We all know that walking is very good for us. Studies have shown that walking promotes heart health, strengthens bones, spurs weight loss, boosts mood and even cuts risk for cancer and Alzheimer’s.
But what most people don’t realize is that they could significantly improve the health benefits of their walks by tweaking their walking techniques and using the right equipment.
Here are common walking mistakes—and what you should be doing instead…
MISTAKE #1: Tilting forward. Some walkers tilt their upper bodies forward, as though they’re walking into the wind. They think that this position increases speed. It does not—and it greatly increases pressure on the lower back while straining the shins.
Better: Walk with your head high and still, shoulders relaxed and chest slightly out. In this position, you can rotate your eyes downward to survey the path and look ahead to view the scenery around you.
MISTAKE #2: Swinging the arms inefficiently. Many walkers waste energy by swinging their arms side to side or pumping their arms up and down. These exaggerated movements add little to cardiovascular fitness and make walking less efficient because arm energy is directed upward or sideways rather than straight ahead.
Better: For maximum efficiency, pump your arms straight ahead on a horizontal plane, like you’re reeling in a string through your midsection. This motion improves balance, posture and walking speed.
MISTAKE #3: Using hand and/or ankle weights. While some people like to walk with weights to boost the intensity of a walking workout, the risk for injury far outweighs the benefits of using weights. The repetitive stress of swinging weights can cause microtears in the soft tissues of the arms and legs.
Better: To increase exertion, walk uphill or on an inclined treadmill.
Another good option: Try Nordic walking for a total-body workout. With this type of walking, you use specially designed walking poles (one in each hand) to help propel your body forward.
Compared with regular walking, Nordic walking can increase your energy expenditure by 20%, according to a study from The Cooper Institute. It works the abdominal, arm and back muscles and reduces stress on the feet, ankles, knees and hips while improving endurance.
MISTAKE #4: Not doing a warm-up. You’re inviting muscle soreness and potential injury if you hit your top speed at the start.
Better: Be sure to warm up. Start slowly, accelerating over the first five to 10 minutes…and end slowly, decelerating over the last five minutes. A slow start allows your muscles to warm up and become flexible, while enabling your cardiorespiratory system to get used to higher workloads. A proper cooldown helps eliminate the buildup of lactic acid, which can lead to muscle soreness.
MISTAKE #5: Doing the same walk every day. It’s best to alter your routine for maximum health benefits and to maintain motivation.
Better: Do shorter, faster-paced walks some days (cardiovascular conditioning) and longer, moderate-paced walks on other days (calorie burning). Also try walks on steeper terrains and walks that alternate faster intervals with slower intervals.
MISTAKE #6: Not keeping a walking log or journal. Every day, indicate how far and fast you walked and any other observations you wish to record in a notebook or on your computer. Keeping a journal helps foster a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem and is the single most effective method for ensuring that you’ll stick to a walking program.
MISTAKE #7: Choosing cushy shoes. A study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that, on average, expensive, high-tech footwear caused twice the injuries as shoes costing half as much.
Some high-priced, cushiony shoes can make you feel as if you’re walking on a foam mattress, but they have an inherent “wobble” that can cause your foot to move side to side, leading to potential foot, ankle, knee and hip injuries.
Better: Thin-soled shoes with minimal support. They force the muscles in the legs and feet to work harder, which improves strength and balance and helps prevent injuries.
When transitioning to thinner-soled shoes, make the switch gradually, breaking them in on shorter walks. They can feel awkward at first, so give your feet time to adjust.
Of course the right shoe is a very individual choice, but I like Karhu shoes, which promote forward momentum. Cost: About $55 to $140, depending on the model. Other people like the so-called “barefoot” shoes, such as Vibram FiveFingers.
Helpful: Avoid cotton socks, which can lose their support and shape after a few washings.Try socks made from blends that include acrylic fibers, Coolmax and/or spandex/elastic. Soft wool socks also can work. Tip: Powder your feet with cornstarch before a long walk to reduce friction, heat buildup and blisters.
Take the Longevity Test
The more steps it takes you to walk the same distance each year, the weaker your core muscles are becoming.
Self-test: Each year on your birthday, go to a track and walk one lap, recording the number of steps on your pedometer. Aim to complete the lap in about the same number of steps each year. If it takes you more steps each year, you are regressing toward the “senior shuffle” and compromising your core-muscle strength and overall vitality. What to do:In addition to walking regularly, start a core-muscle strengthening regimen and a stretching program to tone your hip and leg muscles.