This blog is part one of a two part article on walking your way back to a healthier lifestyle. Part one aims to get you started with a regular walking routine, whilst part 2 covers the more strenuous activity of hillwalking.
For many people, running is not an option, either they are carrying a pre-existing injury to ankles, knees or hips, or they are already overweight and find running to stressful, embarrassing or painful on their bodies.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have stated that:
“Walking is the most likely way all adults can achieve the recommended levels of physical activity.”[ii]
Walking can bring a number of health benefits, many well documented, from improved sleep to reducing the risk of cancer.
The major physiological benefits include:
- Improved cardiovascular fitness, (heart, lungs and circulatory system).
- Improved muscular fitness.
- Lower risk of certain cancers, particularly colon, breast and lung cancer.
- Increased bone density, important in reducing risk of osteoporosis.
- Lower blood pressure and reduced risk of strokes and heart disease.
- Contributes to weight loss, (figures vary, but a 90kg person walking on a level path for 30 mins would burn approx. 160 calories).
Walking is important for our mental wellbeing too.
According to a study published in the American journal Environmental Science & Technology; outdoor exercise can provide, “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy.”
A recent study, also in America, has found quantifiable evidence that walking outdoors, and specifically in a natural environment, can lead to a lower risk of depression.
In the study, participants who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment, as opposed to those who walked in an urban setting, showed less activity in the part of the brain associated with depression.
“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. [iii]
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO START?
At the very basic level, all you really need is a comfortable pair of shoes, they should fit you properly, give adequate support to your feet and not cause blisters.
Wear comfortable loose fitting clothing that allows for free movement. Choose several thinner garments rather than heavy, thick clothing. That way you can adjust your body temperature by adding or removing layers.
Once you start taking longer walks you may need to take some water to rehydrate, maybe something to eat, a spare warm layer or waterproof jacket, sunscreen, a hat, and a small rucksack to fit it all in.
If at some stage you decide to walk in hill terrain, off paths and on uneven ground, then you should consider investing in a pair of hiking boots, waterproof clothing, walking poles and perhaps hillwalking trousers and fleece top. (See part 2, ‘Hiking for Health’, for more details).
Remember, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before you start walking if you haven’t exercised for a long time, are overweight or have a pre-existing medical condition.
There is little to be gained in trying to follow a pre-set training plan when you first start out walking, as we are all individuals and start at different levels and progress at different rates. Aim for a baseline fitness level of 30 minutes walking on level terrain each day, for 5 days a week. This should be at a moderate intensity level, which means breathing deeply and rhythmically, whilst still being able to talk, and not be out of breath.
The idea of starting an exercise routine can seem daunting, so start small and build slowly. Begin with a 15 minute walk, and see how it feels.
The next day try it again, and if you’re feeling strong add 5 or 10 more minutes. Work up to a 30 minute walk a day by the end of the week.
If walking for 30 minutes at a stretch seems impossible, or you don’t have the time, don’t worry. There is evidence to suggest that three 10 minute walks can give the same health gains as one 30 minute walk, and is a good way to get you started.
Think about walking to work a few days a week, or maybe walk part of the way and catch your bus a few stops along the route. If you commute by car, try to walk a little in your lunch break, it all helps to improve your fitness and gets you outside in the air.
Why not take a friend with you? Walking is a very sociable activity, and a great way to catch up on news and have a chat.
If you like technology you can log your walks with a gps, or use a pedometer. Try to walk 10,000 steps a day. Most of us walk between 3,000 and 4,000 steps a day anyway, so walking 10,000 isn’t as difficult as it might sound.
Remember to stay hydrated, muscles work better and recover quicker if they are properly hydrated. For your 30 minute walk take a small bottle of water with you and sip this as you walk, and drink again when you get home.
BUILDING IT UP
If after a couple of weeks you are feeling stronger, introduce an incline into your routine. Walking uphill works the calf muscles, thighs, gluts, and hip flexors, and will burn more calories than walking on the flat. Extend your hikes to include some uneven ground, this will help your balance, and improve your upper body and ankle strength.
Carry a small rucksack with your drink, warm layer, and waterproof jacket inside, the added weight will strengthen your back, core (torso), and legs, as well as burning more calories and increasing your cardiovascular (heart, lungs and circulatory system), fitness.
Consider using walking poles, they need not be expensive, try the discount stores and supermarkets.
Used like ski sticks, walking poles will take some of the strain off your knees, particularly in descent, and contribute to a ‘whole body workout’ as you are using your arms and shoulders as well as your torso, to propel yourself forward.
At the end of your walk do a little light stretching, your calves’ thighs and back will all benefit from this. Don’t stretch before your walk as your muscles will not have warmed up and you could damage them at this stage.
If, as you progress, you want to expand your horizons and venture into hillwalking and mountain hiking, consider joining a local walking group, they will often give a trial membership period, and are a great source of advice.
You can also check out part 2 of this blog ‘Hiking for Health’, coming out next week.
[i] Wen CP, Wu XF. Stressing harms of physical inactivity to promote exercise. Lancet 2012,
[ii] 380:192–193. NICE. Walking and Cycling: Local Measures to Promote Walking and Cycling as Forms of Travel or Recreation (NICE public health guidance 41, 2012).
[iii] Gregory N. Bratmana,1, J. Paul Hamiltonb, Kevin S. Hahnc, Gretchen C. Dailyd,e,1, and James J. Gross
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA June 29 2015