Love to walk but haven't been noticing any real results? It may be time to take your walking — whether you're outdoors in the park or indoors on the treadmill — up a notch with these simple tweaks to your routine.
Be sure you have the right sneakers. Before you think about powering up your walking routine, take a glance at your shoes, advises Mark Fenton, author of The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness . “After a year of use, the foam cushioning wears out,” he explains. “If you use them every day, the cushioning wears out after six months.” And that's a problem since it's this foam that absorbs the impact from walking, protecting the feet, ankles and knees. When searching for a replacement, a good fit is key — whether you choose a walking or running shoe (both are good options). “You want to make sure your foot doesn't slip at all, and that the shoe itself does not bend easily through the arch (or mid-foot).” When in doubt, go to a local running store, where you can be assured of having someone help you with proper fit.
Tuck your tummy. After a short three- to five-minute warm-up of slow walking to get your muscles warmed up, start pulling in those abs. Doing so “locks in your core and aligns your shoulders over the hips,” says Leslie Sansone, a fitness instructor certified by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the creator of Walk at Home workouts. “This is the proper walking posture that helps keep your lower back protected.” Tucking in your tummy and pumping your arms back and forth, with each arm crossing the opposite side of your body, also helps to work your core, giving you more of a total body workout.
Increase your pace. Boosting your walk to burn more calories, building more cardiovascular endurance and increasing strength takes some changes to your routine. “There's walking, and then there's fitness walking — which is a brisk hurry-up pace,” Sansone says. If you're looking for a concrete number to follow, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently found that walking about 100 steps per minute constitutes a moderate-intensity walk, while 130 steps per minute defines a vigorous pace. But it's important to do what works for you, says Sansone, who adds that keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle and pumping your arms forward and back while you walk will help increase your stride no matter how many steps you're taking.
To add heart-boosting and fat-burning intervals to your walking routine, walk slow for one minute, then follow up with three to four minutes of a brisk walking pace. You can create your own intervals with a slower walk/brisk pace interval, based on your fitness level.
Add accessories. Walking or trekking poles are one of the easiest and safest ways to take your walk to the next level. “Walking poles bring your arms, chest and back into your walking workout, increasing strength and calorie burn,” Fenton explains. Weighted walking vests, with as little as two pounds, can also power up your walk by challenging muscles more and giving you a bigger calorie burn, Sansone explains. A simple pedometer or a pedometer app for your phone is another accessory that can help motivate you to go farther: They let you keep track of miles daily and weekly and, with some, even set step goals
Don't forget the water. Water bottles designed to be comfortably held, with a strap, while walking are also a key accessory. “The No. 1 nutritional recommendation for exercise is to drink plenty of water,” says Fenton, an adjunct associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Drinking to thirst (drinking when you're thirsty) is typically the advice given by experts such as Fenton, who also advises eating a snack before your walk — or bringing along that snack for extra energy, when necessary. (Not having enough to eat before exercising can cause dizziness if your blood sugar is low.) Fenton's favorite snacks to carry on a walk: a simple turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread, homemade trail mix (nuts, seeds, raisins and pumpkin seeds) and a whole-grain bagel with peanut butter and jelly. The mix of protein and/or whole grains helps fuel the body.
Take three minutes to stretch. Most of us think about stretching after a hard-core gym workout, but it's just as important to do so after walking. Doing so, Sansone says, increases blood flow to the muscles, which helps to boost flexibility and range of motion — and also protects the joints. “I love the standing stretch for my lower back and legs,” she says. To try it, simply bend over “as if you're going to touch your toes.” But don't force any stretch. Allow your body to stop when it needs to, before you feel any pain.
Next, try the standing calf stretch: Stand about 12 inches from a wall (or a tree, if outdoors) with your feet parallel. Place both hands on the wall at about shoulder height, bend your elbows and lean forward. Extend one leg straight out behind you and bend the other knee toward the wall, keeping both feet flat on the ground, with your toes pointing forward. Continue leaning toward the wall until you feel tension in the calf muscle of your rear straight leg. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds. Then repeat with the opposite leg.
Another effective post-walk stretch, Sansone says, is the simple quad stretch: Stand up straight with both knees touching each other. Hold onto a wall or chair with one hand for support. Using your free hand, grab the top of the corresponding foot (right hand would grab right foot, left hand would grab the left foot) and pull it toward your butt, keeping your bent knee parallel to the straight leg. (Allowing your knee to move too far forward or too far back can put extra tension on the knee.) Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch legs.