Forget power yoga and Spinning. Ignore boot camps and pole dance aerobics. The best way to get fit and feel happy is to walk. Walking is fabulous for your health, guaranteed to whittle away the pounds, unlikely to cause any injuries and it costs virtually nothing.
For most of us walking generally implies a chore: whizzing the dog round the park in the pouring rain, trudging to work when the buses are on strike, gasping up the stairs when the lift is broken. But now walking is being touted as possibly the very best way to exercise. The real joy of born-again walking is that almost anyone can do it almost anywhere. Whatever your age, shape or state of unfitness, anyone can safely start a walking regime. You don’t even need to shell out on expensive gyms or fancy equipment. All it takes is a good pair of shoes coupled with firm resolve: simply march out the door and hit the road.
WALKING – THE FACTS
Brisk walking (as opposed to a sedate amble) is an aerobic exercise which, when performed correctly, should raise your heartbeat to around 50 percent of its maximum. It’s a whole-body activity that uses all the big muscles of the body (in the legs, buttocks, back and shoulders) in a repetitive fashion which, in time, makes your heart and circulatory system more efficient so more oxygen and nutrients can get around the body. Brisk walking can burn up more calories than slow jogging and you don’t even have to race-walk like the Olympic athletes to get an effect: researchers at the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas discovered that walkers get exactly the same benefits whether they walk at a normal pace (20 minutes a mile) or very fast (12 minutes a mile).
HOW MUCH AND HOW OFTEN?
Carol Hampton of the National Register of Personal Trainers describes the perfect fitness walking regime. ‘Start off gently and build up to a regular three times a week for a minimum of half an hour a session. You need to get to the point where there is perspiration and a raise in heart rate and the easiest way for most people to gauge that is the ‘talk test’. In other words if you go with a friend you should be able to pass the odd word between you but if you can have a good gossip you’re not working hard enough.’
1. Set a manageable target. Don’t aim for the hills on your first attempt.
2. As with all exercise avoid eating for around an hour before you set off.
3. Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise – if you’re thirsty you’re becoming dehydrated.
4. Warm-up. Carol Hampton suggests using an initial five minutes of gentle walking as a natural warm-up before pushing up the pace.
5. After your warm-up a few minutes of gentle stretches can ease your body into the work-out.
1. Keep centred: imagine a straight line stretching from between your feet ahead of you down the road. Keep your legs parallel to this line and your toes pointing directly ahead.
2. Take the longest stride that is comfortable and let your arms swing naturally at the same speed. Relax your shoulders.
3. The heel of your leading foot should touch the ground just before the ball of the foot and toes. As your heel reaches the ground, lock your ankle and shift your weight forwards with the knee bent. Rock onto your toes and use the movement to push you onto the next step.
4. Breathe from your abdomen, not your chest, inhaling and exhaling rhythmically and easily through the nose.
LOSING FAT AND FIRMING UP
FAT-BUSTING: The longer you exercise the more weight you stand to lose and so brisk walking is the perfect way to put off the pounds.
If you walked briskly for only 45 minutes four times a week you would automatically lose 10 – 15 pounds in a year without any changes to your diet. A 10 stone person walking at an even 4mph will use 300 calories in an hour but add a few hills or a brisk wind and you’ll burn far more. If you go to a gym, Lifestride treadmills really count the calories – striding up a 15 percent incline at 4.5 mph will slough off more than 500 calories in half an hour comparing very favourably to a 7mph jog on flat ground which will notch only 439 calories.
TRIMMING THIGHS: Walking uses similar muscles to running (the quadriceps, hip flexors, calf muscles and gluteals) so you can expect to trim your legs automatically.
UPPER BODY WORKOUT: If you swing your arms (smoothly and rhythmically) you will also work the deltoids (shoulders), triceps, biceps, chest and stomach muscles.
HIPS AND BUMS: Walking uphill is wonderful for working the large muscles of the thighs and buttocks (have you ever seen a climber with a big butt?)
HIKING FOR HEALTH – THE BENEFITS
The evidence from research into fitness walking is unequivocal: the health benefits are enormous and varied.
- It helps your bones: research at Tufts University in the USA has shown that walking has a pronounced effect on osteoporosis. Walking strengthens hip and leg bones while the whole body movement builds a stronger spine – without the dangers of joint injury caused by high impact.
- It helps your heart: walking increases amounts of HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol) – walking a couple of miles four times a week improves both heart and lung fitness.
- It improves your mood: according to sports psychologists at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center walking combined with relaxation tapes (or simply repeating a positive phrase or counting your steps) can help stress and improve mood.
- It can prevent cancer: researchers have found that walking at least two miles a day can reduce your risk of developing colon cancer by half.
- It can extend your life: the Aerobics Center in Dallas found that walking two miles in about half an hour, three times a week, is enough to increase your lifespan by at least 2-3 years.
WALKING INTO DANGER?
Although walking is almost universally safe there are some points to remember.
1. Avoid walking in congested areas on days of bad air quality. When ozone levels are high you could experience lung irritation and coughing if you exercise on polluted days.
2. Don’t kickstart your system with a slug of coffee before you set off. Caffeine gets your heart pumping so it feels as if you are warmed up for exercise when you’re not – it dilates arteries in the central part of your body but not your arms and legs.
3. Avoid walking with weights. According to fitness expert Darryl Preston ‘the shoulder is one of the most unstable joints in the body and walking with weights makes it very susceptible to injury.’
4. Be seen, be safe. Much of the safety advice is the same as for jogging or running. ‘Tell someone where you are going,’ advises Carol Hampton, ‘or walk with a friend for safety.’ The old-fashioned walking accessory, a dog, can be a valuable precaution. Make sure you’re wearing fluorescent strips if you walk at night in unlit streets.
5. Don’t drink and walk! According to Australian newspaper The Age ‘loss of inhibitions, impaired vision, impaired brain function and slow reactions made ‘drink-walkers’ behave unpredictably, and left them less able to detect danger.’
WHAT TO WEAR
You don’t need fancy or expensive kit. The only really essential item is a good pair of shoes. Dennis Janisse, a certified pedorthist (a shoe pharmacist) at the Pedorthic Center in Milwaukee says: ‘Walkers need cushioning under the ball of the foot at the metatarsal heads where they ‘toe off’. Many walking shoes put softer materials there, or they are built with rocker-type soles to relieve some of the weight and pressure.’
You will find specialist walking shoes in sports shops. But, putting aside the latest colours and styling, your ideal fitness walking shoes should be –
FLEXIBLE: A walker flexes the foot at about 40 – 45 degrees as opposed to a runner’s 30 degrees.
WELL-FITTING: Ideally shoes should come in differing widths for a precise comfortable fit.
ADAPTED FOR YOU: Most of have bad walking habits which can be corrected with the aid of orthotics, inserts for your shoes which correct any imbalances. A chiropodist can advise and fit them.
My verdict: Walking is simply fabulous exercise, one of the reasons why it features in pretty well all of my books.