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Step lively with walking

With an emphasis on proper speed and form, a regular walking routine can make great strides toward improving your health.


A dedicated walking program can be your main source of exercise.
Image: iStock

Walking is the oldest exercise, but nowadays it tends to be recommended only for people who have trouble staying active, have mobility issues, or are recovering from an injury or surgery. Yet you should rethink the role walking can play in your overall fitness.

“We tend to take walking for granted,” says Dr. Adam Tenforde, a sports medicine physician with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “However, approached the right way, it can be a primary form of exercise, and possibly protect you from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”

Walking is ideal because of its simplicity. All you need is a good pair of supportive shoes (see “If the shoe fits”) and a safe place to walk. You can walk outside or inside, in summer or winter, alone or with a group. It places less stress on your joints than running. And by practicing good form, you can work multiple muscles, like your calves and quadriceps, and even strengthen and tone your core, back, and arms.

Up to speed

Walking as exercise does not mean strolling. You have to maintain a certain pace for it to be effective.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes per week—or 30 minutes each day, five times a week—of moderate-intensity exercise. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that walking at a rate of at least 100 steps per minute (about 3 mph) can help you hit this moderate-intensity level.

This speed also may be just as effective as running to lower your risk for heart-related conditions.

A 2013 study compared more than 33,000 runners and 15,000 walkers and found the energy output used for moderate-intensity walking had a greater benefit than the same output for vigorous-intensity running at reducing a person’s risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In fact, walking lowered the risk for both high blood pressure and high cholesterol by approximately 7% compared with about 4% for running.

A step toward better aging

Walking endurance and speed may offer even greater protection as you age. A study published online Nov. 4, 2015, by Circulation found that among more than 4,000 people over 75, those who walked an average of seven or more blocks per day had a 35% lower risk of heart disease and a 54% lower risk of stroke compared with people who walked only five blocks. And those who walked faster than 3 mph had up to 53% lower risk of both conditions compared with slower walkers.

Walking speed itself can be significant in other ways. For instance, walking too slowly may be a hallmark of early Alzheimer’s disease, according to research published online Dec. 2, 2015, by the journal Neurology.

Researchers examined 128 people, average age 76, who were not diagnosed with dementia. MRI scans were used to measure amyloid plaques in their brains, high levels of which are often linked with dementia. Walking speed was then measured by how fast the subjects could walk about 13 feet at their normal pace.

The scientists found an association between slow walking speed and amyloid accumulation in several areas of the brain, including the putamen, which is involved in motor function.

Fix your feet

Soreness

  • Apply ice to the sore area for 20 minutes, three to four times a day, to help reduce inflammation.

  • Go barefoot whenever possible at home to allow your feet to “breathe” and move in their natural state. Regular barefoot walking also may prevent shin splints and improve balance and posture.

  • After walking routines, and on rest days, massage your feet by rolling a golf or tennis ball under the ball of your foot and then up and down the arch to help relieve cramps and ease fatigue.

Plantar fasciitis

  • The most common cause of foot and heel pain is plantar fasciitis, inflammation or injury of the plantar fascia (the band of tissue that ex-tends from the heel to the toes). This can be caused by general overuse and treated with rest, ice, and massage.

  • Tight calf muscles also can contribute. Calf exercises can improve strength and flexibility and prevent flare-ups. Stand near a wall or chair for support with your feet shoulder-width apart. Then rise up on your toes as far as comfortable and hold for five to 10 seconds. Lower, then repeat the movement five to 10 times.

Take a walk

Before you lace up your shoes, make sure to consult with your doctor, especially if you have any cardiovascular conditions or take medication that may cause balance problems, says Dr. Tenforde.

After you get the green light for exercise, find your baseline in terms of average number of steps or speed. Use a watch or activity tracker to find how long it takes to walk 100 steps at your normal pace. Another option is to trace a half-mile or mile in your neighborhood or on a track, and time how long it takes to cover that distance.

Both of these tests give you a foundation from which to work, and you can then measure your improvement as you progress. Plus, having a number to “beat”—whether it is speed or time—can provide extra incentive to walk more. Here are some other tips:

Begin small. Keep your initial walks to 10 to 20 minutes, three days a week, and then gauge how you feel. Shorten your workout as needed, or divide it into halves with a break in between. Try to work up to 30 minutes, five days per week. After that, focus on increasing your pace and walking for longer times.

Choose a flat, well-lighted place. Avoid uneven sidewalks or trails, as you can easily trip over broken pavement, roots, or other debris. Stick to familiar routes that have good lighting. Treadmills are ideal if the weather is bad or if you want to walk at night.

Execute proper form. Look forward and not at the ground, with your head high and chin parallel to the ground. Keep your back straight and not arched forward or backward. Swing your arms with a slight bend in your elbows. Walk with a rolling heel-to-toe movement and not a foot-slapping motion.

Invest in poles. If you have balance issues or weak ankles, knees, or hips, you may want to consider walking poles. These aluminum or carbon-fiber poles are height adjustable and come with internal springs that work like shock absorbers when walking downhill. Rubber tips help with traction on asphalt and other hard surfaces.

Be safe. Do not listen to music when you walk outside, as you might not be able to hear traffic. Always wear highly visible clothing, even when walking during the daytime.

Walk with others. To help stay motivated and focused, enlist a walking buddy, join a local walking group, or organize your own.

If the shoe fits

Your walking shoe is different from other footwear. Visit a specialty running store to have your arch measured and gait evaluated to determine your pronation—whether your foot is balanced side-to-side or rolls inward or outward. This can help determine the best size and arch support for your shoes.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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