10 Tips to Boost Your Walking Workout

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Walking is a free—and freeing—way to maintain fitness, health, and, indeed, sanity in the age of coronavirus. Here are 10 tips designed to give your walking workout a boost. If you’re outside or in a public indoor space (be sure it’s not crowded), don’t forget keep your distance from others by observing the 6-foot rule (even in states where lockdown restrictions are being eased) and wear a face mask if you can’t avoid passing too close to other people on your walk.

1. Walk most days. Try to walk for at least half an hour a day, or one hour every other day. If done briskly, that could burn more than 1,000 calories per week. If you can’t work that into your schedule, try more frequent, shorter walks.

2. Consider breaking up your walks. Brief walks done throughout the day can be as healthful as longer walks. For instance, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2018 found that accumulating short sessions of moderate activity such as brisk walking throughout the day reduced mortality rate as much as doing the same amount of exercise in longer sessions.

3. Count your steps. Get a simple pedometer, wearable fitness device, or step-counting smartphone app to see how many steps you take a day. Aim initially for 3,000 to 5,000 steps a day and then try to increase your goal. An observational study in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019 found that participants in the Women’s Health Study (average age 72) who walked an average of 4,400 steps a day over a four-year period had a 40 percent lower mortality rate than those who walked the least (2,700 steps). Mortality rate continued to decline up to about 7,500 steps a day, plateauing after that.

4. Note how intensely you are working out. Federal guidelines recommend “moderate intensity” activity for 150 minutes a week or “vigorous” exercise for 75 minutes a week. Walking at least 100 steps per minute constitutes moderate exercise for most people, and at least 130 steps per minute is vigorous exercise, according to a small study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2019.

5. Swing your arms. Vigorous arm pumping allows for a quicker pace and provides a good workout for your upper body. Bend your elbows 90 degrees and pump from the shoulder. Move your arms in opposition to your legs. Keep your wrists straight, your hands unclenched, and your elbows close to your sides.

6. Vary your routine. Speed up for a minute or two out of every five minutes, for instance. Or alternate doing one faster mile with two slower miles. Vary your terrain as well. Walking on grass, gravel, or trails burns more calories than walking on a track or on pavement.

7. Walk up and down hills. Combine hill walking with your regular flat-terrain walking as a form of interval training. When walking uphill, lean forward slightly—it’s easier on your legs. Walking downhill can be harder on your body, especially the knees, and may cause muscle soreness, so slow your pace, keep your knees slightly bent, and take shorter steps.

8. Try walking poles. To enhance your upper-body workout, use lightweight, rubber-tipped trekking poles, which are sold in many sporting-goods stores and online. This is like cross-country skiing without the skis. It works the muscles of your chest, arms, and abs, while reducing knee stress. People taller than 6 feet should use poles that are at least 51 inches long; most adjustable trekking poles are suitable for people of shorter height. You should be able to grip each pole and keep your forearm about level as you walk.

9. Use hand weights, but carefully. Holding weights can boost your caloric expenditure while walking, but they may alter your arm swing and lead to muscle soreness or even injury. Start with 1-pound weights and increase the weight gradually to no more than 2 or 3 pounds. Don’t grasp the weights too tightly, as this could increase blood pressure; strap-on wrist weights are another option and can prevent this. Ankle weights are not recommended because they increase the risk of injury.

10. Try backward walking. This can be demanding, since it’s a novel activity for most people. If you’re doing it outdoors, choose a smooth surface and keep far away from traffic, trees, potholes, and other exercisers. A deserted track is ideal. Try to go with a partner (maintaining your distance during the pandemic) who can alert you to obstacles or other potential dangers and help pace you. Skip this activity if you have balance problems.