Simply put, walking is just plain good for you. It’s a form of low-impact exercise with definite mood-boosting effects, including a demonstrated ability to alleviate depression. In addition, studies have shown that countries in which walking is common experience lower rates of obesity than countries that rely on cars for transportation. In other words, walking can make you happier and healthier. So, see Step 1 below to get started, then turn off the computer, put on some walking shoes, and get out there and walk!
Stand erect and upright as you walk. Although everyone has their own unique, individual gait, certain common behaviors can improve almost everyone’s walking experience. Chief among these is your posture. As you walk, keep your head upright, your back straight, and your chin up. Maintaining this posture will keep your spine straight and help you breathe by taking pressure off your diaphragm.
Resist the urge to hunch or slouch as you walk. Over time, bad posture can lead to back pain, a stiff neck, and even more serious maladies.
Use your calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps to walk efficiently. An effective walking motion uses nearly all of the muscle groups in the leg – not just one. As you walk, visualize pushing off with your back foot using your hamstrings and quadriceps and propelling yourself forward onto the heel of your other foot. Roll your foot forward, heel-to-toe, as you make your step. This brings your calf muscles into play – use them to keep your feet at the correct (elevated) angle for each step.
Keep your shoulders pulled back, but relaxed. Even though the majority of the muscles used to walk are in your legs and core, you’ll still want to keep an eye on the posture of your upper body. Keeping your shoulders in a relaxed, pulled-back position serves several purposes. It maintains a stable, “vertical column” of support while you walk stretching from your neck to your hips. This works in conjunction with a straight back and an elevated chin to minimize the strain on the back as you walk, preventing injury in the long-term. Also, it’s simply a good habit to get into to prevent slouching, which, as previously noted, can result in shoulder pain and strain.
Finally, pulling your shoulders back makes you look good by projecting confidence and strength. This is a small but not insignificant point – why look mediocre while you walk when you can look great and protect yourself from injury in the process?
Swing your arms as you walk. For most, this should be second nature. As you walk, let your arms hang naturally at your side. Your arms should begin to swing in small arcs as you start to walk – the quicker you walk, the larger the arcs. Moving your arms is a natural part of walking – it’s been found to increase the efficiency of your stride, allowing you to walk farther on the same amount of metabolic energy than you would while keeping your arms still. So, don’t be afraid to swing your arms as you walk. Don’t worry – you won’t look like a power walker.
If weather permits, try to keep your hands out of your pockets. Doing so allows you to receive the benefits of swinging your arms, meaning you’ll be able to walk faster and farther than you would otherwise.
Start out at a reduced warm-up pace. For the first few minutes of your walk, keep an even, comfortable rhythm as your body warms up. Assuming that 100% represents the absolute fastest you can walk without breaking into a run, try walking at about 50 – 60% of this level of exertion. As a general rule, you should be able to speak normally and carry on a conversation without being breathless during your warmup.
Though there is some debate on the matter, general warmups have been shown to increase performance during cardiovascular exercise.
Increase your walking speed to moderate intensity after warming up. When you feel comfortable doing so, pick up the pace to about 70 – 80% of your maximum walk speed. Maintain good form as you pick up speed. At this moderately intense pace, you should eventually start to breathe hard, but not gasp. You should be able to maintain a conversation, but not necessarily be able to do this extremely easily.
Resist the urge to start taking long, unnatural strides as you speed up. Lengthening your gait in this manner stretches out your leg muscles and destabilizes your core, leading to discomfort over time.
To improve your cardiovascular health, warm up and maintain this pace for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week. Studies have also shown that breaking up this 30-minute session into multiple chunks throughout the day is similarly effective, so long as one spends an equivalent total amount of time walking.
Cool down at the end of your walk. After you’ve maintained your elevated pace for 30 minutes (or longer), decrease your pace back to your warmup pace. Spend 5 to 15 minutes walking at this lower pace. A cooldown session at the end of a high-intensity walk allows you to gradually (rather than abruptly) return to your resting heart rate. Plus, it just plain feels great.
This last point is definitely worth consideration. The better you feel after exercise, the more likely you are to repeat your exercise consistently. Thus, good cooldown sessions can help increase your long-term gains from exercise.