The classic brisk walk can do wonders for your overall physical and mental health. But if you have more specific goals – like taming stress or creating strong, shapely legs – you’ll need to customize your walking program, says walking coach Lee Scott, founder of the WoW Power Walking program in Oakville, Ont., and creator of the Simple Secrets for a Great Walking Workout DVD. Scott encourages all walkers to walk four days a week and to focus on good posture and technique. Follow these tips to be sure that your walking program is moving you toward your individual goal.
If you walk to help balance a go-go-go lifestyle, focus on gradually bumping up your walking intensity, rather than your distance. According to Scott, when you push yourself your brain pumps out feel-good hormones and slows the production of the stress hormone cortisol. “Just six minutes of vigorous walking – you should feel a little out of breath – will de-stress even the most type-A personality,” she claims.
As your legs and arms get moving faster, be sure your thoughts and speech don’t begin to race, too. Avoid finishing your walk feeling frazzled by concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly and talking slowly with your walking buddies. And if you’re out with a work colleague, make a pact not to talk business!
To move down a dress size or two, Scott recommends walking daily to blast more calories; one walk should be a long endurance walk and at least one should be faster and more challenging.
Marina Marchesan, who belongs to the First Canadian Place Walking Club in Toronto, found that she couldn’t get the scale to budge with walking alone. “Once I added in healthier eating, by cutting down on fats, sweets and portions, my weight dropped 40 pounds in five months.”
If your goal is more-defined legs and buns, work your muscles harder by hitting some hills and pulling your feet back behind you with each step, suggests Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, an avid walker and certified group fitness instructor in Charlottetown, PEI. While walking is great for lower-body toning, you’re unlikely to see changes in your upper body, even if you pump your arms energetically. Instead, add five to 10 minutes of weight-bearing exercise, like biceps curls and triceps extensions, to the end of each walk. But don’t take the weights with you when you walk, warns Jenkins-Smith. Even carrying very light weights can quickly lead to elbow, shoulder and neck injuries.
Contrary to popular belief, walking isn’t the best choice for people looking to build bone density, says Dr. Julia Alleyne, medical director of Sport C.A.R.E. at The New Women’s College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. Unlike activities like running, rope jumping, fitness classes and aquafit classes, walking lacks the impact that strengthens bones. It does, however, improve balance and reaction time, which can help prevent falls and decrease the risk of fracture, says Alleyne. If walking’s your favourite activity, she recommends adding one-minute intervals of light jogging to every five minutes of walking.