Step Up Your Walking Workouts

Strategies to Get the Best of Your Regular Stroll
(Getty)

Whether you're new to walking or a seasoned stroller, here are some ways to boost your routines.

Walking is one of the most straightforward exercises. You just need a good pair of walking shoes, and off you go.

Like any kind of cardio activity, walking can improve your heart health, strengthen your immune system, and help you manage your weight.

"Walking also is a great way to get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, as you can do it indoors or outdoors, and workouts can be adjusted to fit any fitness level," says Dr. Lauren Elson, medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Walking for Health.

Yet it's easy for walks to become too casual. "A regular stroll is always better than no movement, but to get the best benefits from walking, you need to constantly challenge yourself."

Move toward your goals

One way to step up your walking is to tailor workouts to specific fitness goals. For instance, if walking is your primary aerobic activity, you want to vary intensity and speed. For a stronger lower body, design your walking around building your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. If you plan to take a hiking trip or a vacation that involves much walking, or you want to train for a 5K race, you need to boost your endurance.

"If you are brand new to fitness walking, just walking at a steady pace for five to 20 minutes several days a week, or just five minutes several times a day, is a great start," says Dr. Elson. "But soon you will want to raise your routine to a higher level."

Here are some strategies to help you reach those goals. Remember to begin each walking workout with a five-minute warm-up and end with a cool-down and post-workout stretches. (Learn how to do a warm-up and a cool-down stretching routine at www.health.harvard.edu/walking-for-health-video.)

Take an inside walk

Weather got you trapped inside? Tired of treadmills? Do what Nelson Mandela reportedly did when he was imprisoned in South Africa: walk in place. To keep up his fitness, Mandela often walked, ran, and marched while standing in his tiny cell. YouTube offers many walking-in-place videos for seniors that last from 10 to 30 minutes or cover a mile. They are led by fitness instructors, and some are even streamed live. (Search for "walking in place for seniors" at www.youtube.com.)

Intervals for intensity

Interval training involves walking at a faster-than-usual pace for a brief period followed by a rest period at a slower pace and repeating the cycle for a set amount of time or distance.

"The key is to walk at a brisk pace that gets the heart rate up and makes you work harder," says Dr. Elson.

Of course, what's considered "brisk" differs for each person. Dr. Elson suggests monitoring your intensity using the Perceived Exertion Scale (see "Walk and talk"). "This ensures you work hard enough, but not too much," she says. "Aim for 5 to 6 on the scale during the higher-intensity interval portion of your walk, which is a moderate-intensity level."

Research has found that interval training not only offers many cardiovascular benefits, but also can improve age-related muscle loss. A study published March 7, 2017, in Cell Metabolism found that people ages 65 to 80 who did interval training, including walking workouts, reversed age-related deterioration of muscle cells and improved muscle power.

Dr. Elson recommends that you experiment to find the interval pattern that works best for you and then adjust as you progress. A good starting point is to walk for three to four minutes at your average pace and then briskly walk for 30 seconds; repeat five to 10 times. "Eventually, you can work up to longer periods of brisk walking and shorter rest periods," she says.

Walk and talk

The Perceived Exertion Scale helps gauge your exercise intensity. For moderate-intensity workouts, aim for 5 to 6 on the scale.

Scale

Intensity

Breathing/speaking pattern

1

Extremely easy

Restful breathing; able to sing

2

Very easy

Can speak in complete sentences

3

Easy

 

4

Easy to moderate

Speech becomes broken

5

Moderate

Breathing becomes heavier

6

 

Talking is difficult

7

Moderate to vigorous

Deep, forceful breathing, but still sustainable

8

Vigorous

Labored breathing; cannot talk

9

 

Borderline breathless

10

Very vigorous

Gasping for air

 

Inclines build strength

Walking up hills and stairs or on an inclined treadmill adds resistance that can help build muscles in the lower body, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings (in the thighs) and the calves. "Add them here and there during your regular walking routine," says Dr. Elson. For instance, do a minute or two of stair climbing (like in a stairwell or high school stadium) or raise your treadmill incline and walk for 30 seconds to a minute.

Nordic walking for endurance

Using Nordic walking poles activates your upper body's muscles, such as those in the arms, back, shoulders, and core. "To improve endurance so you can walk longer and more often, you need to protect against muscle fatigue by building muscles everywhere," says Dr. Elson. "A weak upper body can speed up fatigue by decreasing the efficiency of your walking movement."

Nordic walking poles are available with pointed tips for trails or rubber tips for sidewalks. They come in fixed or adjustable heights. (You can find them online.)

There are several Nordic walking techniques. A good one for beginners is called single poling, where one pole and foot always strike the ground at the same time. You can do the same-side pole and foot at once (left pole and foot together, then right pole and foot together, etc.), or opposite sides (left pole with right foot, then right pole with left foot, etc.).