"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk," said Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher. "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness." More than 150 years later, millions of people are following in his footsteps. And for good reason. Researchers know that walking regularly can strengthen your bones, tone your muscles, and trim your waist, and it may reduce your risk of some cancers and other deadly diseases. The more you walk, the better your mood and the lower your risk of depression.
Whether you walk throughout the day, take regimented hikes, use a treadmill, or speed-walk, you can boost the health benefits of your routine. And if you currently hardly walk at all, here's your chance to hit your stride.
The Constant Walker
Profile: You set out on foot to run errands, exercise the dog, or get to work. All in all, you may walk for a half hour or more and cover a few miles a day.
Payoff: Although you're not huffing and puffing, you are getting more exercise than most Americans do (only 30 percent get the recommended half hour of exercise a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). If your daily strolls add up to a half hour most days of the week, you'll probably add a year or more to your life, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Next steps: Buy a basic pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day (the average American takes about 5,000). Counting steps rather than minutes will encourage you to walk farther, says Dixie Thompson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In one study, Thompson and her colleagues asked women to take a brisk walk for 30 minutes on most days or to accumulate 10,000 steps a day. Women who counted steps rather than minutes took an additional 2,000 steps a day, which adds up to almost a mile. Record your steps for one day, then add 1,000 more each week until you reach 10,000, suggests Thompson.
Push yourself: You should be breathing hard but not gasping or breathless to give your heart and lungs a good workout. Brisk walking burns 460 calories an hour, while walking at a moderate pace burns just 280.
Tips: One way to add more steps is to be less efficient. Instead of piling things on the stairs so you can take everything up or down at once, take each item as you find it. After a trip to the supermarket, bring in fewer bags from the car and make more trips to the kitchen. At work, walk down the hall to see a colleague, rather than calling her on the phone or sending an e-mail. If you're trying to fit in steps where you can, make sure you carry a light bag and wear shoes with low heels, flexible forefeet, and good arch support.
The Fast and Fit Walker
Profile: Walking is your main form of exercise (as it is for about 40 percent of Americans). You walk most days of the week, typically following a set route and going fast enough to get your heart rate up and keep it there for 30 minutes.
Payoff: A brisk walking routine will help lower blood pressure, improve glucose control (which will help stave off diabetes), prevent heart disease, and tone the buttocks and legs. The more you walk, the stronger your bones will be and the better you'll feel. People who walk five times a week for 30 minutes report that they have more energy, feel healthier, and have more confidence than those who walk infrequently, according to the U.S. Physical Activity Study, a survey conducted by the St. Louis University School of Public Health.
Next steps: Gradually add some hills. "It's more stressful to walk uphill," says Thompson. "So if you have joint issues, such as sore ankles, give your body plenty of time to adjust."
Push yourself: Work on your speed by taking faster steps rather than lengthening your stride. "Some folks think they're supposed to reach for a longer stride to pick up speed," says Mark Fenton, author of five books on walking, including Pedometer Walking: Stepping Your Way to Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness (Lyons, $13, amazon.com), "but that can actually strain the hamstrings and the lower back." When you walk, consider using Nordic poles, which are like ski poles but with rubber tips for pavement (as well as spikes for ice and trails). By pushing off with them as you walk, you'll be able to build your strength and stamina, according to a study conducted by the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit health-research facility in Dallas. Participants burned 20 percent more calories when walking with poles. And because the poles provide support and improve balance, walking with them is gentler on the knees. (Check out nordicwalker.com for poles and local events where you can test the equipment.)
Tips: To avoid burnout or boredom, continually set new routes, then push yourself to complete them in less time. Look for different paths using Google's Gmaps Pedometer (gmap-pedometer.com). Enter your ZIP code in the "Jump to" field and the map will zero in on your neighborhood.
The Weekend Hiker
Profile: By taking challenging hikes on weekends, up and down hills, you get a workout as well as the mental benefits of being in nature.
Payoff: Walking on varied terrain builds strength, stamina, and balance (which helps prevent falls as you age). You'll develop tight glutes and toned thighs, even more than you would from the average walking workout. Also, when you walk uphill, your energy expenditure is greater than when you're on a flat surface.
Next steps: Be active during the week. If you're getting out only on sunny weekends and aren't doing any other exercise, come up with ways to work out midweek and on foul-weather days. On busy, pleasant weekdays, try squeezing in several short walks, aiming for a total of at least 30 minutes. In the winter months, try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. When you're marooned inside, consider a walking video, like Kathy Smith's Power Walk for Weight Loss Matrix ($15, collagevideo.com) or Leslie Sansone's Advanced 5-Mile Walk ($20, collagevideo.com). Or go to a gym and hop on a treadmill. Your weekday workouts will improve your performance when you hit the trail, making your hikes more pleasurable.
Push yourself: Wear a weighted backpack or vest to get a more intense workout. "Studies show that when people carry 10 percent of their weight, they burn about 5 to 7 percent more calories," says Fenton. If you weigh 130 pounds, for instance, wear a 13-pound pack.
Tips: Hiking on uneven terrain can be hard on the ankles, so be sure to wear hiking boots, which are stiffer and taller than sneakers and have better traction. Going downhill can be hard on the knees, so if yours are sensitive, invest in a walking stick or hiking poles to take the pressure off. To find new trails across the country, go to traillink.com.
The Treadmill Stepper
Profile: You have a safe, comfortable place to walk, making it easy to fit in workouts―no bad-weather excuses.
Payoff: If you use the machine's preset programs, incline settings, and a heart-rate monitor, you're probably pushing yourself to get a good workout. "Unlike walking outdoors, where what goes up must come down, on the treadmill you can walk uphill the whole way," says Thomas Allison, Ph.D., a heart-disease consultant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "You can't slow down, because you'll fall off. It makes you keep up."
Next steps: Break up your treadmill routine, since too much consistency can decrease the payoff. Research shows that your body can adapt to the demands of a workout after six to eight weeks, says Fenton, who is also a five-time member of the U.S. race-walking team. Change what you do every two months―mixing in other workouts or varying your program on the machine by going from a steady 3.5-mile-per-hour session to alternating fast and slow intervals, adjusting the incline, ramping up the pace with a minute of jogging for every five minutes of walking, or slowing down the belt and doing some walking lunges.
Push yourself: Try taking a treadmill class at a gym. National chains like Crunch and Equinox offer challenging ones that mix some off-treadmill exercises with walking and jogging.
Tips: Watch your posture. "It's very common to see people using poor form when walking on treadmills," says Thompson. Gripping the rails or craning your neck to see the TV will not only slow you down but might also cause an injury. If you tend to grip, you're probably working too hard. Choose a comfortable setting (start at three miles an hour with no incline) and keep your head up so you can breathe fully. Bend your elbows at right angles so you can pump your arms. Press off the back foot for a full stride and keep your abs firm. Check your form after every mile.
Walking Facts and Tips
Music boosts workouts. In one study, women who listened to music while walking lost more weight and body fat and were more likely to stick to their routines than those who did not, according to researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Regular walking prevents colds. Women who walked briskly for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, were less likely to get colds than women who didn't walk, according to a study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle.
Walking on cobblestones lowers blood pressure and improves balance. This is true for older adults, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2005.
Walking with a crowd is safer. The more pedestrians there are at a given intersection, the less likely any walker is to be struck by a car, according to a study published in Injury Prevention in 2003. More people, the authors theorized, make drivers more careful.