Tips for walking your way to better health

Walking is an excellent form of exercise for people of all ages and abilities. Start your walking program gradually, increasing length and pace as you get used to it. The following suggestions may help you to incorporate regular walking into your lifestyle.

Taking a walk is also a good way to get some exercise. And while it’s perfectly fine to keep them easy and ambling, especially if they’re primarily for fresh air or mental-health purposes, there are also plenty of ways to make them hard enough that it will feel like a moderate to intense workout. That’s key: Many of us—especially those who depended on classes like indoor cycling—are lacking cardio options since many gyms remain closed (and if yours is open, you might not feel safe going back to it just yet).

Making the shift starts with intention. “Understand the difference between a leisure walk and a fitness walk,” Jayel Lewis, a certified international personal trainer and business coach in Philadelphia, tells SELF. “If you are going to walk for a workout, identify that before you go, and set yourself up for success prior to leaving.”

Walking for fitness can help you:

  • Manage your blood pressure.
  • Reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
  • Manage your diabetes.
  • Manage your weight.
  • Reduce the risk of a heart attack.
  • Manage stress and improve mood by releasing endorphins.
  • Stay strong and active.
  • Improve balance and coordination.
  • Increase core strength.

Walking also has been shown to improve sleep, slow mental decline, lower risk of dementia, lead to a longer life and help the elderly maintain independent living longer.

Walking: An ideal form of exercise

Have you ever resolved on New Year’s Day to start exercising more—only to find that you didn’t have the time or couldn’t afford expensive lessons, classes, or gym fees? Maybe concerns about injuries kept you on the sidelines. Walking could just be the way to keep your resolution. Here’s why:

You already know how to do it. Just put one foot in front of the other. There’s no learning curve like you would have if you took up a new activity, such as Zumba or tennis.

You can do it anywhere. Step out your front door. Take a walk from where you work. You can walk around areas that you frequent, such as the grocery store, a shopping center, a place of worship, or the homes of friends and family.

You don’t need any special equipment. If you’re walking for exercise, it’s best to have a comfortable pair of shoes, preferably sneakers. But that’s it! While there are some items of clothing and gear that can make walking more enjoyable, they are not essential.

It’s gentle on your knees—and the rest of your body. Unlike running, you keep one foot on the ground at all times when you’re walking, making it a low-impact, joint-friendly type of exercise.

Walking is not only healthy and easy, but it’s also fun

To some people, exercise feels like drudgery. With walking, however, you can pamper yourself in multiple ways.

You can do it with others. Invite family, friends, or co-workers to join you for a walk. It’s a great way to catch up or get to know someone better. And if you need to have a tough conversation with someone, try doing it while walking. Striding side by side can make discussions easier because you’re more relaxed than when you’re sitting face to face.

You can get “me” time. Heading out by yourself can be a good way to escape the demands and expectations that occupy much of your time. As you stroll, you can clear your head, relax, and reflect. It can be valuable, quiet “me” time, allowing you to return refreshed.

You can enjoy a dose of nature. Studies show that spending time in parks or near water can boost your mood. Walking is a great way to get out in nature.

You can gain a new perspective. The world is different when you view it at 3 mph instead of 25 or 30 mph. You might discover an interesting shop, observe intricate architecture, or meet a friendly person.

You can be more creative.
Stanford University researchers found that people generated twice as many creative responses to problems when walking compared with sitting. And the creative juices continued to flow even when they sat down after their walk—another good reason to take a walking break during the workday.

Tips when getting started walking

Start slowly.

If you have been inactive, then start gently with five to 10 minutes at a steady pace, and build up over a couple of weeks to months.

Set goals.

Set realistic goals for yourself, such as 20 to 40 minutes of walking five days a week.

Plan continually.

If you’re taking a trip or working overtime, think of strategies for incorporating short walks into your day to keep your plan on track.

Don’t let the weather get you down.

If the weather is not optimal, consider walking indoors, such as at local malls and exercise facilities.

Plan several different routes, and make walking a social event.

Having several routes to choose from will add variety to your walking so you don’t get bored. So will inviting friends or family to join you. And they’ll reap the benefits of walking, too. Once you take that first step, you’ll be on your way to an important destination: better health.

Use the correct technique

Walk at a steady pace, swing your arms freely and stand as straight as you can. Your feet should step in a rolling action from the heel to the toe.

Shoes and socks

Wear thick comfortable cotton socks. Sensible, comfortable and lightweight shoes with support are best.

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Walk to music with a quicker tempo

There’s a reason group fitness classes blast power pop—music not only boosts your mood, research shows it can actually make hard efforts feel easier. What’s more, it can also work as a kind of metronome guiding your pace.

Spotify has playlists for songs of various beats per minute that Lewis loves for keeping the tempo up. Choose one that’s comfortably challenging—say, 130 to 140 BPM—and will last for the duration of time that you want to walk, and aim to keep up with it. (You can also try our SELF playlist of the best workout songs for some motivation, too.)

Or use music as a cue for more intense segments. Walk easy for verses and fast during the chorus, suggests Erin Schirack, a Chicago-based personal trainer and cofounder of MV Fitness. Theodore recommends this bodyweight circuit at the start of every other tune: 10 squats, 10 split squats on each leg, 10 lateral lunges per leg, and 10 push-ups, either on the ground or with your hands on a bench to make it easier.

Close it out with a stretch session.

Taking a few minutes to further loosen warm, limber muscles after a walk can ease some of the strain and fatigue you’ve built up and also give your session a sense of closure. “Often we walk and get to our car or back to our house and that’s it,” Barrett says. “Stretching makes it complete.”

Your body may guide you to what’s tight and achy, Barrett says. If your form is correct, your shins, calves, and hamstrings may feel sore, Mosier points out. Loosen your calves by standing with the ball of your left foot on a curb or step and your right foot flat on the ground. Lean but don’t bounce until you feel a stretch in your left calf, and hold for 30 to 60 seconds before repeating on the opposite side.

For your hamstrings, step your left foot forward, straighten your left knee, bend the right slightly, then hinge forward at your hips with your back flat. Stretch your arms overhead, reach forward, then slowly stand back up. Repeat five times on each side.

That small act of self-care can go a long way in cementing your walk as an important accomplishment, another way you’re navigating the challenges everyone’s facing right now. “It’s this buffer between the workout and the rest of the world, a finishing touch,” Barrett says. “It just makes the rest of the day better. And then the next day, you’re prepared to go for a walk again.”

Types of walking

All walks are good for you. But there’s more than one way to walk. Depending upon your goals, you may need to try a different type of walking. Here is an overview of different styles of walking and how each may benefit you.

Everyday walking. This is ambling around your house or place of work, walking to and from your car, strolling around shopping, or any other incidental activities that require a little bit of walking.

Interval walking. For this type of walk, you alternate fast walking for short periods of time with equal or longer intervals of slower or moderate-paced walking to recover.

Leisure walking. Strolling while chatting with a friend or walking the dog are examples of leisure walking. When you’re walking leisurely or strolling, you’re relaxed and moving easily. Your effort is light enough that you’d be able to sing while you walked.

Fitness walking. This type of walking is faster and more purposeful. Fitness walking can be done at a variety of levels, but basically it’s a brisk pace. You should be breathing harder and your heart beating faster, but you should still be able to speak in complete sentences.

Hiking. This is simply walking in the woods or some other natural setting. As with other types of walking, there are different levels of difficulty—from level, well-groomed trails to steep, rocky routes marked with trail blazes that require more attention to ensure you stay on the right path.

The Bottom Line

Walking is a gentle, low-impact cardio exercise that can ease you into a higher level of fitness and health. It’s safe and simple. And regular brisk walking can provide many of the benefits of more vigorous exercises, such as jogging.

Walking can have a bigger impact on disease risk and various health conditions than just about any other remedy that’s readily available to you. What’s more, it’s free and has practically no negative side effects. Walking for 2.5 hours a week—that’s just 21 minutes a day—can cut your risk of heart disease by 30%. In addition, this do-anywhere, no-equipment-required activity has also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and keep you mentally sharp. Even a quick one-minute jaunt pays off. A University of Utah study in 2014 found that for every minute of brisk walking that women did throughout the day, they lowered their risk of obesity by 5%.

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