It’s as simple as putting one foot in front of the other – and yet the benefits of walking can be transformative. A daily walking regimen can decrease the risk of diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even cognitive decline. If that’s not enough to inspire us to lace up our walking shoes, many people who walk regularly report less stress, better sleep, more energy, and a feeling of empowerment from taking a proactive approach to their physical health. Exerting a low impact on joints and requiring no high-tech machinery, walking is a life-enhancing exercise that can fit into almost anyone’s daily routine.

Body + Soul Magazine sought out some of the foremost experts on walking and asked them how to apply this accessible exercise to some important life goals: getting fit, improving posture, and coping with stress. Read on to discover all that you’ll need to get started on or enhance a healthy walking practice.

Walking Goal: Fitness

If your intention is to get into shape, walking can put you on the path to increased physical fitness. Walking works the body’s major muscle groups and burns calories with about a third of the impact that running has on your joints. For optimum health, Therese Iknoian, author of Fitness Walking, suggests a minimum of 30 minutes a day of moderately paced walking, for four or five days per week. Here, she outlines a walking plan to get your feet moving and your blood pumping.

  • Step 1 – Get Moving: If you’re just starting a walking routine, envision the goal of walking 20 to 30 minutes, for 3 or more times per week. Depending on the level of fitness that you’re starting at, give yourself up to 4 weeks to reach the goal of 30 minutes per walk. Start by walking as far as you comfortably can, even if that’s for a few minutes in one direction, and then turning around. Each time you step out the door, add two to three minutes to your route, until you’re walking the full 30 minutes. Tip: To quicken your step, walk as if you’re late for an appointment.
  • Step 2 – Intensify: When you’re comfortably walking for 30 minutes 3 times per week, increase the frequency of your walks and refine your technique. Add one or two walks to your weekly walking regimen, and try to go for one longer walk each week. Make one of your walks 45 to 60 minutes long. Tip: Bend your arms at the elbows and shorten your stride to increase your speed.
  • Step 3 – Maintain Your Stride: To fully experience the benefits of walking, including weight management and improved cardiovascular fitness, it needs to be a regular, ongoing practice in your life. Keep the healthy habit of walking 30 minutes a day, 5 or 6 times per week, including one additional longer walk when time and energy permits. Tip: To challenge yourself, add some higher-intensity intervals to your workout once each week. Choose a landmark, such as the end of the block, and walk at top speed until you reach it. Repeat this process 4 to 8 times during your walk.

Walking Goal: Improved Posture
Yoga isn’t the only exercise that can perfect your posture and alignment. By focusing on body posture when you walk, you can reduce wear and tear on your bones, joints, and ligaments. You can also help your body to rediscover its natural, healthy alignment. Below, Jonathan FitzGordon, a yoga instructor and the creator of the Core Walking program, outlines four common posture problems with corresponding alignment remedies, “to create ease in your body with every step you take.”

  • Problem – A Weak Core: When your core muscles are weak, you place excess pressure on the disks between your vertebrae, causing compression in the spine that can result in disk degeneration over time. Remedy: As you walk, consciously draw your naval in toward your spine to strengthen and stabilize your core muscles. Toned abdominals can reduce the risk of back injury.
  • Problem – A Bowed Head: When your head and chin are jutting forward, they can throw your neck and spine out of alignment, which can cause strain. Remedy: Imagine a string is pulling you up from the back of the neck. Keep your head high to lengthen the spine and the back of your neck. This will put your shoulders in the proper position and allow your spine to unfurl, bringing your body into its natural alignmentWalking Goal: Improved Posture (continued)
    • Problem – Overstriding: Taking large strides, which causes your leg muscles to work overtime, forces the knee into hyperextension, which, over time, can degrade the joint. Remedy: Take smaller steps so that walking “feels like gliding, not dragging.” While protecting your knees, you’ll also find better alignment of the pelvis, spine, and rib cage.
    • Problem – Squeezing the Glutes: Clenching your buttocks when walking is “often a subconscious attempt to stabilize the body.” However, this pushes the thigh bones forward, constricting the hips and lower back and forcing the pelvis out of alignment. Remedy: Relax your glutes when you walk and let your hips drift back slightly, so they can sway. As the thighs move back and under the pelvis, your legs will release differently in walking and you will feel a more even distribution of energy through the foot with every step. The shift of the pelvis into proper alignment accesses the correct curve of your lower back, bringing instant support to all the bones of the spine. This will also allow your abdominal muscles to take over the job of engaging and stabilizing the body, instead of making your glutes do all the work.

     

Walking Goal: Stress Relief
According to Danny Dreyer, creator of the ChiRunning and ChiWalking programs, “walking rivals yoga, meditation, and tai chi as a powerful mindfulness practice.” He teaches people how to relieve physical and mental stress by walking in a relaxed way and focusing on physical sensations. Here he outlines a stress-relieving walking exercise that uses breath and awareness to trigger the body’s relaxation response.

  • Find a Peaceful Place: When trying to clear your mind, choose to walk in a soothing setting. If a serene lake or wooded path is not close by, at least steer clear of a noisy, busy street.
  • Take It Slow: No matter how hectic your day feels, walk slowly as if you don’t need to get anywhere in a hurry. Make yourself move at an easy, comfortable pace, and keep your stride short. Keep in mind that your goal is to unwind, not to break a sweat.
  • Breathe Mindfully: Observe any physical tension you feel in your body, beginning with your head and neck. As you focus on this area, inhale deeply, and with each exhale, imagine releasing the tightness in your head and neck. Work your way down your body with your shoulders, arms, chest, belly, glutes, upper legs, lower legs, and feet. Focus on each area for several breaths, and gradually invite each part of your body to relax. Repeat this exercise, beginning again with your head and neck. Walk for at least 15 minutes, if you have time.