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Want to make walking a habit? Tips from 12 people who’ve done it

Walking can boost your physical and mental health. Here’s how to take the first steps toward creating a new habit.
Juan Martinez, Sherrie Dampeer and Karen Westbrook Johnson all built a walking habit that helped them lose weight and take control of their health.
Juan Martinez, Sherrie Dampeer and Karen Westbrook Johnson all built a walking habit that helped them lose weight and take control of their health.Courtesy Juan Martinez / Sherrie Dampeer / Karen Johnson

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When you decide to take steps toward improving your health, walking may just be the easiest place to start. And when you do — even for just a few minutes a day — you’re likely to improve your mood, have more energy and see positive changes in your physical health.

But often, taking that first step is the hardest part. Different strategies can help you put one foot in front of the other and develop a regular walking routine. Here’s what worked for eight people, all members of the Start TODAY Facebook group, who built their walking habits from scratch and saw impressive results.

Change your vocabulary to change your mindset

Al Roker is an outspoken advocate for the power that walking has to transform your health. The TODAY co-host and weatherman has been spearheading our monthly walking challenges and is a success story himself: Losing 50 pounds over the past few months. One of his top tips is to shift the way you talk to yourself about your workouts.

Roker never uses the word “only” when referring to his fitness routine — and he wants you to ditch that mindset, too. “Stop using the word only. So many of you on our Facebook page were talking about, ‘Oh you only did this, you only did that,’” he said. “The fact is, you got it done, you made it happen, and that’s what counts.” In his daily video updates in the Start TODAY group, Roker often stresses that "something is better than nothing," encouraging people do what they can — and celebrate whatever that is.

Do it for your mental health

Kari Hughes Newman, 46, likes to explore the mountains near her West Virginia home with her husband. “I like getting some fresh air and sunshine,” she said. “And when we hike, being deep in nature without the buildings and cars around, it’s almost like the air is so much better for you. That’s always my preferred walk — in the woods. It’s a place to find some mental clarity and clear your mind.”

When her weight crept up, she had to scale back her hikes since she was afraid that if she fell on a steep trail she wouldn’t be able to get up, and her husband wouldn’t be able to help her. “I weighed 100 pounds more than he did,” she said.

After resolving to get healthier in January, 2021, she’s dropped 100 pounds and she can tackle any trail she likes. “I feel good after hiking — I can do it all,” she said.

Use your walks to explore your surroundings

Sherrie Dampeer, 56, lives in New York City’s Brooklyn neighborhood. She aims to walk at least 10,000 steps daily, which is around five miles. That gives her plenty of distance to explore Brooklyn and the city’s other boroughs.

“I try to make exercise fun so I will stick with it, so it doesn’t feel like a job,” she said. “I’ve walked almost every bridge in the city,” including the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Queensboro Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge. She works in Manhattan, so she gives herself time to walk there before or after work or during her lunch break.

She also documents her journeys on foot. “I walk around, and I see different areas of different neighborhoods. If I see a historical building or something nice, I’ll take a picture and post it at the end of the day,” she said. She enjoys getting feedback on social media about the places she’s seen and how they’ve changed. 

Dampeer started walking regularly soon after the pandemic began, and she’s seen improvements in her blood pressure, blood sugar and mobility. Plus, she’s lost 50 pounds.

Focus on building a habit, not covering a distance

Different strategies work for other people. While Dampeer counts her steps, Juan Martinez concentrates on walking regularly, not covering a distance. He has a fitness tracker, but he often leaves it behind when he takes walks. “I don’t necessarily have a set goal or step count. I won’t have my tracker on, just to tell myself it’s about building the habit. Those habits will lead to that change that I want,” he said.

Focusing on building a habit rather than completing a distance or measuring his steps frees up mental space during his walks where he can have talks with himself and evaluate his week.

Back when he was in school, he was always one of the last kids to cross the finish line when they had to run a mile. By building up his new habit, he’s been able to complete 5k races, and has his eye on a half-marathon in 2023.

Before he started walking, he had been working out at a gym two or three times a day, but he realized he was being too hard on his body. “I had to change my mentality,” he said. “I used to never think of walking as actual exercise. I never realized there would be such a benefit.”

Since launching his walking habit, Martinez has improved his blood pressure and blood sugar, eliminated his chest pain, reduced his hip pain and lost 50 pounds.

Use your walks to connect with other people

While Martinez prefers to be alone with his thoughts when he walks, Margaret Taylor, 58, often uses her walking time to connect with friends. “I’ve got a tight-knit group of girlfriends,” she said. But they live in far-flung cities. So she’ll message them and see who’s free for a walk. “We’ll walk and talk since I can’t have them here with me,” she said.

She also walks as a way to stay connected with her family. “I have one son, and I want to be there for him. And if I ever have grandkids, I want to be there for them. So my health is very important to me,” she said.

Thanks to her walking habit, she feels more energized, boosts her mood, no longer has knee pain and has lost 44 pounds.

Do what it takes to get your steps in

It’s easy to take a walk on a sunny summer morning when you don’t have to rush to get to work or to get your kids off to school. But if you waited for days like those, you might only manage to walk once a month.

Karen Westbrook Johnson, 54, loves to walk outside when she can. She walks in the parks near her home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and plans to hike a lot this summer. But she knows she has to stick with her habits even when walking outside isn’t feasible. “I’m not a cold-weather person, so in the winter, I would literally walk five miles in my house, walking up and down my hallway, just to get my steps in,” she said. 

And when she visited New Orleans, a rainstorm kept her from walking around the city on the last day of her trip. So, she walked up and down the concourses of the airport, covering two miles before it was time to board her flight home. On other trips, she’s climbed the stairs in hotels to get her walking time in.

After a year of walking, Johnson has seen her energy levels climb, her posture improve, her joint pain subside and her lab tests results normalize, and she’s lost 25 pounds.

Find the hidden minutes

Amy Dolloff, 53, who is the mom of four, including a son with special needs also recognizes the importance of getting steps in where you can. She realized she could walk up and down the driveway while she waited for her son during his therapy appointments instead of sitting in her car looking at her phone. “It’s probably 100 yards, and I would walk that back and forth,” she said.

When she started, she could only manage five or 10 minutes before she was tired and out of breath. Now she’s up to 45 minutes, and she’s built a five-day-a-week walking habit. Plus, she’s making healthier food choices.

Her changes have paid off. Since March, she’s dropped 32 pounds, seen her clothing go from large to medium, and moved down four notches in her belt. Plus, she has more energy, and her mood is better. “When I walk, I clear the air with myself before I get home,” she said.

Don’t give yourself an excuse

Christie Pham, 45, of Pittsburgh, walks a mile every day without fail. “It’s a tip I took from Atomic Habits by James Clear,” she said. “I eliminate any chance of getting out of my walk. I can’t say, “I’ll do it tomorrow’ or ‘I’ll do extra on Saturday for skipping today,” she said. “This is the one thing that is completely different from any other time I started an exercise routine. I would do three or five days a week, but never every single day. I think this might be the game changer for me.” 

Pham has walked her mile every day since April 1 and has seen remarkable changes in her physical and mental health. Her blood sugar and cholesterol levels are lower, she’s lost 16 pounds and 22 inches, has more energy, sleeps better and is not as anxious.

Get good-quality shoes that fit you well

Nothing will derail a walking routine more than pain or injury. Doreen Fox, who has lost 50 pounds and reduced her knee pain since starting a walking routine a year ago, says investing in good-quality walking shoes is a must. She’s a former nurse and said, “Without good shoes, you’ll get shin splints or fasciitis.” When she was working as a nurse, wearing simple nursing shoes or sneakers led to problems with her feet.

She shops at a specialty shoe store to have her feet measured — length, width, heel, arch and instep — and to make sure she is fitted properly for supportive, comfortable shoes. She recommends walking around in the store to make sure the shoes feel right. “Last time, I tried on nine different pairs,” she said. “The ones I chose feel like slippers — they’re so comfortable.”

She alternates between two pairs of walking shoes, and she tracks her mileage and replaces her shoes after she’s walked 400 miles in them.

Take care of your feet

Tom Finigan, who lost 230 pounds by walking every day, also stresses the importance of taking care of your feet. When he started walking a lot, he realized his feet would need some attention. So, he started seeing a podiatrist. “I have some rough spots and calluses, and they shave those down,” he said. He visits the podiatrist every 10 to 12 weeks. The podiatrist also recommended inserts for his shoes. “That makes a big difference,” Finigan said. He alternates between two pairs of shoes as well, which gives the foam in the midsole time to expand.

Don’t be afraid to try tools that help

Debby Rose, 70, of Vancouver, Wash., doesn’t feel entirely confident with her balance, possibly because her hearing loss affects her equilibrium. So, she uses walking sticks when she walks. “My balance is good, but I’m still a little bit wobbly. The walking sticks work great. I don’t need them around the house or in the store, but when I’m taking my walks, I use them,” she said.

Thanks to the walking sticks — and double knee replacements — she’s walking 6,000 to 9,000 steps a day. In the last two years and seven months, she’s lost 112 pounds, and she’s seen her health improve along with the weight loss. She’s sleeping better and no longer needs a CPAP machine for her sleep apnea, she’s off her blood pressure medication, and she’s feeling stronger and standing taller.

Forgive yourself if you skip a walk

Mel Fish, 36, of Madison, Wisconsin, shares this advice for people who ware new to walking: “Just start. Even if you mess up the first day or the next day, keep going. You can always start again. Just because you have one hiccup doesn’t mean that’s the end. You can always keep going.”

It’s advice they follow themselves. “When I’ve put in a 12-hour day at work, sometimes I don’t want to work out the next morning because I’m so exhausted. But even if I get up and walk for five minutes, that’s more than I would have done if I had stayed in bed longer,” she said.

The strategy is working for them. By working out in the mornings, walking or biking later in the day, cutting back on carbs and practicing intermittent fasting, they’ve dropped their weight to 146 pounds and seen improvements in arthritis pain, muscle tone, energy levels and asthma symptoms.

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