How do you start running?

"I have been a couch potato my entire life," says Heather.* "I was never very athletic in school and was happy when PE classes were over."

Although she wasn't overweight, Heather realized that a sedentary lifestyle was going to get her into health trouble later on. After moving closer to work, she decided to use the extra time to incorporate some exercise into her lifestyle. Earlier, she had been told by her doctor that she had experienced some bone loss, which put her at risk for osteoporosis.

The final straw was when a study was published that proved that regular exercise reduced the risk of recurrence in breast cancer survivors. "That was it," Heather says. "I was a 5-year cancer survivor and I wanted to do everything in my power to remain healthy."

To start, Heather chose a 9-week run/walk program that she found online. It incorporated ever-increasing lengths of running into a 30-minute program, ending with running for 30 minutes solid. Just after she started the program, a friend convinced Heather to sign up for a 5k race. "I ran/walked the race in 41 minutes and 45 seconds and I was hooked!"

So how do you start? Do you just go out and hit the street? Some people do that, but there are risks from doing too much too soon. Heather's advice for people who want to try incorporating exercise in their life is this: "Start slow, exercise for short periods regularly, and have patience. I didn't see the results of my efforts for 6 weeks. It's not a quick fix by any means."

You may think that your body will tell you when you've done too much, but the truth is that it might not tell you until you've done some damage that will take time to undo. Following a program is a better plan. You can buy a book or a magazine, find a reliable website, or join a program operated by a local running club or store.

A common way to start is to alternate one minute of easy running with one minute of walking for, say, 10 minutes, gradually adding time up to a half hour and increasing the proportion of running until you're doing 10 minutes of running for every minute of walking. Some runners never eliminate the walking component entirely. Even very fast and experienced runners may find it works better for them to have a one-minute walk break for every 10 minutes of running.

One thing not to do is set unrealistic goals. Don't even think about doing a marathon in your first year of running. Build up more gradually. That will ensure a longer and happier running career. And remember: all races are worthy. 5 kilometres is also an Olympic distance! Simply by getting out there you're doing more than most people. So enjoy it, don't push yourself, and you'll do much better when – if – you get to the longer distances.

And if you don't like to compete? Then you don't have to. You can just go out and run and see the scenery on your own time and at your own pace. If you're a people person, there are many running groups you can join and several active online forums for the running community. If you're not a people person, there's hardly a better activity for letting you get away from others – literally run away from them!

*Heather is based on a real person. Minor details have been changed.

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