It may be hard to believe that something you’ve been doing since your first birthday is so good for you. But it’s true: Walking is the ideal low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise.Studies have shown that a regular walking workout has many benefits. It:
- Lowers blood pressure. Healthy but sedentary volunteers reduced their blood pressure significantly by walking briskly for 30 minutes a day, three days a week, according to a 2007 Irish study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
- Reduces risk of type 2 diabetes. People who walked more daily had better insulin sensitivity than those who walked less, according to a 2011 Australian study.
- Reduces risk of breast cancer. Women who walked briskly for just 1.25-2.5 hours per week were 18% less likely to develop the cancer than those who were sedentary, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
- Lowers risk of premature death. Mortality risk was 1.54 times higher for people who sat most of the day compared to those who walked briskly for 30 minutes five times a week, according to a 2009 Canadian study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
- Improves cholesterol. Men who walked briskly regularly for 12 weeks had lower total cholesterol and higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels than those who didn’t, a 2008 British study published in Preventive Medicine found.
- Boosts energy. The more people walk, the more energetic they feel throughout the day, according to a 2003 study at California State University, Long Beach.
- Improves body composition. Walking 12 miles a week significantly decreased abdominal, waist and hip measurements, according to a 2004 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Fortunately, a walking workout requires little gear. But before you venture out, get comfortable clothing and supportive shoes.
Select good footwear.Office shoes – even flats – won’t work for a walking workout. Leave the heels at home. Athletic shoes designed for walking or running are best.
Ask a knowledgeable salesperson for models that work for your foot type. For example, people with high-arched feet usually require greater shock absorption.
Those with low arches or “flat” feet often need shoes with less cushioning, but more support in the mid-foot region and greater heel control.
Proper fit is essential. Make sure you have a little wiggle room between your longest toe and the top of the shoe (about ½ inch, or the width of your index finger).
And check that shoes don’t rub or pinch any area of your foot or ankle.
Generally, athletic shoes lose their cushioning after about 3-6 months of regular use. Be aware of when your shoes need to be replaced, especially if you notice they’re wearing down unevenly.
Choose the right clothes. Wear comfortable clothing suitable for the day’s weather conditions.
A walking exercise program elevates body temperature, so if you’re heading outdoors in cold weather, don layers that you can remove or replace as needed.
Cotton socks tend to retain moisture, so choose synthetic fibers, such as polyester, acrylic or Coolmax, for better blister prevention.
If you’re new to a walking exercise program, start slowly and keep the following tips in mind:
Warm up.Every walking workout should begin with a brief warm-up, including a few simple dynamic stretches that prepare the body for activity. Although walking primarily works the major muscles of the legs, don’t forget to stretch your back, shoulders and arms.
Dynamic stretching involves active range-of-motion movements, such as arm circles and leg swings. They’re a safe, effective way to increase body temperature, enhance joint flexibility and increase muscle elasticity.
Begin with short distances. Your first time out, move at a leisurely pace that feels comfortable, and walk for 5-15 minutes.
Each subsequent week, gradually increase your time or distance by 10%-20%, working up to 30-40 minutes per day.
If it’s easier on your schedule or you suffer from joint pain, take a couple of shorter walks of 10-20 minutes instead of one long walk of 30-40 minutes.
Smaller periods of exercise throughout the day also may provide many of the same benefits of walking as one long continuous session – including improvements in aerobic fitness and even weight loss and maintenance, according to research.
People who exercised for just 10 minutes experienced positive metabolic changes that lasted more than an hour, according to a 2010 study by Harvard and MIT.
Focus on posture. Keep your head lifted, engage (tense) abdominal muscles and relax shoulders, allowing arms to swing naturally.
Don’t overstride (take too-long steps), which is tempting when you speed up but can hurt your shins and feet. Instead, select a comfortable, natural step length. To move faster, pull your back leg forward more quickly.
Select the right pace. Forget about walking speed at first. Consistency is the most important factor. If your pace feels like a leisurely stroll, you’re moving too slowly. But if you can’t talk or catch your breath, slow down.
Walking on a treadmill isn’t as beneficial (or as much fun) as going outdoors, because the machine reduces the amount of effort and balance required. But it can be convenient and a useful alternative in bad weather.
On a treadmill, start walking slowly, then increase the machine’s speed until you’re walking briskly but comfortably. Unless you have balance issues, swing your arms naturally – if you have to hold onto the handrails, you’re probably going too fast.
Stretch again. Immediately after your walking workout, perform static stretches. That’s when it’s safer and more effective to stretch muscles that are properly warmed and, therefore, more pliable. (Foam roller stretches are ideal.)
This type of stretching done after a walking exercise program can improve posture and flexibility and reduce stress. Stretch your hamstrings and calves (important walking muscles) as well as your chest, shoulders and back. Hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds.
Don’t ignore pain. If you experience foot, knee, hip or back pain during a walking workout, stop and then see your doctor to find out the cause. You may need special exercises or better shoes.
If you have osteoarthritis and have more joint pain lasting an hour or two after walking, you may need to consider an alternate activity, such as stationary cycling or water exercise. But don’t stop exercising altogether.
Safe physical activity reduces OA pain and disability, according to a 1999 study published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
Stay hydrated. Your body can lose more than a quart of water in an hour of exercise, depending on air temperature and intensity of the workout. That’s why adequate hydration is a key part of ensuring optimal performance and health.
Drink 17-20 ounces (or 2-2½ cups) of water 2-3 hours before your workout. That’ll allow for proper hydration and time to go to the restroom before your walk, so you’re less likely to need to stop on the way.
Once you begin exercising, consume 7-10 ounces of fluid every 10-20 minutes. If you’re walking at a moderate pace for less than 60 minutes, water should be all you need to adequately rehydrate.
For a long, hard workout, or if you’re exercising in hot or humid weather, you may need a sports drink with added electrolytes – important minerals that are lost when you sweat.
Pick Up the Pace.
Add intervals. When you find that you’re able to walk for 30-40 minutes with ease, try incorporating brisk intervals into your routine. They’ll increase fat-burning and cardiovascular health benefits.
Walk as fast as you can for 30 seconds, really pushing yourself; then walk slowly for one minute as you recover. Repeat this pattern several times. Gradually add longer intervals with shorter recovery periods to raise your fitness level.
Get your ups and downs. Another way to increase intensity: hills. Incline walking strengthens and tones your legs and butt while also building overall endurance and increasing calories burned.
Just walk on hilly terrain outdoors, or raise the incline settings on a treadmill. You may be able to set an entire hill routine that replicates walking outdoors.
Don’t get too heavy. Forget hand weights; they don’t add much benefit, research has shown. In fact, incorporating weights in a walking workout can place undue stress on shoulders, elbows and wrists.
You’re better off wearing a weighted vest, as long as you don’t suffer from joint or foot pain.
If you want to hold something in your hands, consider Nordic walking poles. They can boost the calorie-burning value of your walk while promoting good posture and muscular endurance.
Spice Up Your Walk.
To make your walking routine more interesting, try these tips:
Listen to music. Lively, energizing music on a portable player can keep you motivated and help you set a quicker pace. But be careful when wearing headphones outdoors, because loud music may make you miss oncoming traffic or other potential hazards.
Track your progress. Use a pedometer – a small, inexpensive device that tracks your distance or the number of steps you take. The U.S. Surgeon General and other health experts say that 10,000 steps per day (about 5 miles) provide maximum health benefits.
If you want to go high-tech, portable electronic units or cell phones equipped with GPS (satellite tracking) can tell you how far you’ve walked. Some also keep a computer record of your daily progress.
Get social. Involving others can help keep you motivated and make things more fun. So get your coworkers to join a workplace walking group.
Midday exercise can bring improved mental sharpness, better time management and increased productivity among employees, so it’s a win-win for both the participants and management.
Implementing “walking meetings” is another fun way to get more active. The increased blood flow and change of scenery can actually make employees more creative. It can also enhance camaraderie and build stronger team relationships.
Outside of work, grab your kids or dog for an after-dinner stroll each evening. It’s a great way to have extra family time while staying active.
Walking “dates” are another great option with a friend, coworker or significant other