Is walking the key to good health?
Walking is our most immediate and accessible form of exercise, yet it’s something we often gladly exchange for driving or even sitting still. When we do walk, its value is often discounted and is not something we wholly embrace. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said, “Walking is man’s best medicine”, so let’s find out why you should integrate it into your life.
When you are presented with so many exercise options and trends, walking often is left at the bottom of the pile. You might think, “Why should I walk when I can take up running or join the gym?” The answer is, walking makes your fitness goals simple and achievable. Obviously, there are no expenses involved (except investing in good walking shoes) and it can be done anywhere, any time. What’s more, walking can be as varied as you like: choose a different route each day, adjust your pace according to your needs, make it a more meditative experience or start a walking group with some friends as a way to exercise together.
We know walking is good for our health and many of us will freely admit we need to walk more, but what exactly are the benefits?
Over the years there have been countless studies that have revealed walking can be beneficial in reducing the risk for a range of health problems including heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity and even some types of cancer. Let’s focus on a few key points.
There’s a number of risk factors linked to cardiovascular disease, including smoking, high cholesterol, and physical inactivity. According to the Australian Heart Foundation, regular physical activity such as walking, which incorporates large muscle groups, is significant in the prevention and treatment of heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease (PVD). Furthermore, walking helps improve blood and lymph circulation.
When you walk with correct posture and technique, the chest expands, allowing you to take deeper, fuller breaths. This helps to improve lung function and also has a calming effect on your body and your emotional wellbeing.
Bones, brain and balance
Bone density naturally decreases with age. Walking is an effective means of maintaining the strength and health of your bones. In turn, strong bones support your muscles to help maintain mobility and flexibility. Walking also improves cognitive function and your sense of balance.
Walking is a valuable addition to any fitness regime to help lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Walking is a particularly beneficial form of physical activity for those who are very overweight or haven’t exercised much in their lives.
Lisa Burton was a fat child. Now, after overcoming three major brain surgeries, she’s a nationally placed figure competitor and a personal trainer who is passionate about walking.
For “new” walkers, the common question that arises is where to start? Essentially, integrating any form of walking into your life will be beneficial. “I recommend a minimum of three or four walks, at a steady pace, of 30 to 40 minutes per week,” says Burton. “As you get fitter, you can set new goals to increase time and/or intensity or introduce new activities during your walk to ensure your body is always ‘surprised’ and responsive to the exercise you’re doing.”
Your walking routine can commence and conclude with simple stretches. A series of quad, hamstring, lower back and calf stretches to warm up the body and get the joints mobile can make all the difference before and after walking. “Don’t overdo it or you’ll never get going,” says Burton. “Allow five minutes before and up to 10 minutes after.”
Choose your pace
The great thing about walking is it’s essentially suited to almost everyone regardless of age, weight and fitness level. Your pace can thus be chosen according to your needs and capacity and is always something you can work toward improving.
Pace is particularly important if you are after significant fitness results. If you are a new walker, your pace will naturally be different from that of someone interested in power walking. As a general rule, “If you’re walking at a pace where you can feel your heart rate is elevated and you’re breathing harder, where you can continue a conversation with some effort but can’t sing a song without gasping for breath, you’re in a good place,” advises Lisa.
Once you start walking, Burton recommends spending the first couple of minutes stepping at about 80 per cent of your intended pace to continue the warm-up from your earlier stretches. Then you can gradually build up to your intended pace.
Walk this way
When you walk you shouldn’t be simply thinking about burning off the calories from last night’s dessert. Your abdominals are literally the core of your body and your attention can be directed here by activating or “switching on” the abdominals when walking. To do this, Lisa says to first relax the stomach. Then focus on the navel and make the action as if you were drawing it through your stomach to your spine. Continue to breathe normally. For new walkers, choose time periods — eg 30 seconds — or certain landmarks and “switch on” the abdominals for as long as you can.
A strong core also means a strong spine. Generally, when we walk we often pay more attention to our pace than to posture. However, “Posture is so important because it is relevant to every second of our lives,” says chiropractor, Shane Madigan. “At any given moment, our body will be positioned in some particular way. When we consider how our experience of life on this planet can be so strongly shaped by the performance of our body, we come to appreciate how essential it is to develop an awareness of the ways it can be positioned and most efficiently and safely moved.”
Madigan adds that, while we perform static postures such as sitting and standing in daily life, we also move in dynamic ways, including walking and running. Chances are we all have been walking without postural awareness for years, which has ingrained in us poor habits.
Perfecting your walking style
Ideally, when you walk your spine should be tall, your chest open, head up and body balanced. Your stride should be smooth, meaning you shouldn’t be stomping around like a Clydesdale. “Normal” foot strike is considered to be when the heel lands first. This is followed by the flattening of the arch, the transition to front of the foot and the push-off to the next step.
When it comes to posture and walking technique, “Trying to keep 100 tips in your mind is going to mean the activity is not natural,” says Madigan. “The idea is to train the right posture into your body, not learn the correct posture in your mind and then try to apply it to your body. I really only have three tips:”
“1. Relax and be natural: Allowing the body to relax means our breathing can become smoother, our energy improved and our movement more efficient. Relaxing is not the same as collapsing. Don’t allow your body to droop. Muscle activity should be functional, supportive and without tension. The breath should be full and the mind still.
“2. Move from the centre: Pay attention to the origin of your movement. You’ll find walking feels best when there is the sense you’re being given a light push from the back of the pelvis. With a relaxed body, the momentum from this ‘push’ gets transferred down through the legs, up through the back and out through the arms. You can see what this feels like by placing your hands on your sacrum and adding pressure forward while you walk for a few paces. Be aware that you don’t break your position or allow the lower back to arch excessively.
“3. Practise: We are not handed a user’s manual for our bodies when we are born. We learn through reflexes, mimicry and, ultimately, experience. Rather than just reading how you should walk, get out there and experience it.”
Making the time to walk will help these tips to become naturally ingrained in your walking style. Shane also personally recommends yoga and chen shi taijiquan (chen style tai chi) as practices that complement and train posture, both static and dynamic. These develop valuable qualities that can also be of benefit when walking, including stability, breath control, body awareness and more.
Forming a habit
You may now know the basics when it comes to walking but the real challenge lies in keeping your routine consistent and interesting. We’ve all made the resolve to exercise at different times but it’s common for enthusiasm to gradually dwindle over the weeks until your fitness routine becomes virtually non-existent. To make exercise habitual, it’s essential to plan ahead and make a walking schedule.
To do this, first think about how much time you can commit to a walking routine and make your goals realistic. Burton recommends you consider what a normal week holds for you and consider commitments, appointments and work hours. Then, look around those busy periods for times when you can put your exercise program into action. Now set the date — not just the day but the exact time. “Writing down your weekly plan, sticking it up somewhere and ticking off each exercise session can be hugely satisfying and will help keep you motivated,” says Burton.
Shoes vs bare feet
Many of us love to walk barefoot and enjoy the feeling of sand or freshly cut grass between our toes. At the same time, we have available high-tech footwear that boasts arch support and cushioning to ensure maximum comfort. Our feet come in all shapes and sizes, so when it comes to walking for exercise, many wonder what is the best option — going barefoot or using shoes?
There has been a number of studies comparing walking barefoot versus wearing shoes. One study by the American College of Rheumatology in 2006 performed gait analysis on subjects with knee osteoarthritis while they were wearing walking shoes and while walking barefoot. The study found that barefoot walking reduces the load on the knees and pointed out that the design of modern shoes may predispose such patients to excessive loading on their lower extremities.
Barefoot walking is also said to improve the strength of the feet and ankles. Advocates claim that shoes give artificial support, which creates “laziness” in the foot and ankle muscles and also reduces awareness of the foot’s positioning.
Of course, at the same, shoe enthusiasts point out that shoes help absorb the pressures created by foot misalignment. Shoe design has also become so advanced that today’s walking shoes have lightweight technology that mimics the natural range of movement of the foot but with added protection against injury. In choosing shoes, Madigan simply recommends, “A well-fitted shoe with an arch support and an appropriately cushioned heel is a must. This will help to prevent problems such as plantar fasciitis, a painful condition in which the strong connective tissue on the sole of the foot becomes inflamed.”
There are plenty of reasons to adopt barefoot walking or to use walking shoes. However, not all of us live in areas where barefoot walking is a good option and we require protection against the elements and the ground surface. Use your own judgement. If you are eager to try barefoot walking, do it in safe spaces such as on the beach or in grassy, litter-free areas. Walking shoes are a better option in other conditions.
Lisa Burton also believes correctly fitting walking shoes are essential to help avoid injuries and ensure exercise remains safe and comfortable. On this issue, even though walking may seem like a placid activity, as with any exercise we have to be wary of potential injuries.
Compartment syndrome is a condition in which exercise, including walking, can hinder blood flow within a muscle compartment (often in the leg), causing pain in this area. Plantar fasciitis is another walking injury that causes the sole of the foot to become inflamed. Sprains and muscle strain are some of the other conditions that can arise from over-use or incorrect use of leg muscles.
When injury arises, the best advice is to take it slowly. Plenty of rest and icing of the affected area are often required, especially for compartment syndrome and plantar fasciitis. In severe cases, massage therapy, chiropractic care or physiotherapy may be advised to reduce pain and regain the normal range of movement. When you start walking again, the area will be weakened, so resume at a slower pace. A stretching routine before and after walking can help strengthen the affected areas and prevent further injuries.
Remember to always listen to your body and don’t walk through an injury. Any stress and strain addressed early can be naturally and effectively treated to avoid the problem becoming chronic.
Walking is known for its physical benefits but it is also a meditative experience offering the chance to connect with nature and your true spirit. Meditation needn’t be done sitting cross-legged. You can meditate on your feet. Dr Huzan Daver of Sohum Sai Solutions is a psychotherapist and meditation teacher. She says active, walking meditation and seated, passive meditation are one and the same. “Both share the aim of connecting with the divinity inside ourselves.” The two forms also share a range of benefits, including improved concentration, relaxation and stress relief, to name a few. Walking meditation has the added benefit of providing exercise and plenty of fresh air.
From a traditional point of view, Daver believes walking as a form of active meditation is more advanced and so practice should follow once you have gained experience in passive meditation. This is because active meditation, through walking, fulfils the tenet of incorporating meditation into your everyday existence. However, you can still embrace the meditative experience offered by walking even if you are a beginner.
How do you meditate on your feet? It’s best to choose a route you are familiar with that has a steady path and little or no traffic. For a safer or more controlled environment, opt for your garden. The last thing you want is to get lost or distracted.
Dr Daver offers three steps to meditation. First, set your intention. Perhaps start by telling yourself that for the next 30 minutes you will allow yourself to be completely in the moment. Step two is preparation, such as deciding the route and getting your walking gear together. Then you have to concentrate and bring your focus to a single point, which will then allow you to start merging with your deeper, divine self.
This can be achieved by bringing awareness to your posture, breath or every individual step. “Affirmations or mantras can be used,” says Daver, “as a way to further centre the mind. For something simple, you can chant Om or the name of a divine master.” When distractions arise, acknowledge them and slowly bring your focus back to your intention. Gradually, you will learn to tune out all disturbances.
Why is walking meditation more effective when done outdoors rather than on a treadmill? Because walking outdoors is a means of communing with nature and the reason that activities such as bushwalking are considered to be therapeutic. “You don’t see trees killing trees,” says Daver. “Nature is pure divinity.” This means it’s a wonderful chance to connect with ourselves and our environment on a more profound level. “[When walking,] think of yourself as a grain of sand,” she adds. “You are just one of a whole. It’s a humbling experience.”
Daver even takes passive meditation students outdoors to practise, as nature exposes us to profound insights and energy that we don’t encounter when sitting in a room or walking on a treadmill. Bushwalking and walking outdoors offer a complete sensory experience. Being present while walking means embracing and taking advantage of the sights, sounds and wonders nature has to offer. You’ll be amazed at what you notice — the call of a kookaburra, the sound of gravel crunching under your feet, the pace of your breath, the perfume of flowers — which add to your appreciation and connection with nature.
Walking can extend beyond fitness and be incorporated into other areas of your daily life. Many ecotourism companies offer walking holidays that explore the country’s best walking routes and help you to discover more about an area, including some breathtaking landscapes. Walking is an effective way to commit to a fitness routine, attain results and discover more about yourself and your environment. So what are you waiting for? Start walking today.
Beginners walking guide
(courtesy of Lisa Burton)
It takes three weeks to make a habit and one to break it. Lisa Burton offers a simple routine to help you start walking and stick with it.
Week 1–2: Four 30-minute walks per week at a steady pace. Walk 15 minutes one way and see how far you get. Can you get further next time? Aim to beat your distance by the second week.
Week 3: Rain or shine, keep it coming! Ticked off all your walks? Congratulations! You’ve formed a habit.
Week 4: Add 5–20 minutes to your regular walks or find another 30-minute walking slot in your week. Make the walk a bit more challenging and increase kilojoules burned by boosting intensity or activity. This can be done by walking uphill or downhill, using handweights or adding jogging or running intervals.
Week 5 and 6: It’s time to up the ante. By adding resistance exercises to your walking routine you’ll burn even more kilojoules and begin to tone your body. Mix up your sessions by choosing different exercises/challenges such as step-ups, tricep dips, lunges, squats or push-ups and add these to different walking routes.
Note: Check with a fitness professional before adding any resistance exercises to ensure they are performed correctly and safely.
Week 7 and beyond: Your challenge now is to keep your walking routine challenging and interesting. Set some new exercise goals each week, even if it’s just increasing distance, adding a jogging interval or increasing repetitions of an exercise.
Veronica Joseph is a hatha yoga teacher who offers classes in Sydney’s northwest. She can be contacted at
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