Don't let anyone tell you different: Walking is a great way to improve your health and fitness. For those who are able-bodied, placing one foot after another seem too simple to be effective. But when regular strolls become a part of your weekly routine, you'll experience a whole slew of health-boosting benefits. In fact, doctors say that walking at least 30 minutes a day can lower your blood pressure, help you lose weight, strengthen your bones and muscles, improve your mood, boost your creativity, and more.
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But say you want to maximize the benefits that walking has to offer; perhaps roaming around the neighborhood has been fun, but you're itching for some ways to mix it up and challenge yourself. We know this feeling and we got you. So before you lace up those sneakers and saunter out the door, read below for some excellent expert tips and tricks to make the to make the most of your walking workout, increase your gains, and even stay as injury free as possible.
1. Wear proper shoes
You might not want wear any old tennis shoe when you're going out for your 30 minute jaunt. This is especially true if you're walking on concrete sidewalks and hard pavement. Overtime, your joints may not be super happy with you. That's why it's so important to wear shoes that have the proper support, according to Luis Perez, C.P.T., C.H.W.C. and health coach at Vida Health.
"When selecting a pair, its best to find some that are specific to your strike pattern," he says. ("Strike pattern", by the way, refers to how your foot lands on the ground each time you take a step.)
"Check out the bottoms of your current shoes," Perez adds. "If you notice an uneven wearing on the soles, it is best to find a professional who can help." Even if you do have the right sneakers, they don't remain supportive forever. So if they're older than six months and look a little beat up, it may be time to get a new pair.
2. Get in a good warm up and cool down
Whether you're just rolling out of bed for your morning stroll or taking a movement break in between Zoom meetings, you're going to want to warm up. This will help prevent injuries, improve mobilities, and help you walk with more ease. To do this, focus on getting your ankles, knees, and hips ready to go, says Steven Mack, C.S.C.S., owner of Simple Solutions Fitness.
One exercise that works wonders for the ankles and calves is the heel drop. "Start on the edge of a stair and shift your weight onto the balls of your feet," says Mack. "Hold on to a railing or nearby support and slide your heels off. Focusing on one ankle at a time, drop your heel, using the muscles of your calf to control your descent. You should feel a pretty good stretch at the bottom in your calf. Push back up using both feet and start your next repetition." Perform 10 to 15 reps per side.
Once your calves are more limber, do lunges to warm up the hips, knees, calves and hamstrings, adds Mack. Do the same amount of reps as the heel drops and you should feel warm enough to get to steppin'.
At the end of your workout, don't forget to add in a cool down to calm the body and relax your muscles. "Walk your last five minutes at an easy pace and then take the time to stretch glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves," says Perez. "Foam rolling those muscles is also highly recommended."
3. Walk faster, then slower (then faster again)
One of the easiest ways to increase the intensity of your walking workouts is to walk faster. If you're trying to really boost your cardio endurance, you'll want to choose a pace where it's tough for you to speak full sentences without sounding a bit breathy, says Dean Karnazes, an ultramarathon runner and co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories for Runners & Walkers.
"Of course, using a device that measures your heart rate like a Fitbit is an easier way to monitor [your pace]," he says.
According to the American Heart Association, the best target heart rate for a moderately intense walking workout is about 50-70% of your max. After you warm up, hold this pace for 20 minutes, cool down and do this four times a week. Follow this routine and you will see improvements in your heart health and metabolism, says Karnazes.
But if doing that for that long period seems too monotonous or intimidating, try interval training. For example, you may want to walk one minute slow then one minute fast. This will give you enough rest time to recover and give it your best effort during that next faster "work" interval. But feel free to play around with the time intervals to see what is comfortably challenging for you.
4. Pump those arms
Don't forget the upper body. Using your arms will help you engage your core and the muscles in you upper back. They can also propel you to go faster. "When it comes to walking form, simply think proud chest with shoulders back and use your arms as ‘pumps’ to help quicken your pace," says Perez.
5. Climb those hills
We love-hate the fact that walking up a steep hill feels 5-times more intense than on flat ground. The added demand of the incline forces you to expend more energy (aka burn more calories), increase your heart rate, and work your quads and glutes more (hello, strength gains!). When you're making the climb, you might feel the need to lean forward, but don't lean too much, says Kara Witzke, Ph.D., assistant dean and program coordinator for kinesiology at Oregon State University. This can cause you to lose your balance and place too much pressure on the joints. Instead, maintain an upright posture as much as possible; keep your shoulders over your hips and your hips over your ankles.
6. Mix in bodyweight exercises
You don't have to just walk on your walks. You can break up your strolls with other movements and get additional strengthening benefits while keeping it fun, according to Michele Reed, M.D., C.P.T., and health coach.
"I like to incorporate walking lunges, basketball shuffles or slides which can be modified according to my group's fitness level," she says. "[Sometimes] during our walks we will take breaks to jump rope or even dance."
7. Walk on different surfaces
If you are blessed to live near a beach, take advantage of the sand. Walking on uneven and/or malleable surfaces engages the stabilizing muscles in your legs and torso. This means you'll have to work harder from get to point A to B and increase the intensity of your walking workout. Plus, you'll get the additional benefits of strengthening your core while working on your balance and coordination, says Reed. If you don't live by the Jersey Shore, no problem: try walking on grass or find a hiking trail near you.
8. Walking on a treadmill? Play with the speed and incline
While you may not get all of the lovely scenery and fresh air by walking in place in your living room, it may be your best option when the weather is less than ideal. The cool thing is: You can still push yourself by changing the pace and the incline just as you would if you were challenging yourself on a hill. If you need an idea of where to start, Dr. Witzke recommends this workout:
Do a 5-minute slow walk and then a 10-minute brisk pace before adding your first hill. Alternate five minutes of hill-walking with five minutes of level-walking. You may only be able to walk a 1% incline initially and that's okay. Steeper inclines put more strain on your back, hips, and ankles. The key is to maintain the same speed during the hills as you do with no incline. Aim for a 3.5 mph speed, and keep your hill height moderate (a 5% incline is a great goal, and go no more than 7%). Repeat as often as you like. Cool down for 5 minutes.
At the end of the day, walking can be what you want it to be: a way to bolster your heart, clear your mind, improve your fitness, lift your spirits, or whatever you're needing on any given day. Do it by yourself or bring friends on the journey. Just remember to enjoy yourself along the way.
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