It’s arguably the best way to exercise during lockdown. Here’s how to make a stroll even better for your body.
The daily walk has become sacred - one of the few activities we have left to break up the monotony. In many ways walking is the perfect exercise - free, requiring no equipment, with an almost zero injury rate, and easily measured to fit the time you have available - and has a multitude of benefits for both physical and mental health.
An hour of moderate intensity physical activity - such as brisk walking - has been shown to eliminate the harms of sitting down for long periods of time. And if you’ve only got time to go around the block, recent research from Sweden shows even a two minute stomp improves concentration and problem solving skills. So how can you get the most out of a walk? The Daily Telegraph asked the experts for ways to shake things up.
Vary Your Terrain: Venturing out on a route that includes different terrains can have impressive benefits for your brain and body, according to research. Walking on bumpy footpaths engages more muscles, and so increases your calorie burn by 28 percent. Choosing a route on uneven ground will also improve your balance, and even give your brain a workout - as it is challenged to make thousands of subconscious micro-decisions that make sure you stay balanced at all times. This extra stimulation can protect your brain against ageing, according to neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin, author of The Changing Mind. “A walk in nature, particularly on dirt trails, is more mentally stimulating than you may realise,” he says. “Outdoors, anything can happen - and that’s the most potent way of keeping the brain flexible and active that we have so far discovered.”
Get your gait right: It might seem odd to teach a grown adult how to walk, but it’s not as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, says Joanna Hall, founder of fitness programme WalkActive. In fact, most people are walking incorrectly. “When someone wants to improve their golf drive or tennis serve you would appreciate there’s technique in that, but we totally neglect how we walk,” she says. Here's Joanna Hall sharing her tips about getting your gait right:
Carry extra weight: If you feel up to it, carry extra weight to work up more of a sweat, says Tom Cowan, exercise physiologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance in Harley Street. In studies, wearing weighted vests has been shown to increase both cardiovascular fitness and strength after a few months of regular wear. “Walking is a weight-bearing exercise, so the heavier you are the more demanding it is”, says Cowan.
However, be careful about the type of weight. Both Hall and Stewart warn against hand or wrist weights, which can put pressure on your shoulders, and against weighted rucksacks, which can pull you backwards if you don’t have perfect technique. If you do want to carry something more, a vest may be best as it distributes weight evenly – steer clear if you have any injury or joint issues.
Walk for better sleep: Many experts say that the best time to get outside for a walk is first thing in the morning, as this helps to calibrate the body’s internal clock, and keep it working to a circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. In fact, getting outside in natural light in the morning is thought to be the best thing you can do for good sleep – and more important than anything you do in the evening.
One US study, published in the journal Sleep Health, found people who were exposed to sunlight in the morning slept better and felt less depressed than those who didn’t. However, walking later in the day offers other rewards. A study from 2018 found that walking for just 15 minutes after each meal helped to stabilise blood sugar for the whole day, compared to one longer walk mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
Use your arms: Engaging your upper body will help you go faster and burn more calories, says Gill Stewart, director of Nordic Walking UK. In Nordic walking, poles are used to mimic the movements of cross-country skiing.
“It’s a propulsion movement: imagine you’re on the snow, you put the pole into the ground at an angle and push yourself forward and glide,” explains Stewart. She says this turns your body into a “4x4”: you harness the power of all four limbs to move, which can increase speed without burdening your lower body.
If you don’t want to use poles, then your arms can still boost your pace, says Hall. Many people make the mistake of rigidly swinging their arms back and forth “like a robot”, she says, which will put pressure on your lower back without adding speed. “The movement in your arm should come from the shoulder girdle at the back of your body,” she says. “Good technique should look smooth and flowing.”
Mindful walking: Some find it useful to count steps or set distance goals. But with many experiencing heightened stress at the moment, a walk can also be a good opportunity to calm the mind. Leave the phone at home and observe the world around you - whether it’s birds in the leafless trees, urban foxes, or unusual architecture. Studies have shown that “awe walks” - where you set out to look at something that triggers a feeling of wonder and perspective - have a particularly powerful effect on mood. Tracking animal prints, or setting a “scavenger hunt” with a list of sights to look for, are good ways to encourage children to go for walks, too.