By Marilynn Preston
Before I was a walker, I was a runner – a slow, lumbering, back-of-the-pack runner. When I discovered racewalking, I found my sport. And since then, I’ve become a ferocious fan of every style of walking: all ages, speeds, styles and sexes. (If only walking were, somehow, a sexier sport.)
I could fill the rest of this column and several more spelling out all the wonderful things walking will do for your body and your mind. It’s great for your brain, your strength, for every cell in your body, for calming yourself mentally and boosting your energy physically.
It’s also the perfect antidote to the crazed, stepped-up pace of life today, when too much technology walks all over our human need to slow down and … how can I put this? … think.
“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her smart and inspiring book called “Wanderlust: The History of Walking.” “And the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”
How fast should you walk to protect and maintain your health? That question has been around as long as I have, and now new research published in the June issue of the British Journal of Sports
Medicine has provided a practical answer: 100 steps a minute seems to be an ideal pace. The researchers call it “brisk” walking – not too hard, not too easy, and probably easier than you think.
So start where you are. Walk for 10 seconds, count your steps, multiply by six and you’ll know how many steps you take in a minute. Then, you can gradually speed up or slow down the pace, keeping in mind that according to federal exercise guidelines we can trust, we should plan on 30 minutes of brisk walking most days.
More vigorous walking – 130 steps a minute – is also an admirable goal, but if that’s too much for you, an easier 100 steps a minute will help you make big strides in your well-being.
To go faster, should you take longer strides or shorter ones? Shorter, quicker steps is the way to go.
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
Walking with your head down – a la the dreaded text neck – is a common mistake. It can strain your back and shoulder muscles and get in the way of efficient breathing. You are remembering to breathe, aren’t you?
MOVE YOUR ARMS
Scan your body to make sure you’re not hunching your shoulders or tensing your arms. Let them swing in a natural way in opposition to your legs. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides, arms bent at about a 90-degree angle, hands loose. The more you pump those arms, the better workout you’ll get.
WORK THOSE HIPS
To stride with more power, imagine that your leg begins at your hip. As your right leg comes forward, so should your right hipbone, in a natural rotation. Then do the same with your left. Racewalkers get a lot of speed, forward thrust and, yes, funny looks from this exaggerated hip wiggle. It takes practice and patience, but once you get it, it’s yours forever.
PULL IN YOUR TUMMY
As you walk, be aware of engaging your abdominal muscles and your glutes, your butt muscles. Walking this way requires some attention at first, but eventually it becomes part of your routine and a fantastic way to help tighten those areas that tend to get loose and flabby as we age.
GO FOR THE ROLL
There’s no wrong way to walk, but for maximum efficiency and power, focus on walking heel-ball-toe. Practice landing on your heel, your toes flexed to the sky, then roll through the foot, using the big toe to give your body a powerful push forward. That way all your leg muscles – from your calves to your glutes – will be awake and involved.
It can take a while to develop this kind of body awareness, but remember: The results are far from pedestrian!
Bottom line, you want to find a pace and style that spark joy, relax your brain and allow you to connect to the natural world around you. That way, the bliss chemicals flow. And when that happens, you’re hooked on walking, not because you should but because you really want to.
– Marilynn Preston is the author of Energy Express, America’s longest-running healthy lifestyle column. For more on personal well-being, visit www.MarilynnPreston.com.