“Walk this way” is a mantra made famous in song and cinema, but its true meaning has gone awry in a world of fitness hype and hysteria. This easiest and most effective exercise is helpful for both beginners and competitive athletes — and everyone in between.
The notion of writing a how-to article about walking seems unnatural. Because walking is the 100-percent all-natural form of exercise that should need no explanation.
While many animals like horses walk within hours of birth, the human brain is busy with other developmental tasks. It takes a year or so for humans to succeed at those first steps.
Walking is how humans are intended to move, and the most fail-safe exercise. Studies show that walking can burn a higher percentage of fat than any other activity, especially if your diet is healthy. Walking activates the small aerobic muscle fibers, which often are not stimulated by higher-intensity aerobic workouts, and can help circulate blood and improve lymph drainage (important to the body’s waste-removal system).
Walking has benefits for everyone from beginning exercisers to competitive athletes. It is one of the best ways to get started on an exercise program since it’s a simple, low-stress workout that is not easily overdone. For those who are inactive, starting with 10 minutes of easy walking rewards huge health and fitness benefits.
Walkers generally have little difficulty keeping their heart rates from getting too high, though there are exceptions. The mechanics of walking results in less gravity stress than you experience in jogging or running, but still enough to give you the important fat-burning benefits and others such as bone-strengthening effects. If there’s any problem with walking, it’s that the heart rate won’t go high enough once you’ve developed your fitness.
No-pain no-gainers believe walking is not a sufficient-enough workout to be of any value. But for most people, it is. Even competitive athletes can benefit greatly by using walking to warm up, cool down, add aerobic base, or recover from hard training benefits, and during periods of injury.
When we deviate from walking naturally, we risk creating undue stress. A distorted walking gait can wreck the body and brain. Common problems causing distorted walking include wearing shoes that don’t fit properly or are over-supportive, carrying weights, speed/power/race walking, and excessive swinging of the arms or over-striding. These improper walking practices are enough to turn off many people from using a simple, natural walk as a regular workout.
Regular, easy walking can:
- Increase life expectancy.
- Help prevent and manage coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.
- Decrease your risk of developing degenerative disease.
- Reverse inactivity, which is almost as great a risk for coronary heart disease as cigarette smoking and hypertension.
- Reduce the chance for illness, injury and disease, including such problems as colon cancer, stroke and low-back injury.
- Serve as a very useful rehabilitation therapy following a period of injury, ill health or low activity.
The Walking Brain
Walking may be the best way to not only prevent the common loss of brain function with aging, but improve it at any age. It helps coordination between the brain and body, making movement more efficient, and improving balance and gait. Walking benefits other parts of the brain too, including those associated with memory, cognition, social function, speech, hearing, behavior and learning.
Every step you take sends messages from each muscle fiber throughout your body via nerves to your brain. This increases the brain’s blood circulation (bringing in oxygen and other nutrients), stimulates the growth of new neurons (brain cells), and improves communication between neurons, even making new pathways between the brain and body. Walking can even increase the size of the brain.
You can get in admirable shape simply by walking. It is simple, very inexpensive and easy. These three aspects resolve the most difficult parts of establishing an effective exercise program or getting back into shape. Many people will not need or want more than simple walking, but if you do, you can use this base as an essential platform to build more fitness for running, competition, or just higher levels of working out. Here are some tips for creating your own walking program:
- Have a regular routine. People who fit a regular workout into their daily schedule usually stick with it.
- Walk from or near home if possible rather than driving somewhere, and in a pleasant environment — such as a park or on quiet streets. Don’t walk along a busy road.
- Don’t buy special workout attire. The clothes you’re wearing now, with good shoes, work fine.
- Wear the flattest and most comfortable shoes you can get.
- Your workout should be so easy that when you’re done, it feels like you haven’t done much of anything.
- Don’t consume fruit juice, energy bars or other carbohydrates before working out.
- If you’re normally hydrated, there’s no need to carry water with you.
- Make your walking workouts a time of peace and relaxation. That means not chatting on the cell phone or to others around you.
- Don’t walk if it’s painful, or you have an elevated temperature, even a half-degree. The body raises the temperature when it has to work very hard (to fight an infection, for example).
- Don’t work out in extremes of weather, especially severe cold or heat. Have an alternative when those days arrive: an indoor workout, a mall (better than not working out), or don’t walk that day.
- Don’t worry about how far you go or how many steps you take. Base your workout on time. Start with 20 minutes, if that feels physically easy. Build from there, as you are consistent, to 30, then 45 minutes. No need to exceed an hour unless you love it so much that longer weekend walks are fun.
- Slowly start your workout with a slower walk to warm up. After about 12 minutes, maintain a good comfortable pace. End the same way, by slowing down again.
- The most difficult part in getting started is making room in one’s schedule. Changing habits is always perceived as difficult; it’s really just a matter of deciding to do it. Once you do that, the rest is relatively easy.
Humans shouldn’t need instruction to reap the many benefits of walking, such as fat-burning, metabolic improvements, and even a better brain. For some, the first step may be the most difficult, and for others it’s just another step toward better health and fitness.