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Cardiac rehabilitation walking programme

Patient information A-Z

As cardiac rehabilitation professionals we often get asked questions about starting walking again, so here is some advice and information that you and your family / carers might find helpful.

Please read this leaflet through before starting your exercises. If there is anything you do not understand, seek advice from the cardiac rehabilitation team before starting the exercises.

Exercise safety

You should not start exercise and should contact your cardiac rehabilitation team if:

  • Your heart beat feels irregular and this is new to you.
  • You feel unwell, have a fever or any other temporary illness.
  • Your heart rate is much faster or slower than is normal for you.
  • You have new or recurrent symptoms of breathlessness or angina.
  • You feel unusually tired / fatigued.

You should stop exercise immediately if:

  • You feel light-headed, dizzy or faint.
  • You feel chest pain (angina).
  • Your breathing becomes uncomfortable.
  • Your heart beat becomes irregular.

Why is walking good for me?

Walking is a type of aerobic exercise, like cycling or swimming, which promotes the pumping effect of the heart and helps it to work more efficiently. It is also a great activity for improving your fitness levels and general wellbeing.

The great thing about it is that just about anyone can do it - anywhere - anytime - and at your own speed!

When can I start walking?

After a cardiac event you may begin walking straight away. It is important to start with a small amount and build up gradually. If possible, start with a short walk (5 to 10 minutes), somewhere flat to begin with and close to home. A short loop around the local neighbourhood would be ideal. You may find reassurance in taking a friend or family member with you for the first few walks.

How often can I walk?

You should aim to be active most days of the week. If you feel like you cannot manage to be active most days of the week, you may wish to start with just one to two days and then gradually progress over the weeks to do a little more each time. Alternatively, you might find it appropriate to begin walking every day. It is up to you to determine how much to do, but generally the more regularly you can do this, the more benefits you will get from the exercise.

How long should I walk for?

Inside or outside, it is important that you include a warm-up and cool-down as part of your walk. Your warm-up should aim to be around 10 to 15 minutes in duration. The aim of the warm-up is to gradually raise your heart rate whilst gently loosening up your main joints and increasing the blood supply to the relevant muscles. You should start slowly and gradually increase the size and speed of your movements.

The duration of the conditioning phase will vary depending on you and the stage of recovery you are at. When starting a new activity, begin with a duration that you feel you will be comfortable with (this may be 5 to 10 minutes for some). You can then begin to increase the duration over time, as and when you feel able, working towards a total walking duration of 30 minutes. Only once you are able to comfortably maintain walking for a period of 30 minutes should you think about walking for longer periods of time.

You should finish your walk with a cool-down period of 10 to 15 minutes, gradually lowering the intensity of walking to help your heart rate return to a resting level. It is important not to just stop exercising suddenly as this may lead to a dizzy or light-headed feeling. A slow and steady reduction in the intensity is ideal. If you feel you need to sit down as you are very tired, keep your feet moving by marching your legs or tapping your toes to ensure blood is transported back to the heart and brain.

What intensity should I walk at?

When participating in any activity, it is important that you are able to rate how demanding or strenuous that particular activity is for you. This is called ‘Rating your Perceived Exertion (RPE)’ and is a very good tool for keeping the intensity of your activities safe.

When rating your exertion, you should think of how your entire body is feeling at that moment in time. Think of the strain and fatigue both in your muscles and your breathing. If your muscles are aching and feel very heavy, you are likely to be working at a hard intensity and should ease off slightly. If you find your breathing becomes uncomfortable, you are probably over-exerting yourself and should slow down.

The ideal range to work at to encourage cardiovascular benefits is between the ‘light’ to ‘somewhat hard’ range. If you perceive your exertion as ‘hard’ or any further down the scale from this, you should reduce the intensity of the activity, i.e. reduce your speed or incline.

RPE scale

6 No exertion at all
7 Extremely light
9 Very light
11 Light
13 Somewhat hard
15 Hard (heavy)
17 Very hard
18 Extremely hard
19 Maximal

At a ‘light’ to ‘somewhat hard’ intensity you should feel warm, possibly slightly sweaty, and your breathing should be deeper and faster. You should still be able to talk. If you are struggling to talk when walking, you are likely to be working too hard and should reduce the intensity.

Using a heart rate monitor

The conditioning phase of your walk should consist predominantly of cardiovascular exercise which raises and sustains your heart rate between 50% and 75% of your predicted maximum (rating your perceived exertion of ‘light’ to ‘somewhat hard’).

If you would like more information about your training heart rates, please speak to a member of the cardiac rehabilitation team.

Using a pedometer

If you are goal-oriented, you may want to consider a pedometer to track just how far you have walked. Pedometers are great because they are real motivators. Every step you take is recorded so you can see your progress - after taking a fitness walk, taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator, or walking somewhere instead of driving - you will see exactly what you accomplished. You can chart your progress week to week. And, just wearing the pedometer can be a reminder to get active.

Start with a target that is appropriate for you. If you are only able to walk short distances initially, aiming for a target of up to about 3,000 steps may be right. When you reach this target, you can then increase further to continue to improve.

  • On average people take between 3,000 and 5,000 steps per day.
  • 10,000 steps per day is advised by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), to maintain cardiovascular fitness and control weight.
  • Office-based employees generally accumulate 4,000 to 6,000 steps per day.
  • An 18-hole golf course (walking) equates to about 10,000 to 13,000 steps.

Getting Started

As for any other type of exercise it is important to start with a small amount and build up gradually. You should begin every walk with a very gentle warm-up. This can be incorporated into your walk as the first 10 to 15 minutes or can be conducted prior to setting out. When incorporating a warm-up into your walk, start at a very slow, easy pace. During this time, you should gradually increase your speed to a light to moderate intensity.

If possible, start with a short walk somewhere flat, walking at a steady pace. Progress by increasing the distance initially, then you can start to introduce a few hills into your route. Remember that you should finish your walk with a cool-down period of 10 to 15 minutes of low-intensity walking to help your heart rate return to a resting level.

Walking speed will vary from one individual to the next. The important thing to consider is how hard your body is working. Set the speed of your walking at a level where you feel you are exerting yourself at a light to somewhat hard intensity (see effort rating).

When progressing your walking, initially try to concentrate on increasing the duration (up to 30 minutes), as opposed to the intensity (speed) of your walking. Remember moderate intensity exercise is sufficient to bring great benefits to the cardiovascular system. Below is a table which may help you as a guide to progressing your walking duration. Once you are achieving 30 minutes of exercise at a comfortable level, you can then start to slowly increase the speed.

  • If you feel you are able to walk for longer than 30 minutes, then you can start at stage 4.
  • Continue at any stage until you feel confident of progressing to the next. The time taken to progress varies between individuals.
  • Reassess your progress at the end of each week.

o Is it time for you to move on a stage?

o Would you feel more comfortable at the same stage for a further week?

Stage of recovery
Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
Stage 1 Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
15 minute walk, gentle pace, daily
Stage 2 Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
20 minute walk, moderate pace, daily
Stage 3 Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
25 minute walk, moderate - brisk pace, daily
Stage 4 Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
30 minute walk, brisk pace, daily
Stage 5 Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
Add extra 5 minutes for each stage increase
Target Length of walk (in minutes)
Only increase to next stage when ready
+ more than 30 minutes, brisk pace, daily

Where can I walk?

If you are interested in walking but do not know any good walking routes around Cambridge, you should check out the following websites:

John Harris's Walking in England (opens in a new tab) - has a lot of helpful information about walking in the Cambridgeshire area and may give you some new routes to try out.

Cambridge Ramblers (opens in a new tab) - is a Cambridge group which runs a programme of walks, typically in Cambridgeshire and neighbouring counties. The rambles are led by volunteers and range from 5 to 15 miles.

Walking for Health (opens in a new tab) – A variety of walks of differing difficulty led by a walking co-ordinator. It is recommended to contact the co-ordinator before attending a walk if possible.

Is your routine getting boring?

We are creatures of habit. It is easy to follow the same path every time we head out. Yet eventually we all get bored with the same route or routine. Boredom often means we stop exercising or find excuses why we cannot do it. Here are some tips to help you stay motivated and interested and keep to a life-long exercise routine.

  • Change your route - explore a different part of your neighbourhood.
  • Head for the country - get out in the countryside and soak in the sounds, smells, and scenery.
  • Have a destination - visit someone, to have some refreshment (at a coffee or tea house?), to attend an event, or to shop (don't forget your backpack).
  • Plan your routes using John Harris's Walking in England (opens in a new tab). You can plan your route and know exactly how far it is.
  • Plan a walking holiday.
  • Walk with friends, family or other people.

Nordic walking

Nordic walking is a type of walking which uses poles, similar to those used for crosscountry skiing. It is a great exercise which provides an upper body workout as well as a lower body work out. It is a more demanding exercise than regular walking. As a result, if you are interested in Nordic walking, you should contact the cardiac rehabilitation team before participating in order to see if the exercise is suitable for you.

There are a number of Nordic walking groups in the Cambridgeshire area. If you would like more information on Nordic walking, please ask the cardiac rehabilitation team and they can inform you of local groups or instructors.

Helpful tips

We understand that you may find it difficult at times to participate in greater amounts of walking as part of your daily life. Below are a few suggestions of some small changes which you may be able to incorporate into your daily routine:

  • Park the car in the furthest car parking space or the next street and walk to your destination. If using a bus, get off at an earlier bus stop and walk the remainder of the journey.
  • Walk to the local shops to collect the newspaper and other essentials. On the return journey imagine being late for an appointment and increase the walking pace, slowing down towards the end.
  • Never use the lift or escalator; take the stairs. As your fitness improves take the stairs at a faster pace.
  • Take the dog for a walk (borrow a friendly one if necessary!).
  • Use activity apps or devices that encourage you to ‘get up’ if you have been sitting for long periods.

Just remember

  • Never stop exercising suddenly. Gradually reduce the intensity.
  • Initially you should keep exercise sessions short and intensity levels low; increases should be gradual.
  • When performing an activity, you should always include a warm-up (15 minutes), a conditioning phase (work up to 30 minutes) and a cool-down (10 to 15 minutes).
  • The ideal range to work at to encourage cardiovascular benefits is between the ‘light’ to ‘somewhat hard’ range.
  • Find a walking buddy.
  • Stop exercising and alert a clinician if you experience pain or shortness of breath.
  • Have fun!

If you are unsure about any exercise or information within this document, please contact a member of the cardiac rehabilitation team on 01223 216985.

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Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151