fitness walking

Is walking the best exercise you can do?

Walk the dog, jump off your bus two stops early, and leg it up the stairs instead of taking the lift… We’re all being urged to get to our feet to boost our health and work off excess pounds – but does any old walking style have the same impact, or should we be dressing up in lycra and pounding the streets like a pro?

In fact it’s not the speed at which you walk that matters, but your walking style, says sports scientist and walking guru Joanna Hall ‘It’s all about how you hold your body – if you get that right, you’ll lengthen your stride, increase your speed, shape your legs and bum, and slim your waist. But you must be consistent. Little and often is better than one huge walk at the weekend.’

Joanna recommends trying to average at least 5000 steps a day, but ideally 7500. That’s between 50 and 115 minutes of walking, but you can break it up into smaller chunks.
‘On top of this, try to do three extra walks a week where you work on your pace – pushing through your toes to pick up your speed and improve your walking posture. Each of these walks should be 12 minutes long. Start by trying to cover one kilometre in that time, but aim to go further when you can.
‘A study at South Bank University found that people improved their speed by 24% over four weeks of walking to my “WalkActive” method. You can also lose two inches off your waist without changing your diet. But, if you also cut out carbs after 5pm, you could lose up to 10 inches.
‘However, if walking faster means compromising your technique (see below) you’ll need to drop back to a slower pace. That’s because technique is more important than speed to build muscle and burn fat. It also protects your body from ageing joints.’

Master the moves

  • Wear comfortable trainers with a broad toe area. These will give the muscles in your feet room to stretch and move. ‘Think about the way you can stretch out your hand – you want your feet to be doing the same thing with every step, instead of padding and plodding. Walking boots may look the part but they’re actually far too rigid and restrictive. You need to be able to use each part of your foot in turn, pushing through from your toes. This will give you the foundation you need for perfect posture and optimum walking pace.’
  • As you walk, lift your hips, imagining that they’re carrying a tray bearing two glasses of wine – one balanced on each hip bone. ‘You need to keep these two glasses level so they don’t spill over, ‘ says Joanna. ‘This flattens your abdomen and helps you use the muscles in your bum, which in turn protects your hip and knee joints.’
  • Keep your head level, without jutting it forward. ‘The easiest way to do this is to imagine you’re wearing very long dangly earrings and you’re trying to show them off and prevent them from brushing against your shoulders.’
  • Swing your arms like pendulums – don’t pump them like a power walker. ‘Power walking is actually very ageing as it stiffens your joints by compressing your body,’ says Joanna. ‘My technique is a far more effortless style, and loosens joints instead of tightening them up. People remark on how much younger they look when they start walking this way. By doing it regularly and consistently you will also work your body from the inside out, creating a form of inner spandex, a strong belt of muscle which helps to burn calories and fight flab.’

Gently does it

‘Keep your heart rate below 130 beats per minute to burn fat (check your pulse by pressing two fingers on the inside of your wrist). Higher than this will burn sugar instead of fat, and that will just make you hungry,’ says Max Tomlinson, celebrity body guru and author of Target Your Fat Spots.
Three short but fast paced walks a week (plus two longer, moderate paced walks) are proven to shift five times more belly fat than five moderate paced walks – even though you’ll burn exactly the same number of calories per walk.

Reap the rewards

Research shows that regular walking cuts your risk of metabolic syndrome – the combination of high blood pressure and blood sugar that can cause heart disease and cancer. Walking for 35 minutes, six days a week, has also been found to be as effective as Prozac for mild to moderate depression.