How to Make Walking Work for You
by Lane Vail
Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine,” and Americans agree: According to the U.S. Surgeon General, walking is America’s most popular form of fitness. It’s free, convenient and simple. Recent studies show that 10,000 daily steps helps lower blood pressure, shed pounds and reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Here’s how to rev up the weekly routine and stay motivated.
Breathe. Belly breathing calms the parasympathetic nervous system, expands lung capacity and improves circulation. Inhale through the nose, fill the belly and expel through the mouth, advises Katherine Dreyer, an originator of Chi Walking, in Asheville, North Carolina.
Try new techniques and terrain. “The body is smart and efficient. It must be constantly challenged in safe ways and tricked into burning more calories,” says Malin Svensson, a personal fitness trainer and former nationally ranked track and field athlete.
Ascend hills intensely for effective interval training, but descend gently to avoid stressing the calves and Achilles tendon, advises Dreyer. She also suggests walking backwards for 30 steps every five minutes during a 30-minute walk to reestablish proper posture.
Push with poles. Compelling the body forward with Nordic walking poles can burn 20 to 46 percent more calories than regular walking. Svensson, the president of Nordic Body, explains, “Applying pressure to the poles activates abdominal, chest, back and triceps muscles,” which necessitates more oxygen and raises the heart rate. The correct technique is, “Plant, push and walk away.”
Feel the Earth move under your (bare) feet. Improve mood, reduce pain and deepen sleep by going outside barefoot, says Dr. Laura Koniver, of Greenville, South Carolina, in the new documentary, The Grounded. “The Earth’s surface contains an infinite reservoir of free electrons, which, upon contact with the body, can neutralize damage from free radicals,” she says.
Notice nature. Alexandra Horowitz, author of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, finds the outdoors infinitely more engaging than exercising in the gym: “Seek out historic downtowns, scenic waterways and woodsy hikes, and open up to experiencing the world.”
Practice moving meditation. To alleviate moodiness or a confused mental state, Dreyer suggests, “Imagine your chest as a window through which energy, fresh air, sunshine, even rain, can pour into and through you as you walk.”
Make fresh air a social affair. A group walk can increase performance levels of participants, says Dennis Michele, president of the American Volkssport Association, which promotes fun, fitness and friendship through noncompetitive, year-round, walking events.
Stroll with friends and share discoveries. “A fresh perspective can help tune you into the great richness of ordinary environments often overlooked,” says Horowitz.
Let your feet speak for an important cause and sign up for an awareness walk.
Ditch the distraction of electronic devices. Horowitz views walking texters as hazards, obstacles and non-participants in the environment. Australian researcher Siobhan Schabrun, Ph.D., concurs, based on a recent University of Queensland study she led. The brain, she found, prioritizes texting over walking, resulting in “slowing down, deviating from a straight line and walking like robots with the arms, trunk and head in one rigid line, which increases the risk of falling.”
Mutual benefits of walking a dog. Dr. John Marshall, chief oncologist at Georgetown University Hospital, in Washington, D.C., prescribes dog walking to his cancer patients, asserting that it yields a better outcome than chemotherapy.
Be a fanny pack fan. Fanny packs—storing identification, cell phone, water and other essentials—are supported by abdominal muscles, unlike backpacks that tense the shoulders and disturb natural torso rotation, says Svensson. Ferris agrees: “Walks are so much more enjoyable hands-free.”
Walk while you work. Employees of Minneapolis finance company SALO check emails, make phone calls and attend meetings while walking slowly on ergonomically designed treadmill desks. “Most anything you can do sitting, you can do standing, and carrying your own body weight is almost as beneficial as walking,” says co-founder Amy Langer.
Another vital tip comes from a study reported in the journal Diabetologia, which suggests that sedentary time, even when combined with moderate-to-vigorous exercise, poses a greater health risk than being gently active throughoutthe day. Dreyer’s best advice returns to the general mantra, “The body is wise. Listen when it says, ‘Get up and walk a bit.’”
Lane Vail is a freelance writer in South Carolina. Connect at WriterLane.com.