How To Get In Shape & Improve Your Health With Walking

How To Get In Shape & Improve Your Health With Walking

Getting fit and boosting your health really can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is one of the easiest ways to become more active and will improve your fitness, cardiac health, improve your mood and help you to lose weight. Whether you’re a total beginner or looking for ways to supercharge your daily walk, here’s what you need to know…

It’s A Science-Backed Way To Improve Your Health
Running has long been lauded as the ultimate way to boost cardiovascular health and longevity but, according to the experts, walking is an underrated form of exercise. As 54-year-old personal trainer Christina Howells says: “Walking is a seriously efficient exercise that decreases your risk of disease. Countless research suggests that two and a half hours of walking per week is protective against cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia and breast cancer.” For the previously sedentary, walking offers a fast track to improved health. A recent study shows that a 40-minute walk three times a week boosts the connectivity of important brain circuits and prevents cognitive decline, while other research reveals walking improves cardiac risk factors such as obesity, cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure, vascular stiffness, inflammation and mental stress. Walking can also cut arthritic pain in half, increase your energy levels and reduce fatigue. 

It’s Also A Good Way To Build Fitness
Beyond walking’s disease-fighting effects, the experts say it will also get you fit – so long as you’re doing it properly. The issue with steady state exercise, such as walking, is that it requires a lot of time to achieve the same level of aerobic conditioning as you would expect from high intensity exercise. In other words, when comparing running to walking as a means of quicker results, running would win hands down, but as we age, a higher-impact activity such as running may not be a realistic solution. “Walking offers a reduced risk of injury compared to running and doesn’t require the same recovery time, making it a more accessible workout,” says Christina. “The benefits of walking, however, depend on three components: intensity, duration and frequency. As walking is less intensive than running, you’ll need to increase your walk time and ideally walk at a brisk pace. As a guide, you should be able to talk but not sing.” Joanna Hall, creator and founder of WalkActive, adds that for the maximum results, you should walk at 5-5.5km per hour for at least 30 minutes, at least four to five times per week. 

If You’re Just Starting Out, Take It Slow 
Whether you’re recovering from an injury or keen to improve your fitness levels, it pays to start slowly. “If you are relatively unfit and looking to start a walking routine, break this into three weekly walks of ten-minutes or two 15-minute segments until you get stronger,” Christina recommends. “Start by walking at a comfortable pace and then after a week or two, up the intensity by walking for five minutes at a comfortable pace and then speeding up for two minutes before slowing down; repeat this a few times.” When it comes to what defines a brisk walk, Christina says it’s worth keeping an eye on your heart rate. “Aim for between 50-85% of your maximum heart rate. To work out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. So, for a 55-year-old, that equates to a maximum heart rate of 165 beats per minute. A moderate intensity workout would sit between 50-70% of this figure, while a more vigorous workout would be at 70-85% of this figure.” If you don’t have a heart rate monitor (most fitness trackers, including the Apple Watch, have this feature) the experts also say feeling warm and a little breathless is also a good indicator that you’re walking at a decent speed. 

Your Cadence Also Matters
“Recently, scientists have started looking at walking cadence – i.e. the number of steps you take per minute – to measure intensity. The more steps you take, the harder your heart and lungs are working,” says Christina. “A cadence of greater than 100 steps per minute is recommended for brisk walking. If you are fit, aim for 115 to 120 or more steps per minute. You can measure this via a fitness tracker, or simply by counting your steps over one minute. I recommend taking longer and faster strides, which will not only get your heart pumping but also prevent natural declines in walking ability and speed. As we age, slower walking paces are associated with accelerated ageing, both physically and mentally.”

The experts say feeling warm and a little breathless is also a good indicator that you’re walking at a decent speed.

Know When & How To Level It Up
If you can walk comfortably for 30 minutes three to four times per week, it could be worth increasing the intensity of your walk to see further results. “Aiming to walk as fast as you possibly can on short inclines throughout your walk is a great way to introduce intensity,” Christina advises. “Adding hills or stairs means your leg muscles are forced to repeatedly lift your body against the pull of gravity, placing a greater demand on your cardiovascular system and lower body muscle activation. If you can, take yourself off on a hilly hike, which is an excellent way to supercharge your fitness, strength and balance. Even if you hike at a slower pace due to hillier terrain, you’ll still burn more calories due to an increased intensity.” When it comes to increasing your walking load, Christina says it’s better to keep things simple, so avoid adding ankle and wrist weights. “Adding ankle weights may be trendy but they can cause joint stress at the ankle, knee and hip, and force you to use the muscles at the front of your legs more than the back, resulting in muscular imbalances. The same goes for arm weights and joint stress. If you want to increase upper body muscle strength and tone, it’s far better, and safer, to incorporate strength training as a separate part of your fitness regime,” she advises

Protect Your Joints
While walking offers a great low-impact way to stay active, it’s not entirely impact-free, so if you are prone to joint pain which makes walking uncomfortable, there are steps you can take to reduce the load. As Natalie Rose Edwards, trainer at advises: “Avoid walking downhill if you can. Declines put more force on your joints than level-surface walking. Walking uphill, however, is a great way to decrease the impact even further.” Natalie also recommends using knee and ankle braces if you are prone to pain in these areas. “Braces can help reduce existing pain and help you avoid injuries. The compression and added warmth they provide increases blood flow to the joints.” If you’re looking to get into walking, Openfit’s Every Step programme is worth a try – it’s a three-week programme that offers guided walks throughout the week, some shorter recovery walks and some longer, more challenging walks with targets to hit along the way. All the goals are calibrated to your own ability and automatically scale up as your ability improves. 

It’s Worth Thinking About Your Footwear
“Walking shoes are different to running shoes due to the action of the foot,” Natalie explains. “Running shoes are usually lightweight, flexible and have more cushioning to support the ball of the foot, whereas walking shoes need to provide good arch support, grip and have less shock absorption. When walking, we usually strike the heel first so that should be kept in mind, too – consider purchasing extra support if needed for your Achilles or heel.” 

Consider Investing In Some Walking Poles
While the experts agree you don’t need fancy equipment to start walking, it could be worth using walking poles, or sticks. “Poles can be beneficial for upper body tone and can help you burn more calories per mile. They will also help decrease strain on your joints,” Christina adds. Studies also show poles can force you to pick up the pace and work harder without realising, while other research shows sticks can significantly reduce muscle damage and soreness after strenuous treks.

Don’t Worry About Hitting 10,000 Steps
When it comes to walking, reaching 10,000 steps daily appears to be the recommended goal, but the experts say there is little science behind this arbitrary number. As Katrin Schlee, Gympass personal trainer and wellness coach explains, the original basis for the 10,000-step guideline was a marketing strategy dating back to 1965 when a Japanese company was selling pedometers; they gave the pedometer a name that, in Japanese, means ‘the 10,000-step marker’. Katrin explains that the name was chosen for the product as the character for 10,000 resembled a man walking. “The health merits of this number appear never to have been validated by research,” she says. “One study, which observed the step totals and mortality rates of 16,000 elderly women found that at 4,400 steps per day, these women had significantly lower mortality rates compared to the least active women. If they did more, their mortality rates continued to drop, until they reached around 7,500 steps, at which point the rates levelled out. Ultimately, increasing daily physical activity by as little as 2,000 steps – less than a mile of walking – was associated with positive health outcomes.” 

It’s Okay To Do Your Steps On A Treadmill
If it’s cold and wet outside, there’s no harm in turning to the treadmill. In fact, the experts say there may well be advantages to getting your steps in this way. “Getting outdoors is great for your mental health, especially if you live in a city, but using a treadmill can make it easier to adhere to a certain speed, which can be handy if you have a specific goal,” Christina says. “Plus, a treadmill has the benefit of providing inclines that stimulate hill walking. The higher the slope, the more you will increase the strength of your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calf muscles. You’ll also burn more calories, and the incline will push your heart to work harder. An incline also allows you to improve performance in a controlled environment before you hit the hills. Just make sure you’re not holding onto the sides of the treadmill – this will do nothing to improve co-ordination and balance in the real world.”

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