Walking is probably the world's most popular form of exercise. It's free; it can be done almost anywhere at almost anytime and by almost anyone.
And as proven by a reader who described herself as a "thirty-something couch potato" who not long ago started walking with her "active sixty-something' mother, it is the only exercise in which the rate of participation does not decline in the middle and later years.
Another reader began regular walking sessions in a shopping mall as a substitute for missing her regular gym and aerobics workouts.
Both readers wanted to know the major benefits of walking, how to prevent injuries and how many calories were burned per minute. In part two, I will tackle their other concerns - how to make the most of their walking sessions by increasing intensity and improving walking technique.
Benefits of walking.
Walking gives you all the benefits of aerobic exercise - it lowers the resting heart rate, improves the body's ability to consume oxygen during exertion, reduces blood pressure, increases the efficiency of the heart and lungs, helps burn excess calories, tones and shapes the legs, reduces stress and mental fatigue.
Even in ancient times, the benefits of walking were already appreciated. Bob Delmonteque, the author of Ageless Physique, says that Hippocrates prescribed walking for people who had high blood pressure, weight problems and stress. Hippocrates believed that you had two doctors - your right and left legs! Delmonteque says that when someone's mind and body were out of synch, Hippocrates told them to start walking and invariably they'd get well. No wonder walking has been called your "personal therapist".
Much of the research on the benefits of walking has been done with men. But this year at the 69th American Heart Association Convention, Boston researchers reported that women who walked at least three hours per week had a 40 percent lower risk of heart attack and stroke than sedentary women did. Those who walked at a brisk pace had a greater risk reduction (54 percent).
What walking can't do for you.
While walking increases the muscular endurance of the legs, it does not increase strength or flexibility. Walking also does not strengthen the upper body or the abdominal muscles. There is also some concern among fitness experts that walking doesn't deliver as much bone strengthening as previously believed.
The right shoes and walking surface.
Even though walking has a lower rate of injury than most other forms of aerobic exercise, you still have to take some precautions. Wearing the right shoes is important. Shoes specifically made for long distance walking are the best though many walkers swear by a good pair of running shoes.
Walking shoes are available from most of the major sports shoe companies. According to sports podiatrist (foot specialist) Lee Cohen, the surface you walk on is also a factor in injury prevention.
Concrete is smooth and it is easy to spot surface irregularities but it is the hardest (least amount of shock absorption) surface to walk on.
Asphalt has more 'give' than concrete but it is usually slanted, graded or inclined so your foot and leg muscles must compensate to stay upright. Compensation may result in hip, ankle and foot problems.
Grass and dirt are 'foot-friendly' but can be slippery when wet and it can be hard to see surface irregularities like holes and rocks. You can sprain an ankle on an unseen obstacle.
A sports track is easy on the legs and feet but you can put strain on your inner leg if you keep turning in the same direction. Change direction every time you work out.
Choose time and place carefully.
Where and what time you walk poses a whole new set of potential problems. If you walk when it is very hot, you can get dehydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your walk - especially on a hot and humid day.
If you walk when it is too dark, you increase your risk of falling. Walking along a busy street can also be dangerous in the dark -- you can be run over by a car!
Always use light-colored or reflectorized clothes and walk on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic so you can see the cars coming at you. Walking alone in lonely places can also be dangerous since a mugger or rapist may attack you. Stay away from walking in such places even if you are with a friend. Prevention is always the first step in taking care of your personal safety.
Preventing other injuries.
Many of the other injuries that can occur because of walking are "overuse" injuries. In other words, in spite of wearing the right shoes, walking the right way over the right surface, you are either just walking too much or are increasing the amount of walking too quickly.
This type of injury shows up in the feet, ankles, legs and lower back. These injuries can also occur because of a lack of warm-up and cool-down periods.
Start by walking slowly for the first five to ten minutes as your warm-up. End your walking session with another five to ten minutes of slow walking. Then stretch the muscles in your shins and calves (front and back of lower leg) and your quadriceps and hamstrings (front and back of your upper leg).
Any kind of walking (slow or brisk) burns calories. How much depends on the weight of the person, the speed or pace, the incline, and the duration. The heavier the person, the faster the pace, the more steep or hilly the terrain, and the longer the duration, the more calories are burned.
Brisk walking is defined as walking a mile in fifteen minutes. Walking five miles in an hour or faster burns almost as many calories as running or jogging the same distance. Check out the chart to give you an idea of how many calories you are burning per minute.
|Body weight||2 m/hr||2.5 m/hr||3 m/hr||3.5 m/hr||4 m/hr||4.5 m/hr||5 m/hr|
Even though walking is something we learn as toddlers, we can all benefit from a review of the proper walking technique. A correct walking posture allows us to move smoothly and efficiently according to Susan B. Johnson, the author of the Walking Handbook.
You should walk "proud" with your head up and eyes focused ahead. Keep your shoulders level, pulled back and down. Lift your chest and contract your abdominal muscles, pressing them toward your spine.
According to the experts who designed the Reebok BodyWalk Program, you should apply the following guidelines at each step: Touch the ground heel first. Roll forward through the arch, over the ball of your foot to your toes, which push off to start another step. Use a straight arm swing if walking at a slow or moderate pace and a bent-arm swing if walking at a brisk or fast pace.
Is walking appropriate for very fit people?
Many people who are used to heart-pounding exercise like running or doing step aerobics think that walking is only for the unfit. They feel that they won't be able to reach the same intensity that they are used to with their more strenuous workouts. To some extent, this is true especially if they are young and extremely fit but this doesn't mean that walking has to only be a moderate intensity workout. There are many ways to jack up the intensity.
This should be the most obvious method of increasing intensity but many people don't do it right. The most common mistake is to try and increase the length of the stride of the legs while using a straight-arm swing. This is a very inefficient way to walk faster. Race walkers know that in the end, long strides will slow you down. Instead, take shorter, quicker steps. Arms should be bent sharply at the elbows and should be swinging in a brisk rhythm like pendulums. A curious fact about walking is that when you want to go faster, just increase the swing of your bent arms - your legs will automatically follow!
Head for the hills.
Another way to increase intensity is to walk up hills. Of course, this is not always possible if you live in an area that is as flat as a pancake. However, if you do have some hills around you, take advantage of them if you want to turn up your internal heat. Hill walking is a safe way for obese individuals without knee problems to burn more calories. Hill walking is low impact and so will not hurt the joints. This is, of course, assuming that the individual has safely built up his or her stamina by progressively increasing the duration, frequency and intensity of their walking sessions over a period of time. A motorized treadmill that can incline at various angles is one of the high-tech solutions to not having natural hills in your immediate environment.
Choose a fit partner.
If you want to keep up your speed and intensity, choose a partner as fit as you are. The problem with having a walking partner who doesn't have the same fitness level as you is that either he or she is going to be exhausted and overworked or you are going to be bored and under-worked. An equally fit partner can challenge you to "keep it up" when your own energy levels seem to be slipping.
Speed or race walk.
If you've ever seen those funny-looking, hip-swaying athletes in the Olympics, you've seen speed or race walkers. Yes, they're the ones who walk "funny". They use a "hip roll" technique (shifting the right hip forward when the left foot is back and vice-versa) to give them more power. Speed or race walking involves walking as fast as you can while still keeping one foot on the ground at all times. If you saw a video of running or jogging at slow motion, you would realize that, for a split second, both feet are off the ground.
Speed walking is not an easy technique to describe on paper. The best way to learn is from an experienced race walker. P.E. teachers, athletic trainers and sports coaches should also be good sources of instruction. Race or speed walking burns almost the same amount of calories, if not more, as jogging.
Do interval training.
There are very fit individuals who cannot take the rigors of running or jogging for extended periods because of lower leg problems. Using intervals of running or jogging for a few minutes then walking briskly or speed walking for another few minutes is a good way to increase intensity without overdoing the high impact portions. Even moderately fit individuals can use this technique by interspersing brisk walking intervals with slower paced walking.
It is a scientific fact that the more you weigh, the more calories you burn because it takes more energy to move a heavier object through space. So, it would seem that adding weights in the form of hand-held weights, ankle weights or heavy backpacks would be a good idea. Yes and no.
Ankle weights are a definite no-no because they change the "biomechanics of walking" -- your muscles don't move in the way they were designed. This can lead to injuries of all kinds in the foot, ankle, knee, hip and even the spine. Small changes in your lower legs can affect the entire alignment of your body. That's also why it's so important to wear the right type of shoes.
Hand-held weights can be useful in increasing intensity (by as much as 40% according to one study) but have to be used the right way otherwise they are also a potential source of injury.
To avoid harming your shoulder joint, vary the way you pump your arms. Instead of just pumping your arms up and down, try mixing other moves like punching, shoulder shrugs, raising the arms overhead or sideways, and slow motion boxing. However, while you are preventing overuse injuries, you may have to endure the curious stares of passers-by!
Watch also that your speed doesn't decrease because of the use of hand-held weights. Several studies found that people unconsciously slowed down when they used hand weights.
Take care, too, not to grip the weights too tightly - you can block the flow of blood into your arm and it may raise your blood pressure. People with bad backs may find that walking with hand weights hurts them because the torso muscles have to work harder to control the force of the weighted arms as they pump back and forth.
Wearing a backpack or specially designed vest with pockets for lead weights will only significantly increase intensity or calorie burning if they weigh about 30 to 40% of body weight. They can also cause shoulder and back problems.
A walking program for everybody.
If you have never walked for exercise before, start slowly and increase your speed and distance by no more than ten percent each week. Once you have built up your stamina, how often, how intense and how long you walk depends on your fitness goals.
If health is your main goal, 15 to 30 minutes a day for three to five times a week at a slow to moderate pace will do the trick. If weight loss is your goal, increase the length of time to 60 or 90 minutes per session. If high levels of fitness and stamina are your goal, focus on how much distance you cover in the shortest amount of time, for example, five or more miles in 45 minutes.
While there is no such thing as a perfect exercise activity, walking comes close!
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