The easiest exercise to do, walking is also one of the most beneficial. In general, it’s better than running, because it’s easier and if you can’t run, you can usually still walk. It’s better than most aerobics, because it is far less likely to injure knees and other joints. It’s better than climbing stairs, because you can do it for a longer time — which means your respiratory and circulatory systems are kept going, so they get conditioned. As a matter of fact, it has been demonstrated that slightly longer exercise periods are key to conditioning your lungs and heart. Recommended is at least a 15-minute walk; but a 20 or 30-minute walk is better, if you can do it. Walking exercises more than your legs. It works your heart, your lungs, your circulatory system.
Unless you’re really just starting to exercise again, you may want to skip to Part Two now… Part One concerns some of the mechanics of walking and has some cautions for those with knees or legs that perhaps aren’t so strong.
Part One: Walking, For People Who Are Just Starting to Exercise Again
For people who are unaccustomed to exercise, slow walks are just the thing to use to condition yourself. While those who are used to more exercise can benefit from fast walks, a slower but longer walk is better for the less-active person, even if you do it so slowly it seems like the snails and turtles are passing you by. The distance you cover is a better measure of value for you than speed. Focus on how far you walked, and work on gradually increasing that — not your speed.
People who walk find they get into condition fast — and find they’re capable of longer walks sooner than they expected. And this should encourage the inactive: If you start walking today, you often feel a tiny bit better tomorrow, believe it or not. You begin to reap the benefits of moderate exercise almost right away. The body wasn’t meant to stay still. Walking “feeds” your muscles. Muscles really need to move, contract, and work.
As a matter of fact, exercise does feed your muscles, literally. It forces oxygen and blood into them, pushes it along, and gets the nutrients in your blood moving along to the tissues that must have those nutrients. Your body may be a temple, but it’s not a monument. It’s a system that must stay in continual motion. Inactivity is what actually starves muscles and eventually can damage them.
Posture – It’s Very Important
While you walk, your posture matters. If you lean forward at the waist while you go along, you’re likely to end up with a sore back. (You know how you can get a sore back at your desk by leaning forward in your chair for too long? Same principle. A few muscles grouped in a small area of your back are being forced to hold your entire upper body up.) Straighten yourself, visualizing your backbone as a nice straight arrow. Keeping your head up too helps remind you to walk with straight posture.
Leaning forward as you walk will work your gluteal muscles too much, as well as put a huge stress on your lower back. You’re supposed to be putting the load on your legs, which are strong and can handle it. So keep your upper body weight centered over your legs by NOT leaning forward.
Note: If you use a cane or walker, stay as upright as you can by keeping the walker or cane close to your body as you walk. In other words, push your walker short distances ahead of you, NOT long ones, so you aren’t leaning way forward towards it. If using a cane, take shorter steps, so you aren’t leaning so far forward on your cane. You may find you’ll be able to go farther, keeping this good posture.
But of course we all have a curve in our backbones, so it may take some effort to stand correctly when you’re overweight — or have been inactive. Walking with poor posture can automatically start straining your joints, since the weight distribution as you move is a little unbalanced.
So: Head up and chin level. — Shoulders back but relaxed. — And most of us tend to walk with the belly thrust somewhat forward and buttocks stuck out, so try to tuck your bottom under … which will automatically pull in your stomach. If that’s hard to do, try just doing it every few steps; walk a little slower and practice correct posture as you can. Eventually you’ll be walking better.
Walking Up Hills: Lean Forward Only At the Ankle, Keep Steps Short
As you walk up even a slight rise or hill, your posture has to adjust, obviously. But you don’t want to lean forward at the waist. Instead, imagine you’re leaning forward at the ankle… and take shorter steps, and keep your back straight. And here’s a tip for knees: Shorten your steps when you walk up a rise and don’t extend your knee beyond a 90-degree angle. This protects the joint. (How? When you walk uphill and place your foot so your knee is open at an angle greater than 90 degrees, your knee is basically pulling you uphill. This is not good: It throws too much weight on the joint, and the joint is in a weakened position at that angle. The muscles surrounding your knees are stronger when pulling over a short distance, so you want a narrower angle, and thus a shorter step.)
When you’re just starting, you may want to avoid hills for a bit unless you can control your posture fairly well.
Part Two: Walking For Exercise, in General
It is good to warm up even for walking. And more so if you are a power walker. Here’s how:
1. First, walk around slowly for a few minutes. This pumps the blood through your legs like a massage. You might gently shake each leg out a little. Do walk heel-to-toe.
2. Then stretch:
….Your calves. Stand and place both palms flat on a wall, or hold onto a gate or fence, and take one step with your right foot at least 12 inches back. Keep both feet flat on the ground and your right leg straightened. Lean your upper body just slightly towards the wall/fence. Hold that stretch for at least 15 seconds, then switch so your left foot is the one farther back, and hold for 15 seconds again. Repeat.
….Your leg and hip. Do a lunge — that is, a big step forward with your right foot — and keep your left leg straight and left foot flat on the ground. Make sure your right knee is at no more than 90 degree angle and your foot isn’t ahead of your knee. Hold for about 10 seconds, then lunge with your opposite leg. Try not to arch your back inward during the stretch.
….The front of each thigh. Stand on one foot, bending the other leg behind you, holding your foot up, your heel almost hitting your buttocks, so you can grab the toe of your shoe. Hold your foot and feel the stretch in the front of your thigh, for about 5-10 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
If you cannot easily get hold of your foot behind you, skip this stretch. Force it and you can get a painful muscle spasm in the back of your thigh.
….The rest of you. Arch your back and shoulders like a cat, then relax; do several slow big circles with your arms; do a side stretch by reaching up high with one arm, hold for a few seconds, then bring your arm down and do the other arm. Bend over and let your arms hang down loose, and feel the stretch in your back and hamstrings. Straighten up slowly, a vertebra at a time.
3. Some people like to do a varied routine in their walk workout.
What helps you finish a workout or walk and keeps it from becoming tedious? Variety. Structure. A plan. And interval training is one way of incorporating all those into your exercise time. Plus, there’s something about fast-paced intervals alternating with slower ones that actually burns fat more effectively and faster than an unvaried workout. A walk of assorted speeds is one example of interval training.
First, you’ll need to bring a watch/phone with a timer along, so you can time the intervals. The shortest interval will be about 30 seconds, so the choice of timer isn’t terribly critical.
Make sure your shoes are good and supportive athletic shoes, such as cross-trainers.
Your walk should start — after your 3 minute warmup — with 15 minutes of moderate-pace walking, which is about 3 miles per hour. This speed is a little too fast to be sight-seeing; walk as if you’re headed for a bus stop, and while you’re not in a hurry, you know you shouldn’t dawdle either.
Then, at the 15-minute mark, start striding about 5 miles per hour, like you just saw that bus approaching and now you have to hurry. This is a brisk walk. Keep it up for 5 minutes, and if you want you can, at this point, do a 30-second jog. Then immediately go back to your original moderate pace. Keep that up for another 10 minutes, if you plan to repeat the interval of brisk walking; if not then do 15 minutes moderate pace, and end.
This is just an example. Other exercises are usually incorporated in between walking intervals, for super calorie-burning effectiveness. That will be described in other articles.