How to Walk: Dos and Don’ts
Go outdoors. Grass, sand, dirt, and roads are never completely level, so they work out muscles more effectively than a treadmill does, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama. You also burn more calories when you contend with wind, which, Olson says, “increases resistance, as if you’re walking up a small hill.” Research suggests that being in nature also improves mood.
Get creative indoors. Walking downhill is essential for building strength in the quadriceps and shins, says Olson. (Most people get sore after hiking on hills not because of the climb but because their muscles aren’t used to the descent.) So if you must walk on a treadmill, dial up the incline. And turn around, so you’re walking backward for a few minutes.
Use a pedometer. A 2007 Stanford University study reported that keeping track of your steps increases physical activity by about 27 percent, which amounts to roughly an extra mile of walking each day.
Don’t dress for a jog. Running sneakers tend to be stiff, and that can make the rolling action of walking difficult. Instead, opt for flexible, lightweight walking sneakers that you can twist with your hands, says Michele Stanten, a certified group fitness instructor and the author of Walk Off Weight ($20, amazon.com). The right fit will depend on your arches and the terrain. As for clothing, bundle up in cold weather, but not too tightly, says John Castellani, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. You should be able to move comfortably, so start with a base layer of silk or a synthetic fabric with moisture-wicking technology (like Dri-Fit), then add a fleece or wool midlayer and a moisture-proof outer layer, both of which can be easily shed. In warm weather, don thin, light-colored clothing and a hat to protect your scalp from the sun.
Don’t carry weights. They are not helpful and may even be harmful. Two- to five-pound dumbbells “don’t create enough resistance to develop meaningful changes in strength,” says Olson. Yet they’re heavy enough to increase the risk of shoulder injury.
Don’t go too slow. Recent research published in the science journal PLOS One showed that the brisker the pace, the better. A study tracked almost 39,000 recreational walkers over 9.4 years and concluded that for every minute that participants shaved off a mile-long walk, their risk of premature death decreased by 1.8 percent.
The Cure-All Caveat
Everything has its limitations, and walking has two. To build a complete fitness routine around your walk, consider the following.
Flexibility training: Before your walk, do a half-dozen arm circles and high-knee marches. Add more when you stop at a red light outdoors or when you finish on a treadmill, says exercise physiologist Michele Olson.
Strength training: Add three 15-minute resistance-training or weight-lifting sessions a week, says Erik Kirk, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology and health education at Southern Illinois University, in Edwardsville. (Or try this weight-loss walk.) Brief, albeit intense, sessions can build muscle and boost metabolism significantly, according to Kirk’s 2011 study on strength training in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.