.
Redhead woman with backpack on footbridge in snowy woods
Getting outside for a walk — even if it's just for a few minutes each day — can do wonders for your mental and physical health.Vasily Pindyurin / Getty Images

As we kick off a new year, getting back to basics and focusing on small, actionable changes is something that I’m advising my weight-loss clients to do. After a tough year, it’s time to show ourselves some compassion and ease into moving more in 2021.

That’s why I created a very accessible workout plan for January — nothing strenuous! — to help you get moving again after being sedentary for much of 2020. Plus, this workout can be a mental break and give you much-needed “me” time.

31-day walking plan for January

The first half of the month we will focus on making 20-minute daily walks a habit. The weekly mental health challenges will help get your head in the game and help you release any stress or anxiety that you've carried into the new year. The second half of the month we will incorporate a strength-training routine to support your cardio plan.

Download a printable calendar here.

TODAY Illustration

Although simple, walking has tons of health benefits, both physical and mental. A daily walk is associated with cardiovascular health benefits and weight loss, and if done consistently, walking can improve your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and slow bone decay.

Walking is also an accessible mental-health tool that we can all employ. Walking has been shown to relieve stress and increase mindfulness if done in an intentional way, and can even help treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. Of course, walking can always be done on a treadmill or an indoor track, but if the weather permits where you live, bundle up and get outside for some fresh air. Giving yourself the time to take a stroll and absorb your surroundings — even if it's just for a few minutes each day — can do wonders for your mental health.

  • Walking workout 1: 20-minute slow walk. Get moving and focus on breathing, form and clearing your head. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pump your arms as you walk. Step one foot in front of the other mindfully, pressing down with your full foot and being cognizant of not walking on your toes or striking too hard with your heel. If you’re feeling bored with this, try taking a different route or finding an inclined surface to vary your routine. But make sure to keep it simple and focus on your breathing.
  • Walking workout 2: 20-minute speed-it-up walk. We’ll speed things up slowly and mindfully. First, clock yourself at a normal pace for 4 minutes. Then speed up and walk briskly for 4 minutes. Alternate for 20 minutes total. If this starts to get easy, quicken your pace or increase the amount of time you spend walking briskly. Or, if you don’t like keeping track of time, keep track by blocks or mileage. After 4 blocks of regular pacing, speed up for 4 blocks.

Mental health weekly challenge

Contrary to popular belief, physical and mental health are not completely separate entities. Moving more can help improve your mood and decrease your risk of depression, according to Harvard Medical School. And you can give this benefit an even bigger boost by purposefully engaging in mental health exercises while you move your body.

Below are some simple ways to shift your mindset and de-stress during your daily walking workouts.

  1. Pick a one-word mantra and spend time focusing on it during your walk. It could be something like PEACE, STRENGTH or RELAXATION.
  2. Pick a natural element, like the sun, trees or the wind, and whenever your mind starts stressing and wandering, bring yourself back to that element.
  3. Listen to a positive podcast while on your walk. This could be about creating a positive mindset or about any topic that makes you happy.
  4. Take a break during your walk to take some deep breaths while stretching. Focus on the inhale and exhale, letting any thoughts that's come to mind simply pass through.

Strength training routine

After two weeks of doing the walking workouts, we’re going to add in strength training a few days a week. We will focus on mastering form and building foundational strength.

Strength training won’t only help build muscle; it can also help prevent injury and reduce pain while performing cardio exercises. Adding this ten-minute circuit to your walking workout will increase your strength, tone your muscles and up your calorie burn.

10-minute strength training circuit

Squat: Stand straight with your hands on your hips. Open your feet as wide as your hips. Bend your knees and sit back into a squat, then press down through the heels to come up to standing. Repeat 10 times.

Push-ups (knees or on countertop): If typical push-ups are too much for you, try doing a modified push-up on your knees. Start on hands and knees with your knees as wide as your hips and your hands as wide as your shoulders. Then scoot your knees back about a foot, keeping your shoulders over your wrists. Pull the abs in and bend the elbows out to the sides into a push-up, then press back up. For an easier modification, stand at a countertop with your feet a few feet away from the counter. Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the counter, and do push-ups from here. Repeat 10 times.

Tricep dips: Find an elevated surface, like a chair, curb or porch step, and sit on the edge. Hold onto the edge of the surface with your fingers pointing towards your body. Keep your legs out in front of you with knees slightly bent. Move your butt away from the edge so that you are no longer sitting, holding yourself up with your arms. Bend both arms, lowering your body towards the ground, then push yourself back up. Repeat 10 times.

Bicep curls: Stand with knees bent slightly and hold a weight in each hand. Rest your arms by your sides. Bend at the elbows, bringing your forearms towards your shoulders. Repeat 10 times.

Lateral raise: Stand with knees bent slightly and hold a weight in each hand. Rest your arms by your sides. Slowly lift your arms out to the sides of your body, parallel to the floor, in a "T" position. Lower your arms to your sides. Repeat 10 times.

Plank: Get into a push-up position with your arms shoulder-width apart. Tighten your core so that your back doesn't arch. Hold it for 30 seconds, or however long you’re able to, then repeat 3 times.