Walking is a fundamental human activity. Our ancestors have been doing it for millions of years. And babies keep trying until they succeed.
So how could there be any new insights about walking? It’s precisely because we don’t walk like our ancestors, or like free-roaming toddlers. We walk in straight lines, on hard surfaces, wearing supportive but confining shoes. And most of us don’t walk as much as we should for optimal health and strength.
In response, here are five simple but effective ideas (which I have recently been practicing myself) about how to up-level our walking to benefit our bodies the most:
1) Weight the walk.
Called rucking when it’s done with a backpack, this is simply carrying extra weight as we walk, in a way that doesn’t excessively unbalance or strain our bodies.
Increasing walking weight further strengthens our bones and muscles, builds cardio fitness, burns more calories, and can even encourage us to stand straighter and counterbalance our typical hunched-forward posture.
A good standard is to add about 5-10% of our body weight, for instance with:
- A well-fitted backpack with evenly distributed weight (a weight plate wrapped in a towel? Some groceries on a walk back from the store? A sack of dry cat food?)
- A weighted vest (mine is about 6 percent of my current weight).
- Light hand weights. Note: Ankle weights are OK if you have no joint issues or imbalances; otherwise they can be problematic.
2) Add two poles.
Ordinary walking engages our lower body, but our upper body isn’t activated much at all. Walking with two poles to push off from the ground, cross-country skiing style, gets our hands, arms, and torso muscles much more involved. According to Harvard Health, you’re engaging 80% to 90% of your muscles, as opposed to 50%, providing a substantial calorie-burning benefit. Lots of evidence confirms that Nordic walking burns more calories than regular walking — estimates range from an increase of 18% to 67% more.
Two further benefits: Pushing off with the upper body on the poles relieves some of the strain on our knees and hips… And coordinating the upper and lower body during pole walking can help correct the unhelpful imbalances we all tend to have (caused by posture habits, repetitive one-sided activities like driving, differences in leg strength, etc.).
Specialized poles are required, of course: look for equipment for Nordic walking, “exerstriding,” fitness walking or trekking. But for just about the price of a nice dinner out, and a little practice, you can have portable fitness equipment that can turbocharge all of your walks.
Some tips in choosing walking poles:
- Many poles have spikes on the bottom that dig into the earth for hiking. Look for rubber shoes or paws that attach to the bottom of the poles, so you can use them on hard surfaces too.
- Poles come in different sizes, and some are adjustable; be sure to get the right size for your body.
- Different poles are used in slightly different ways, so train and practice using the manual and/or videos. I even visited my sports chiropractor Dr. Anne Sorrentino (who recommended them to me) with my new poles for a quick tutorial.
- Try out the many different grip styles to figure out what works for you.
- Always use two poles for fitness walking, to keep your body balanced.
3) Gradually increase steps
OK, tracking our steps isn’t new but it’s easier than ever before to say goodbye clunky clip-on pedometers, hello smartphones and smartwatches! (I’m happy that my Apple Watch tracks my steps even when I’m not carrying my phone around…)
Some people I’ve talked to have found it discouraging to track their steps as they’ve often viewed 10,000 steps a day as the optimal health target, and they’re frustrated when they don’t meet it.
10,000 steps can be a reasonable goal for some active people (and interestingly, that is the level I naturally seem to hit when I’m spending time in a walkable city such as Brussels). But it’s completely arbitrary, in fact it arose because it sounded good in a Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer company.
In a study cited by Harvard Health:
- Sedentary women averaged 2,700 steps a day.
- Women who averaged 4,400 daily steps had a 41% reduction in mortality.
- Mortality rates progressively improved before leveling off at approximately 7,500 steps per day.
If you’re currently sedentary, the Harvard article suggests gradually adding 2,000 steps a day, trying to hit a target of at least 4,400. If your current step count is already over 5,000, a positive and sustainable goal is to boost your current average by 10%.
And this doesn’t mean that you have to take time for long walks (although it’s great if you can!). One often-overlooked factor in health and fitness is NEAT. It stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or burning calories by fidgeting and moving around.
There are many ways to increase our step count in the day we already have:
- Get up often from sitting (I set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes while I’m working)
- Walk outside briefly even if it’s too hot, wet, cold, windy or whatever.
- Walk during a phone call (unless your neighborhood has lousy cell service like mine), or walk with a friend instead of sitting and talking.
- The usual tweaks like taking the stairs or parking farther away do add up!
With walking as with just about any exercise, a 10% increase is a great standard, because it likely won’t cause a flare-up in any susceptible body part, but we’ll get gradually stronger. When the new normal feels easy and routine, we can ramp it up by another 10%.
4) Vary terrain and movements
Our bodies were NOT designed to walk only in straight lines on hard, flat pavement.
Instead, we’re built to carry things over rough ground and walk up and down hills and ridges, using all of our leg and hip muscles (which we badly need if we start to slip and want to catch ourselves in a fall!).
Interestingly, the world’s Blue Zones where people appear to have unusual longevity are all hilly places.
Here are some ideas to shake up walking workouts and activate more of the body:
- Find opportunities to walk on natural ground, even if it’s just stepping over tree roots in a nearby park.
- Seek out hilly neighborhoods or parks for some walks, if possible.
- On streets, we can use the curb as a natural obstacle; stepping up and down, forward and sideways.
- On stairs, we can vary our ways of walking up and down, for instance sometimes going sideways.
- Dr. Anne Sorrentino recommends that for the last hundred yards of a walk, we should do 30 steps to one side and then to the other.
5) Support our feet, but challenge them too
Our feet each have 26 bones, 30 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, which work together to provide support, balance and mobility. In fact, nearly one-fourth of the body’s bones are in our feet!
We know it’s not a great idea to force these sophisticated and powerful structures into high-heeled shoes with cramped toe boxes (no matter how cute they might look). But our feet also don’t thrive when we constantly immobilize them with arch supports and rigid or highly cushioned shoes.
Instead, we need to keep those complicated foot structures healthy and well-conditioned. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to take a long time, and it can pay off with multiple benefits, such as avoiding (or improving) plantar fasciitis, improving balance (and avoiding falls), and even preventing knee and hip problems.
Any or all of the following measures can help strengthen and condition our feet:
- Short Toe Yoga sessions and exercises such as Short Foot. I’ve started doing six minutes of Toe Yoga with my Fierce in the Forest group, and they love it! Here are 9 great foot exercises to try.
- Gentle self-massage of the underside of the feet (maybe while looking away from the gory scenes of Outlander on Netflix?) with a soft or textured ball, or a tennis ball is fine!
- Regularly spending time using a toe spreader such as the Naboso Splay.
- Walking barefoot on soft surfaces such as grass, and especially sand if it’s available.
- Trying minimal shoes be sure to ease into them gradually if you’re not used to them.
Adding weight, using poles, and boosting our step count can bring even more of the enormous benefits of exercise to our walks, such as reductions in fat mass, ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, depression, anxiety and chronic pain, and increases in ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, endurance, muscle strength and flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, and longevity.
Varying our terrain and types of movement while walking, plus exercising our feet, have more subtle but also crucially important benefits: they activate and strengthen the small muscles that support our balance and stability. We may never know what we avoided by doing this: maybe a serious fall, a broken hip, or debilitating joint pain due to muscle imbalances and weakness. But we WILL know that we can move with more ease, enjoy our walks even more, and feel confident traveling, hiking and doing more of what we love.
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