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When it comes to an easy and safe way to stay fit and healthy, you'd be hard-pressed to beat walking. It gets the ticker beating, the blood flowing, and protects the joints by strengthening the muscles that support them.
The first step in nabbing maximum benefits — not to mention staying injury-free — is fine-tuning your technique. For one thing, while you don't want to exaggerate your posture when you walk, you do want to keep those shoulders back.
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"Pull your ribs up and away from your belly button, using your abs,” says Michele Olson, professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. “This will put your shoulders in a supported position so you don't slouch.” When walking at more of a conversational pace, let your arms swing naturally at your side, slightly bent. When you pick up the pace, try using your upper body as much for locomotion as your lower body, swinging your arms with more gusto while keeping them close to your body, bent at 90 degrees.
Beyond the upper body, “the way that your foot makes contact with the ground matters,” says Steve Lischin, a New York City-based personal trainer and co-owner of Great Jones Fitness. “Taking your heel and pounding it into the ground is detrimental for a lot of reasons, including sending shock waves to your knees and spine.” Employ what running coaches call foot strikes. Step lightly with your heel then roll forward to your toes. Maintain a nice, easy, rhythmic strike. “Music can help keep an even pace,” says Sarah Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware.
Have cranky knees, achy feet or a sore back caused you to put your routine on hold? Try not to let a little discomfort sideline you. “Not moving is worse than moving,” says Meredith Hinds Harris, a physical therapist and professor emeritus from Northeastern University in Boston. “When you don't exercise, you lose muscle tone and miss out on important cardio benefits.” Follow these tweaks and you can keep on trekking.
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The American Chiropractic Association estimates that 8 out of 10 of us will battle back pain at some time in our adult lives. Walking isn't usually the cause, but the constant movement can aggravate an existing lower-back injury.
Play it straight. “People in their 50s and 60s tend to get a forward posture and lead with their chin — especially when they want to go faster,” Harris says. Check yourself during your stroll, pulling your belly to your spine, so the abdominals are engaged, then make yourself as long as you can.
Throw it into reverse. Is your back stiff when you start out? “Walking is a neuromotor pattern, which means your nerves get used to firing in a certain sequence to accomplish the movement you're asking them to do,” says Janet Hamilton, a Georgia-based exercise physiologist and founder of Running Strong Professional Coaching. “Wake up that neuromotor pattern by throwing a nice, gentle curve into the mix. Walking backwards gets muscles to relax a bit. When someone's got muscle spasms in the back, it can unlock things a little bit.”
Loosen up. Add stretches to your pre-walk routine to relax tight muscles in your back.
Rotation stretch: Lying on your back, knees bent toward your chest, gently drop both knees to one side, then the other.