Hit the road this season—and maybe lose a few pounds—with smart techniques for turning a stroll into a super workout.
With the crisp air and mild weather, fall is probably the best season to step outside and get active. And when it comes to an exercise with a low barrier to entry, you really can't beat walking. All you really need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes, some clothes that let your body move, and a surface on which to put one foot after the other. Since you don't need any special equipment or a gym membership, it's one of the easiest ways to work in those 30 minutes of daily activity we're all supposed to aim for as a minimum.
For something that most of us do throughout the day without really thinking about, walking actually is an incredibly powerful form of exercise, one that can bring us good health, and even substantial weight loss. The benefits include cardio and muscle conditioning, boosted immunity, weight loss, and even protection from chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
But like anything else, walking can be more effective when you do it correctly. To get some pointers, I turned to the power-walking bible, Walk Your Butt Off!, the basis of a weight-loss and general health program that calls for 30-minute walks 5 times a week over 12 weeks. The book is an awesome resource, filled with eating tips, scheduling suggestions, stretches, strength moves, and more. To help get you on the road to a healthy fall, here are some Walk Your Butt Off! tips for proper walking techniques:
Is there a right way to walk? Well, just getting out and moving on your feet for 30 minutes at a time will help your health in myriad ways. Any movement, no matter what you do, is better than none. But if you want to get faster and fitter, then it does make sense to pay attention to your walking form. There's plenty to think about from head to toe: how your feet hit the ground, the movement of your hips, the angle you lean, the swing of your arms, even the direction of your gaze. Don't try to master all the tips below at once. Instead, try to master each tip during your walks for a given week. Then you'll add a new one every following week.
1: Gaze Ahead
Don't look down at your feet. It slows you down and can cause your back to ache. Instead, stand tall and look 10 to 20 feet in front of you. Keep your chin level to the ground, your shoulders back and down, your chest lifted, and your abs tight. This will help you increase your speed and breathe more deeply by making it easier for air to get into your lungs.
2: Bend Your Arms
You wouldn't run with your arms straight at your sides, because it would slow you down. Same goes for walking. Like a pendulum, the shorter your arm is, the faster it swings. And because our bodies like to be in sync, your legs will speed up to stay coordinated with your arms. Bend your elbows 90 degrees and swing your arms forward and back. (Avoid side-to-side motion.) Keep your hands in relaxed fists and your shoulders down, not scrunched up toward your ears. Keeping the 90-degree angle, work on pulling your elbows back behind you, so your hands swing back slightly behind your hips. It might seem counterintuitive, but this backward swing of the arm will help propel you forward faster.
3: Land on Your Heels
As your leg swings forward, your heel should be the first part of your foot to hit the pavement. Focus on keeping your toes up as you land. Then roll from your heel to your toes as smoothly as possible. Finally, push off with your toes to propel you forward.
4: Push Off Strong
After you roll from your heel to your toes, focus on really pushing off the ground to propel yourself forward. For maximum power, bend at the ball of your foot, raising the back of your foot as if you were trying to show the person behind you the sole of your shoe
5: Take Short, Quick Steps
Shorter, quicker steps are the key to going faster. One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to walk faster is overstriding. They reach their front leg out farther than normal. Instead of speeding you along, big steps actually slow you down because it's harder to get your body weight over an outstretched leg. In a sense, your leg acts as a break. When you take steps that are too long, you have a choppy stride and you actually increase the impact of each step, which in turn may boost your risk for injury. Shorter, quicker steps allow for a smooth, rolling stride, and they make it easier for you to shift your body weight over your front leg and swing your back leg forward. The result: a faster walking speed.
6: Swing Your Arms
Add some power to your arm swing by recruiting your back muscles. This will also help to tone your back. Imagine that your back muscles are pulling your arms back. Squeeze your shoulder blades and drive your elbows behind you, keeping them close to your body (not swinging out to the sides). Then let one arm swing naturally forward as you pull the other one back so the work is on the back swing. Remember to keep your shoulders down and relaxed, not pulled up toward your ears. Practice in a mirror while standing still to get the hang of it. It's also a great warm-up before you do a strength workout.
7: Take Advantage of Gravity
Walking is actually a series of forward falls, and we catch ourselves with our front leg. But a common walking mistake is leaning back so you're resisting gravity. Instead, lean into your walk just a little bit— about 5 degrees—and the lean should come from your ankles. Don't bend at your waist. To get a feel for this, try it while standing still. You can do this by standing comfortably with your back and head lined up against a wall. Lean forward from the ankles, peeling your body off the wall just to the point when you feel your heels want to lift. Then carry that feeling over while you are walking. Just remember to keep your head up and look 10 to 20 feet in front of you.
8: Be Light on Your Feet
You should land on your heel, roll through your foot, and push off with your toes. Focus on landing softly and quietly. You want a smooth, quiet stride—not bouncing or plodding along—to go faster and reduce your risk of injury.
9: Squeeze Your Glutes
Each time your heel lands on the ground, squeeze your buttock muscles. Imagine that you're using those muscles to pull your body forward over your front leg. Practice this periodically (a minute or so at a time) during your warm-up, brisk walk, and cooldown.
10: Loosen Up Your Hips
When you feel like you're walking so fast that you want to run, it's time to get your hips in on the action. Unfortunately, many of us have tight hips from too much sitting, so this week we're going to get them moving a little. During your warm-ups, try the "supermodel walk." Imagine there is a line between your feet. When you walk normally, your feet should be on either side of the line. But for this exercise, you want each foot to just cross over the line so you feel your hips moving more. Try it for just 30 to 60 seconds at a time. If you have lower-back problems, this may aggravate them, so proceed with caution and stop if you notice any discomfort.
11: Swivel Your Hips
Now that your hips are loosened up from practicing the supermodel walk, add a little swivel to help you go faster. Your hips should be moving forward and backward, not side to side like you're on a dance floor. Think of your legs extending all the way up to your belly button.
This is not just an imaginative exercise. Some of your walking muscles do, in fact, go up into your abdomen. As your right leg steps forward, your right hip should sway forward. Then that right hip should sway back as your right leg extends behind you. Pull your belly button in and feel your ab muscles work as you swivel your hips.
This forward-and-back hip swivel is not a big movement. Warm up first with the supermodel walk, then practice the hip swivel for a minute or so. Intersperse a few minutes of focused hip swiveling into your walks, but don't spend all your time on it. Over time, it will start to click and become more natural.
12: Pull It All Together
During one walk a week, pay extra attention to your technique. Practice the key moves below by focusing on each for a minute at a time. Repeat until you've done each for 3 minutes total.
Drive your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades. Remember to look forward, not at your feet. Roll from your heel to your toes, and push off with your toes. Squeeze your glutes each time your heel lands on the ground. Pull your belly button in and feel your ab muscles work as you swivel your hips.
(Adapted from Walk Your Butt Off! by Sarah Lorge Butler with Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, and Michele Stanten. Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Lorge Butler and Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.)