Walking your way to health
Walking has more health benefits than most people realize.
Can you really walk your way to better health? Research continues to show both the physiological and psychological benefits of the exercise, yet many individuals continue to underrate walking as a health booster.
"The studies are overwhelming; the data is there to show that walking provides all of these health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart and cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, as well as reducing blood pressure and enhancing mood," said Dr. Edward Laskowski, co-director of and specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minn.
While those who are inactive may have the best intentions when they join a gym or start a high-intensity workout routine, Laskowski notes they significantly reduce their likelihood of sticking with it if it's too intense. "A lot of people start out too fast, work too long and get demotivated," he said. "Finding something that's easy to do and practical is really key."
As sedentary lifestyles reach epidemic levels, consistent exercise routines are more important than ever. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 46 percent of American adults met their recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. Part of the problem, said Laskowski, is our all-or-nothing attitude toward exercise, with walking often lumped in the same category as couch-sitting.
"People underrate walking because it's something we do every day, but that's one of the great things about walking: We know how to do it, it's enjoyable and it's easily accessible," said Michele Stanten, author of the book Walk Off Weight, an American Council on Exercise-certified fitness instructor and former fitness director at Prevention Magazine.
The key, she said, is to pick up the pace and get out of your comfort zone. "People who are walking with a group of friends talking a mile a minute will still get health benefits, but they're limiting them."
The good news is that you can meet the CDC's exercise recommendations with its definition of "brisk walking," which means you still have enough lung capacity to talk but cannot sing. For individuals who are currently inactive, Laskowski urged them to start slow and not fall into the common trap of too much too soon. "I often see people go out and walk four or five miles right away and then get sore," he said, adding that this lands people back on the couch as fast as a January gym membership.
Interval training, which requires a faster pace in short bursts, is a great way to increase your workout's intensity. "Research has shown that it's helpful for conditioning and provides increased cardiovascular benefits," said Laskowski, adding that it's even good for most people with heart disease, although you should always check with your doctor first.
To get the best conditioning, Stanten suggested interval training two to three times a week. This requires speeding up for 30- to 60-second increments and then slowing down to recover for about a minute, which will get you fitter faster and allow you to burn more calories.
During a test panel for Stanten's Walk Off Weight program, study participants were challenged to beat interval times by increasing their steps per minute. According to Stanten, the results were impressive: On average, participants reduced the amount of time it took them to walk a mile by more than two minutes during the eight-week testing period.
Although instructions for walking may seem obvious, there are a surprising number of ways to do it wrong. Stanten said posture is key, making it easier to breathe and get the most out of your workout. "Many people either hunch over or lean back when walking," she said. The key is to stand tall. She suggested stretching your arms above your head before walking to establish that your body is upright.
Arms are another issue. Stanten said bending arms in a 90-degree angle is critical since they act like a pendulum for the body. Also make sure your elbows are kept in toward your body, which creates forward momentum.
Perhaps the biggest mistake, however, is the length of our steps. "A lot of people think of taking bigger steps to increase speed," Stanten said. "But it's shorter, quicker steps that are more effective."
Stanten added that walkers are athletes just like any other. "You can train like an athlete for walking. Once you hit 5 miles per hour for walking, you're burning the same calories as running."