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.
"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.
Cat and Cow stretch: Positioning yourself on positioning yourself on your hands and knees, arch your back up like an angry cat, then let it sag back down, like a cow. Do 10 to 15 reps, cycling through the motions gently. “The flex and extension does a nice job of stretching your spine,” Hamilton says.
Hamstring stretch: Yep, a hamstring stretch. That's because keeping the muscles located between the hips and knees flexible can actually prevent your back from tightening. Stand facing a chair. Place the heel of one foot up on the chair. While keeping your knee slightly bent, pull your buttocks back and chest up, being sure to keep your back straight. You should feel a gentle stretch in the back of the thigh. Hold for as long as you can and repeat with opposite leg.
Your feet may be hitting the road, but every time your shoe strikes the ground, your knee feels it. “Shock absorption comes from the knee,” Hamilton explains. The force on the joints when walking is about three times your body weight, which means a 150-pound person's knees are actually getting a whopping 450 pounds of pressure.
Pick the right surface. A surface with a bit of give is better than very hard concrete. Have a high school nearby? Rubber or cinder tracks are great because they have some give. (Treadmills fall somewhere in the middle.) Low-impact surfaces, such as grass and dirt, can also be kinder to knees. But a caveat from Smith: “They can cause balance challenges for some people.”
Careful with the inclines. Walking up hills or the deck of a treadmill can be especially rough on your knees and back. “Go easy,” Harris says. “When walking up or down an incline, switch to a slower speed and take smaller steps.” Put treadmills at a moderate incline (no more than 30 degrees) and don't do more than 10 minutes of hills during each session.
Offer support. “Remember,” Lischin says, “you can't strengthen a joint — you have to strengthen the structure around it.”
Quad stretch: To build your thigh and hamstrings, to better support your knee, try this exercise. Lie on your stomach, your left leg bent at a 90-degree angle. With a towel wrapped around your foot, gently pull on the towel, while trying to straighten your leg, until you feel a gentle stretch. (Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat with the opposite leg.)
Backward lunge: If traditional lunges are causing knee pain, try a backward version. Step backward with your left leg, landing with the ball of your foot on the ground and your heel up. Lower your leg down as far as you can, then return to the standing position. Repeat with the opposite leg and do 10 reps. “The direction of force is going backward, away from the knee,” Lischin says.
A survey conducted by the American Podiatric Association found that 77 percent of adults have experienced foot pain at some time in their lives — a fact which may surprise, well, no one over a certain age. To help your foot's 26 bones, 33 joints and five ligaments bear the serious weight you put on them when you work out strenuously, try these tips.
Kick your old sneaks to the curb. “If you're going for a walk with purpose — trying to improve your basic fitness level by walking briskly and trying to get your heart rate up — your foot deserves something better than your everyday kick-around sneaker.” Wear something that's too flexible, and you could be setting yourself up for injuries and conditions such as Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Specifically, you want a shoe that's stiffer in the midsoles. “Take the insole out and try to bend the shoe, between the heel of the shoe and the ball of the foot, says Alex Kor, a Lebanon, Ind.-based podiatrist and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. “If it bends easily, it's the wrong shoe for walking activities.” Custom-made inserts and orthotics, though pricey, can help absorb some of the pressure. Replace your shoe when the cushioning starts to wear down (usually after a year of normal wear).
Pace yourself. A dramatic increase in the frequency, duration or intensity of your walk can raise your risk for stress fractures. If you increase any of the above in your training program, after an extended layoff, do it gradually,” Kor says. “If you haven't been walking or doing impact exercises during winter, or if you're coming back from an injury, don't go from doing nothing to walking three days in a row, at least for a month."
Flex those feet. Stretching can go far to fend off achy feet.
Tendon stretch: “The Achilles tendon typically tightens as we age,” says Kor, who recommends this daily fix: Sitting on the floor, legs straight in front of you, wrap a towel around the ball of your foot, holding the ends in each hand. Pull the ends toward you, until you feel a slight pull. (Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat five times on each leg.)
Wall stretch: Facing a wall, with legs straight and slightly apart, bend one knee and bring it toward the wall, keeping both feet flat and pointed straight. Slowly move your hips forward, keeping the back leg straight and foot flat, until you feel a stretch. (Hold for 30 seconds, repeat five times, then switch legs.)
Heel raises: These are a great pre-and post-walk stretch that target calf muscles and the arches of your feet. Steady hands on a park bench or telephone pole for balance and simply lift your heels up off the ground.
"From dance to martial arts, everything emanates from the hips,” Lischin says. The problem is, as we get older, the glute muscles surrounding the joints get tighter and tighter, and that can cause problems with your stride. (Tight hips, by the way, can lead to back pain, too.)
Work up to it. “Start your walk at a lower effort than you hope to maintain. It will allow your muscles to get into the groove and allow your joints to gradually get into the range of motion,” Hamilton says. “During the first few minutes, walk slower than your ideal pace, then pick it up a bit. As you do that, tune into your body by asking yourself: Is everybody on board? Any squeaky wheels here I need to deal with?” Return to a slower cooldown pace during the last five minutes.
Take a break. The most common injury that walkers experience is an overuse injury. “I'm a big fan of nonimpact exercise to compensate for or supplement a walking activity,” says Kor, who suggests riding a stationary bike, swimming or elliptical training for a few weeks in order to give temperamental hips a break.
Bolster those hips. Do a combination of stretching and strengthening, two to three times a week, to protect hips from wear and tear. Try these.
Butterfly stretch: Sit up straight, with the soles of your feet pressed together and your knees dropped to the sides as far as they will comfortably go. Pulling your abdominals gently inward, lean forward from your hips. Grasp your feet with your hands and, pulling your abs gently inward, carefully pull yourself slightly forward.
Squats: “These can be nothing more than getting up and down from a chair,” Hamilton says. Standing with feet slightly apart and hands on hips, lower your bottom, but don't quite sit all the way down —just brush your butt to the chair and come right back up.
Basic bridge: Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lift your bottom off the ground, pushing your heels into the floor and tightening your glutes and abdominal muscles as you lift your hips.
The Clam: Lie on the floor, on your side, knees at a 45-degree angle, legs and hips stacked. Keep your feet in contact with one another as you raise your upper knee as high as you can, without moving your hips.