For all the attention we give the latest fitness craze (did you hear about the one that combines yoga and break dancing?), we’re awfully quick to dismiss one of the best workouts around: walking. True, it’s not exotic. But unlike so many of the fitness fads we believe will motivate us to sweat, it doesn’t cost $60 a month to participate. It’s free. It takes no gym membership or equipment. There’s no learning curve because everyone already knows how to do it. In fact, it’s something we do every day.
That may seem anticlimactic (walking is so simple, so familiar!), but before you write it off as a poor excuse for a heart-pumping workout, consider the science. Research has linked walking to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. It improves blood pressure, cholesterol, stress, and depression. And that’s not taking into account the benefits walkers reap from losing weight.
Federal guidelines recommend that adults get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week. Brisk walking counts, but ambling around the block won’t cut it. (That’s a good place to start, though, if you’re currently inactive.) To benefit your health, boost the intensity of your walking workout as you progress. According to the experts, there are four main ways to do that.
1 | Pick Up the Speed
A quicker pace will turn a stroll into cardiovascular exercise. The key is finding the right intensity for your fitness level. Go too fast and you’ll run out of steam in two minutes. Walk too slowly and you won’t get your heart rate up. “You want to go hard enough, fast enough to get a good workout, but appropriate for the amount of time you have to train,” says Dave McGovern, a seven-time Olympic racewalker who’ll be competing in the 2012 Olympics and is head coach of the U.S. National Race Walking Team. Not sure if you’re moving quickly enough? When you can easily talk to a walking buddy or sing along with your iPod, you’re going too slow.
If a half hour of brisk walking is unfeasible, start small. “There’s no need to worry about being too slow because if you just get up and walk, you’re lapping the person who’s sitting on the couch,” says Lizzy Kemp Salvato, a racewalking coach in San Diego with a master’s in exercise physiology. “Studies show 10 minutes of walking in chunks throughout the day can be beneficial.” So walk for 10 minutes three times a day until you can handle 30 minutes of continuous walking. Once you can comfortably walk for a half hour, you can begin to increase your speed.
Because walking is low-impact exercise (unlike running, your feet don’t pound into the ground and stress your joints), the risk of injury is slim. That is, unless you carry weights in an attempt to intensify your workout. “That little 2-pound weight on your wrist multiplies into a lot of wear and tear on the shoulder joint,” says racewalking coach Lizzy Kemp Salvato. “Same thing with ankle weights on your legs. Our joints aren’t designed to carry weight like that.”
2 | Cover More Ground
Another way to ramp up your workout: Go farther. Instead of focusing on speed, distance workouts are all about endurance. You won’t be able to sustain the same level of intensity you do on shorter walks, but that’s OK. Instead of walking at a too-fast-to-talk speed for 30 minutes, try walking briskly for an hour. If 10 minutes of vigorous walking leaves you huffing and puffing, slow it down for a 15- or 30-minute distance walk. Just as you’d build up speed, you can gradually increase the distance you walk.
Cranking up your distance-walking program can work in tandem with your speed-walking plan. “On the one end of it, you want to work on going a little bit faster even if it’s a little bit shorter,” says McGovern. “And then on the other end of the spectrum, you might start building the distance one day a week.”
3 | Challenge Yourself
If you really want to increase the difficulty of your workout, walk both faster and farther. Or, climb a hill or your treadmill’s incline, which also will sculpt your glutes (buttocks).
But be cautious if you have arthritis or joint pain; the descent can be rough on the joints. “You’ve got to be careful of going down the hills too fast,” McGovern says. “You do land pretty hard on that front leg, and that can be bad for everything from ankles to knees, lower back, [and] hips.”
4 | Spice Things Up
Constantly changing your workout is doubly beneficial. For starters, it keeps away boredom, which can land you right back on the couch. Plus, it will make sure you work your body in more than one way. A week of walking should ideally feature a day doing a faster, cardiovascular-type workout, a day working on muscle endurance through distance, and a strength-training day with hills that work the legs and help add lean muscle, says Kemp Salvato. You can go a step further, she says, by strength training (at home or a gym) and stretching to improve flexibility.
Or add variety within workouts. For instance, Kemp Salvato suggests having fun with cardio exercises by walking fast for a few minutes and then slow for the next few, alternating until you’ve hit 30 minutes. You can base your speed on distance, walking quickly for a quarter mile, then slowly the next. Racing from streetlight to streetlight or from house to house—with a slower pace in between sprints—counts, too.
The beauty of walking is that you can modify it to suit your lifestyle, whether you have to fit exercise in between picking up the kids and making dinner or do it on your lunch break from work. Your start can be slow or speedy. Do it alone or with a friend. “Most sports require a certain level of fitness or body type—strength, ideal body weight, good alignment without knee problems and back problems,” says Kemp Salvato. “Walking really welcomes everyone with open arms.”