Your spine should be straight, with ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, and hips over knees, says certified group fitness instructor Michele Stanten.
Your arms should be bent at 90 degrees and swing back and forth (not across the body) from the shoulders. Your legs will naturally move in sync, so the faster you swing, the faster you’ll walk. A foolproof tip: Hang a bathrobe belt around your neck, and hold one end in each hand, says Stanten. If you’re walking correctly, the straps will stay firmly in place, not slide up and down your neck or from side to side.
Your feet should land heel first with each step. You should then roll through the foot and push off with your toes. “Show me the sole of your shoe at the end of every stride,” says public-health and transportation consultant Mark Fenton. If you hear a slap-slap when your foot lands, you’re landing too abruptly, rather than rolling smoothly.
Go outdoors. Grass, sand, dirt, and roads are never completely level, so they work out muscles more effectively than a treadmill does, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama. You also burn more calories when you contend with wind, which, Olson says, “increases resistance, as if you’re walking up a small hill.” Research suggests that being in nature also improves mood.
Get creative indoors. Walking downhill is essential for building strength in the quadriceps and shins, says Olson. (Most people get sore after hiking on hills not because of the climb but because their muscles aren’t used to the descent.) So if you must walk on a treadmill, dial up the incline. And turn around, so you’re walking backward for a few minutes.
Use a pedometer. A 2007 Stanford University study reported that keeping track of your steps increases physical activity by about 27 percent, which amounts to roughly an extra mile of walking each day. Public-health and transportation consultant Mark Fenton recommends the Omron Tri-Axis pedometer ($27, amazon.com), which tracks steps taken and time elapsed. You can also download the Moves mobile app ($3, iTunes and Android Market), which requires almost zero setup and converts a smartphone into a pedometer.
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Don’t dress for a jog. Running sneakers tend to be stiff, and that can make the rolling action of walking difficult. Instead, opt for flexible, lightweight walking sneakers that you can twist with your hands, says Michele Stanten, a certified group fitness instructor and the author of Walk Off Weight ($20, amazon.com). The right fit will depend on your arches and the terrain. As for clothing, bundle up in cold weather, but not too tightly, says John Castellani, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. You should be able to move comfortably, so start with a base layer of silk or a synthetic fabric with moisture-wicking technology (like Dri-Fit), then add a fleece or wool midlayer and a moisture-proof outer layer, both of which can be easily shed. In warm weather, don thin, light-colored clothing and a hat to protect your scalp from the sun.
Don’t carry weights. They are not helpful and may even be harmful. Two- to five-pound dumbbells “don’t create enough resistance to develop meaningful changes in strength,” says Olson. Yet they’re heavy enough to increase the risk of shoulder injury.
Don’t go too slow. Recent research published in the science journal PLOS One showed that the brisker the pace, the better. A study tracked almost 39,000 recreational walkers over 9.4 years and concluded that for every minute that participants shaved off a mile-long walk, their risk of premature death decreased by 1.8 percent.
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The Cure-All Caveat
Everything has its limitations, and walking has two. To build a complete fitness routine around your walk, consider the following.
Flexibility training: Before your walk, do a half-dozen arm circles and high-knee marches. Add more when you stop at a red light outdoors or when you finish on a treadmill, says exercise physiologist Michele Olson.
Strength training: Add three 15-minute resistance-training or weight-lifting sessions a week, says Erik Kirk, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology and health education at Southern Illinois University, in Edwardsville. (Or try this weight-loss walk.) Brief, albeit intense, sessions can build muscle and boost metabolism significantly, according to Kirk’s 2011 study on strength training in the EuropeanJournal of Applied Physiology.
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The Scoop on 10,000 Steps
Everyone has heard this advice by now: Aim for 10,000 steps each day to get fit. But where does that magic number come from? The figure dates back to the 1960s, in Japan, when a professor of health and welfare, Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D., tracked habitually active walkers. His research team determined that the average man burned 300 calories—a substantial amount—by walking about 10,000 steps. And thus was born the manpo-kei (translation: “10,000 steps meter”), a.k.a. the pedometer. Today experts say that the number is a bit arbitrary. Nevertheless, counting steps, which is essentially tracking distance, is a better metric than counting minutes. “If someone walks for an hour, he could be stopping to stretch or chat,” says Paul T. Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California. “There are so many ways to fudge it.” Working toward a specific health goal? Keep in mind that the number of steps to take depends on your aim. Fifteen minutes (typically a little less than a mile) may be all you need to take down a postprandial blood-sugar spike. But you may need to walk longer to lower your risk of breast cancer. The easiest rule of thumb: Walk as much as you can whenever you can. “Walking is so simple,” says Alpa Patel, Ph.D., the strategic director of Cancer Prevention Study-3, a research study by the American Cancer Society. “We know it has health benefits. So why not just do it?”