Walking is fantastic for your mind and body, but for the biggest health boost, forget 10,000 steps and pick up the pace instead...
What could be simpler than getting out there and just putting one foot in front of the other?
Dedicated gym-goers and marathon runners might raise an eyebrow at whether walking is actually a workout. But study after study and expert after expert show that going for a walk is one of the best activities we can possibly do for our health.
“It helps protect against cardiovascular diseases, cancer, bone-thinning osteoporosis and dementia,” says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones, who was a GP for more than 30 years and Woman’s Weekly’s doctor for over a decade. She turned to regular walking to help beat pain.
“It’s also good for mental health to get outside. Walking can be sociable too.”
It’s so accessible and inclusive, says walking guru Nina Barough, founder of breast-cancer charity Walk the Walk. “Anyone can walk, you just need to take it at your pace and build up gradually.”
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and walk yourself fit.
Up your speed if you want to feel the benefits of walking
In this age of step counters and Fitbits, we’ve all become slightly fixated on 10,000 steps a day – a figure unsupported by research and no one seems totally sure where it comes from. It was probably plucked at random 50 years ago by a Japanese company promoting their pedometers. Experts worry that the 10,000 target might be putting people off getting out there. The NHS estimates that we average fewer than 4,000 steps daily.
“We’ve massively overcomplicated health,” says TV GP Dr Rangan Chatterjee. “We think everything needs to take a long time and a lot of effort. But a walk around the block can make a difference. Every little counts.”
If you want to up the health benefits, up your pace instead. Research at America’s Duke University found that the walking speed of middle-aged people was a good guide to how well they were ageing. Slower walkers aged faster, with immune systems, lungs and teeth in a worse condition than faster movers.
But how fast should you go?
It depends on your age and fitness but aiming for a certain pace doesn’t have to be complicated, says Nina. “A good measure is that you should sweat a little bit, feel your heart rate rise but should still be able to hold a conversation.”
If you’re one for stats and gadgets try to stick to 100 steps a minute (2.7mph). Check your pace by counting how many steps you take in 10 seconds and multiplying by six. Anything above 130 steps a minute would count as a vigorous walk.
To build muscles, try performing calf raises when out and about (or your stairs at home) and a couple of sets of squats before you collapse on the sofa in the evening.
Four undeniable benefits of walking
- It builds your bones – weight-bearing exercise fights bone-thinning osteoporosis and keeps veins healthy by improving blood flow.
- It boosts your mood – and helps fight pain by triggering endorphins, your brain’s feel-good chemicals.
- It reduces your risk of falls – by building muscle and improving your balance and flexibility.
- It strengthens your lungs – exercise that raises your heart rate improves lung and heart function, and makes the body more efficient at feeding oxygen into the bloodstream.
3 great bits of walking kit that can help you get started
Add a splash of colour on your walking workout with these Domyos printed leggings, £12.99, Decathlon. They’re breathable, stretchy and quick drying,so they’re ultra comfy.
The Path Waterproof Womens Walking Shoe, £49.99, Mountain Warehouse, makes a fab everyday walking shoe. It has a cushioned footbed for arch and toe support,
a breathable mesh lining, and high-traction sole for good grip.
Garmin Vivomove HR, £139.99, has such a stylish rose gold face and white silicone band that you wouldn’t know it was a fitness tracker. It has a heart-rate monitor so you can track how hard you’re working. It counts steps, calories and distance too.
Get the most out of your walking workout by paying attention to your posture and how you move
- Upper body position: Relax shoulders, bend elbows slightly and let your arms swing naturally.
- Foot action: Allow your foot to roll from heel to toe. Land gently on your heel, rocking smoothly through the length of your foot to push off with your toes.
- Posture: Look ahead, not down at the floor, keeping your chin parallel to the ground. But watch your step on uneven ground, making sure you pick up your feet. Try to avoid leaning forward from the waist or shoulders, even as you tire or hit tough terrain.
- Use walking poles: They provide support on challenging ground and can take strain off hips and knees – one study found they can reduce the load on joints by up to 25%. They also encourage you to use your arms to improve balance and give your upper body a workout too.
- Footwear: Look for plenty of grip, adequate cushioning and a flexible sole. Trail running shoes are ideal. For rocky or uneven terrain and in wet and muddy conditions, wear walking boots to keep you dry and give ankles added support.