The benefits of walking and how to get the most out of it

Experts sound in on how to get the most from every stroll and stride.

RJ Skinner · CBC Life · 

There’ll always be new fitness and workout trends to throw ourselves into (and debate the merits and efficiencies of), but it still might be worth learning how to walk before we run — or spin or box or circuit train — for lifelong health.

A recent study from Northwestern University analyzed the daily habits and exercise of more than 1,500 older adults, all with osteoarthritis symptoms, like stiffness, aching and pain, but no disability. The researchers found that participants in the study who walked briskly for at least one hour per week reduced their risk of daily-living disability (like being unable to clothe themselves) by almost 45 per cent and their risk of mobility disability (like walking too slowly to safely cross the street) by 85 per cent. With nearly five million Canadians currently suffering from osteoarthritis (projected to be one in four Canadians by 2035), these studies offer a good reminder of the importance of walking for exercise, health and mobility. We talked to two experts about why we should all start walking more and how to get the most of out it.

The hidden benefits of walking

It’s easy to dismiss walking as just what we do to get around, but it’s a full-body movement that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “Walking is the most natural exercise there is,” says Charlotte Montgomery, a personal trainer and owner of Speed Walk Toronto. She points to the improvement of daily living, posture, balance, flexibility and core and muscular strength as some of the physical benefits.

Regular walking has also been shown to fight genetic weight gain, curb cravings, ease joint pain and strengthen your immunity. A 2015 study found that going from a sedentary lifestyle to taking 10,000 steps per day could lower your risk of mortality by 46 per cent. And regular aerobic exercise can calm the mind by reducing stress hormone levels.

The best part is that walking offers all these benefits in a scalable and low maintenance way. “Walking is a non-intimidating activity that everyone can do,” says Toronto-based personal trainer Barb Gormley. “It requires no special equipment or skill and can be done anywhere.”

What “counts” as walking?

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing — any chance to walk is a good one. There are different types of walking, from fitness-focused speed walking and adventurous hiking to strolling around the neighborhood and general walking required for everyday tasks. “Smartwatches consider any kind of stepping as walking,” Gormley says, and that the intensity or speed doesn’t matter when compared to not walking at all. But to encourage yourself to make it part of your daily routine, she says: “Use a phone app or smartwatch to track your daily steps and challenge yourself to walk a few more steps each day”.

Step-tracking technology, like the Fitbit, uses a 3-axis monitor that determines what a step is, based on your own personal movements, and tracks it separately from other markers — so you don’t have to reach a certain speed or distance to start counting your steps. If you don’t have fitness wearables, there are countless walking and fitness tracking apps that can motivate and monitor your steps in simple and fun ways. There’s even a hidden pedometer already on your iPhone. And if you’re not technologically inclined, you can always use estimates of your usual routes to get a general idea, whatever it takes to get those steps in.

Common walking mistakes

Regardless of intensity or duration, walking is great, but walking with proper form is better, as improper technique can cause difficulties over time. Erin Billowits, personal trainer and owner of Vintage Fitness, highlights the most common walking mistakes. Slapping feet, or walking with a flat food as opposed to stepping heel-to-toe can cause undue stress leading to shin splints. Less confident walkers who are worried about falling may shuffle their feet without picking them up off the ground, but that can actually increase your risk of stumbling and tripping. Another common mistake is not using your arms, which are a natural part of the walking motion and can help to propel you. If you’re walking slowly, you can have your arms straight and swinging at your sides, but for a quicker pace, you can bend your elbows and keep your arms closer to your body, in a pumping motion. Lastly, walking with poor posture, such as a forward or drooping “turtle” head can strain your head, neck and upper shoulders, something all the more common now with our constant smartphone use. Standing tall and looking forward with a braced core (the ab muscles that flex when you cough), while stepping in a deliberate and measured heel-to-toe manner is the best way to ensure your walking is as safe as it is successful.

Walking as your main exercise

Due to its ease on the body and consistent pace, “older adults are prime candidates for walking”, says Billowits. “It causes less impact on joints and doesn’t spike the heart rate like jogging and outdoor sports such as tennis.” Montgomery believes two prime candidates for walking are: “Someone who has not been physically active but wants to start working out or someone who may have been a runner and can no longer run due to an injury. Both would greatly benefit from walking.”

Walking as part of a larger regimen

A walking program can also work well in conjunction with other training. Billowits advises that walking, “should be complemented with strength training and flexibility exercise programs.” She suggests a routine of chair squats, calf raises and calf stretches to prime the key walking muscles, as well as a series of dynamic stretches to maintain a full range of mobility. “For walking to have the best fitness results,” says Montgomery, “it should be incorporated into a workout allowing for both aerobic training that builds cardiovascular endurance and anaerobic training, which is intense training done in short bursts followed by a recovery period, that builds both cardiovascular endurance as well as muscle mass and strength.” Montgomery offers a speed walking workout as an example: walking at a higher intensity for 20 to 60 seconds, slowing down or stopping for a rest period, then repeating over several intervals. But, if you want to skip the planning and get started, “the best way to begin is to just start walking,” says Gormley, then “gradually increase the time, distance and/or steps you take.”

Upping the intensity

If regular walking no longer feels like a challenge, there are plenty of ways to increase the difficulty to keep it engaging for your mind and body. Montgomery suggests incorporating higher-intensity drills, like fast walking for the distance of two lamp posts, then recovering for the same distance, and continuing this format for several minutes. You could also try timing your walk between two points in a park and repeating the distance a few times to maintain or beat your original time.

“Don’t do the same distance, the same way, every day,” says Billowits. “Change your route, do some faster walking intervals, bring a resistance band with you. Stop at a park bench and strength train in the middle of your walk.” She also suggests setting daily targets, then regularly increasing it as you grow comfortable with that goal (eg. taking 50 more steps per week). Another intensity booster is Nordic walking. “Nordic walking uses specialized poles that propel you forward,” says Gormley. “It involves your arms, shoulders and core muscles, which are typically relaxed during standard walking,” she explains, leading to increased muscle activation overall and a higher calorie burn. The simplest upgrade is to adjust your walking routine to involve stairs, hills or different terrain, increasing the intensity while hitting the same muscle groups from different angles.

“Never try to increase the intensity of walking by wearing ankle weights or carrying dumbbells,” says Gormley. “The sudden shock of the extra weight puts you at risk for strains and injuries to your joints.”

If you’re eager to add more walking into your everyday lifestyle Gormley suggests the usual: “Walk to do errands instead of driving, turn a sit-down meeting into a walking meeting, or catch up with a friend with a walk instead sitting with a coffee or a beer.” Incremental changes to your daily routine can subtly create a great baseline for when you do begin dedicated workouts.

If you’d like to jump right into a more fitness-focused walking workout, Montgomery suggests this 60-minute speed walking program:

5–10 minutes of warm-up walking at a brisk pace
5 minutes of warm-up stretching
25–30 minutes of high-intensity walking drills
5–10 minutes of strength exercises (e.g. lunges, pushups)
5-minute cool down walk
5–10 minutes of post-workout stretching
Are you ready to get moving?