Diabetes Forecast

The Healthy Living Magazine

Powering Up

How to take a walk to the next level

By Carolyn Butler , ,

Some years ago, when I was living on the coast of Georgia, a friend and I decided to walk together every morning after breakfast. Each day, we did the same stroll, until one morning, on a whim, we decided to head in the opposite direction, toward a spot known as "Gator Bridge"—which, to be honest, seemed about 20 miles away.

We started walking and chatting, as the Spanish moss waved in the cool spring breeze and birds chirped overhead, and 45 minutes or so later, there we were: Gator Bridge! Then we turned around and did it all over again, though with much less gossiping (and significantly more huffing and puffing) this time around. I later calculated that it was a more than seven-mile roundtrip hike on an uneven dirt road, a personal best and my first true walking "workout." The amazing thing was, it felt like no time at all—especially compared to, say, suffering through a hardcore aerobics class—and I realized that I could stride longer, faster, and harder than I ever thought possible.

The good news is, the longer, faster, and harder that you push it, the more benefits you'll reap all around, says Therese Iknoian, MS, an exercise physiologist and author of Fitness Walking. "Walking faster not only will use more calories … but will also build more muscle so that you use more calories when you are not working out; plus, it increases the training you are giving to your heart muscle, and that means overall better health," she explains, noting that research has documented that the more intense your walking regimen, the better the results, including even lower blood pressure and cholesterol and a further reduced risk of conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and various cancers. In addition, a 2001 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that elderly women lowered their odds of cognitive decline by 13 percent for every additional 10 blocks they covered. "You'll end up with better-toned legs, too!" laughs Iknoian.

So how do you up the ante and turn a stroll into real aerobic activity? "I say unequivocally—whether you're fat, skinny, old, young, a serious athlete, or the type of person who hasn't exercised since high school—that everybody can turn walking into a more intense workout," says Mark Fenton, author of The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness. "One of the beauties, for an unfit person, is that it's like falling off a log—it's so easy." Of course, you need to check with your physician before intensifying your exercise program. You can also ask your health care provider what your target heart rate should be for aerobic activity.

One of the best ways to take walking to the next level is Nordic walking, a cross between fitness walking and cross-country skiing that's done with special poles and works up to 90 percent of the muscles in your body. "Years of research has proven that it's good for weight loss and fantastic cardio training," says Bernd Zimmermann, president of the American Nordic Walking Association. He notes that research has shown that Nordic walking works the upper body and the core, increases the heart rate, burns up to 46 percent more calories than regular walking, improves balance and stability, and puts less stress on joints like the knees and hips. Zimmermann suggests that beginners invest in the proper equipment—specifically high-quality, adjustable Nordic walking poles, which can run between $100 and $200—and take the time to properly learn the sport, either from a local instructor, seminar, or, to start, the basic tips on page 31. "It's not too complex, but a lot of people just walk around with sticks in their hand, and that's not Nordic walking."

As you get more serious about walking for fitness, it's essential not to do too much, too soon, according to experts. Instead, allow for an incremental transition over time with both distance and speed, in order to avoid strain and injuries. Also, keep looking for ways to build more walking into your daily life, which will make it that much easier to get in an hour a day: Instead of using the car to scoot the kids to and from soccer practice, try walking at least one way; ditch mail service, get a P.O. box, and head to the post office on foot every day; or stop home delivery of the newspaper and book to the corner store to pick it up every morning before work. And rather than spending a half hour on the phone with your sister or friend every night, do a 30-minute walk together, which will provide key social support, to boot. I promise, you'll be at your own "Gator Bridge" in no time and from there, the possibilities—for adventure and for your health, fitness, and well-being—are endless.

Carolyn Butler has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times, among other publications.

Nordic Walking ABCs

The Setup

In order to set your poles to the right length, says the American Nordic Walking Association's Bernd Zimmermann, stand in an upright position, poles in hand, with your forearms at a 90-degree angle, and then just lower them slightly to 100 degrees. At this point, the rubber tips on the end of your poles should just touch the ground. (While walking, the poles should be pointing diagonally backwards at all times, and never in front of the body.)

The Stance

Stand with your shoulders relaxed and down, elbows (and poles) held close to the body, and arms straight but relaxed. Your hands should be opened slightly to allow the poles to swing forward in a "grip-and-go" state: You should grip a pole every time it hits the ground, and then let it go as you draw it back behind the body, finishing with an open hand (the pole will swing from its wrist strap).

The Stride

Every step should begin with your heel touching the ground and rolling forward to the ball and toes, from which you will push off to propel forward. As you take a step and your leading foot strikes the ground, the opposite arm swings forward to waist height. As your foot rolls from heel to toe, push the opposite pole back as far back as possible, straightening your arm to form a continuous line, with the hand opening off the grip by the end of the swing. As your arms move, your torso and hips should be involved in a counter-swinging motion from the lower body. Switch sides: Once the pole is fully extended behind your body, bring it forward again to strike the ground level with the heel of the opposite foot. Lightly grip the pole again as it swings into position to hit the ground level with the heel of the forward foot. Note that the poles never plant in front of your feet.

Work It!

To amp up your walking routine and move toward the hour-a-day goal, try following this moderate program, adapted from The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness, by Mark Fenton. (See the book for even more advanced options.) Remember to focus on proper technique, to wear good walking shoes, and to include a warmup before and cooldown after your routine. It will also help to add some strength training two to three times a week. As you get more comfortable, try using some of the tips in the article to speed up and vary your terrain or grab Nordic walking poles for an even more intense workout.

Week OneWeek TwoWeek ThreeWeek Four
Sunday20 Minutes20 Minutes20 Minutes20 Minutes
Monday35 Minutes25 Minutes40 Minutes40 Minutes
Tuesday20 Minutes20 Minutes20 Minutes20 Minutes
Wednesday25Minutes30 Minutes30 Minutes30 Minutes
Thursday35 Minutes35 Minutes40 Minutes45 Minutes
Saturday50 Minutes55 Minutes55 Minutes60 Minutes

Mark Fenton's Tips for Intensifying Your Walking Routine

1. Walk longer. Start by adding 10 or 15 minutes to each hike, building up slowly, over weeks or months, to the ultimate goal of an hour a day, most days of the week. If you're worried about finding the extra time, it's important to know that research suggests that a walking routine can be broken up into smaller increments throughout the day and still be beneficial, so a 15-minute walk in the morning, another 15 at lunch, and a final 15 when you get home from work can be every bit as useful from a health and weight-loss perspective as one 45-minute trek.

2. Pick up the pace. Start walking faster—gradually and incrementally—using this routine: a 10-minute warm-up at a comfortable speed; a middle 20 to 40 minutes where you speed up and boost your heart rate; and then an easy 10-minute cool down. Make sure that you're focusing on proper technique, especially tall posture; a relaxed, natural stride; and taking faster, not longer, steps. An easy way to tell if your heart rate is up to a challenging but safe level is with a heart-rate monitor or, more simply, the "talk test": Your breathing should be noticeable and you should be able to chat, if necessary, but find it difficult to maintain constant conversation. You can also try counting steps, aiming for 50 every 20 seconds, which translates to 150 steps per minute, a true aerobic pace for the average woman. Remember that these are long-term goals, warns Fenton. "If you never get to 150 steps, don't think you're a loser—you can still get the heart rate up significantly and get all the benefits—just slowly increase those step rates," he says. "If right now you're at 125 steps per minute, don't expect 135 next week; hope that over the next five to six weeks you get up to 130 or 135."

3. Change it up. Once you're walking farther and faster, consider boosting your heart rate even more by varying your terrain or using special walking tools. For the former, even just getting off the sidewalk and onto a modest dirt trail with an undulating surface—not to mention the beach or hills—will increase your energy expenditure. In terms of "toys," consider using light hand weights or a weighted vest while you walk, although it's important to first get some professional guidance about proper usage in order to avoid injuries.


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