We typically look to measurements like weight, cholesterol level and blood pressure when we evaluate our health. But we may want to add another statistic to the list: Our number of daily steps. Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop recommends a minimum of 10,000 steps a day — that's about five miles — to maintain good fitness. And yet a 2010 study from the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee found that the average American takes only about half that many — 5,117 a day.
The benefits of stepping up are clear. Research has shown that regular walking:
- Helps to lower your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol level, reducing your risk of heart attacks and stroke.
- Reduces your blood pressure and your risk of arthritis, diabetes and colon cancer.
- Strengthens your immune system.
- Gives you more energy, and helps you sleep better.
- Improves your strength, flexibility and aerobic conditioning.
- Reduces stress and lifts your mood.
- Improves cognitive function.
Best of all, you can walk almost anywhere and at any time. But while walking and talking with a friend is always pleasant, and strolling outdoors in a beautiful natural setting can enhance well-being even further, as a daily routine, walking can become a bit, well, pedestrian. To mix things up, and amplify your health benefits, consider trying one or more of these alternative approaches. Remember: Getting instruction or advice on technique and equipment from certified instructors means you’ll walk the right way from the start and avoid injury. But check with your doctor, too, before beginning your new physical activity regimen.
Chi (pronounced chee), is the ancient Chinese term for the vital energy that unites body, mind and spirit. When you Chi Walk, “you choose to walk with inner strength and grace,” creator Danny Dreyer says.
How to Do It: Chi Walking emphasizes balance, alignment and posture — think of your body as a column. As you walk, you'll move from your core abdominal muscles; relax your arm and leg muscles (which limits your chance of injury); and keep your leading leg bent at the knee so you land on your midfoot, just ahead of your heel. Don’t push so hard from your toes as you walk forward, and keep your upper body over your hips to encourage propulsion from your core rather than your foot muscles. As you gain balance, advocates say, your chi energy will flow throughout your body without interruption. You'll also become a fitter, more efficient walker.
"A major part of feeling despair or sadness," says Ronald Alexander, author of Wise Mind, Open Mind, "is the lack of energy or motivation you have to get out of bed, to stop procrastinating or giving in to the feeling that there’s no point in taking action." Walking requires you to take action, and devotees of walking meditation believe that when you concentrate on the idea and the process of walking, you can sharpen your overall focus and awareness. You’re practicing the age-old principle of mindfulness, only you’re doing it on foot.
How to Do It: Try to choose a specific path with a start and finish, where you can walk without coming upon traffic or other distractions for at least 20 minutes. Begin by standing still and taking deep, calming breaths to clear your head. As you begin your walk, be mindful of each step, walking slowly and forgetting about work, relationships, or what went wrong earlier in the day. Choose a mantra, or saying, to repeat as you stride. You don't need to change the way you walk. You just need to think about each step and what you are doing. If you get distracted, snap your attention back to the sensations your body is experiencing. Feel the dirt underneath you, hear the birds serenading, be aware of your breathing.
If there's no snow on the ground, why should you walk with ski poles? Because they’re actually shock-absorbing Nordic walking poles, and they're part of a great aerobic exercise. A pair of basic Nordic walking poles cost between $60 and $150. They have a hand strap at the top and metal spikes at the bottom which can be covered with rubber "paws" for walking on pavement.
How to Do It: American Nordic Walking Association founder Bernd Zimmermann advises that each step begin with your heel on the ground, rolling forward to ball and toe, then pushing off to propel yourself forward and lengthen your stride. You'll grip the pole through the strap as it touches the ground, release your grip as the pole draws back behind your body, then grip the pole again for the next step. As your arms move the poles, your torso and hips will work in a counter-swinging motion from the lower body. As your form improves, you can add running or jumping strides or even inline skating.
Water is denser than air, so the added resistance it provides can speed up conditioning and enhance toning without increasing impact, says MaryBeth Pappas Baun, author of Fantastic Water Workouts. "Pushing or pulling your limbs through water approximates the use of muscle power required for weight training, without the discomfort," she says. Walking in water also puts far less stress on your joints, and burns more calories, than walking on land.
How to Do It: For your workout, walk forward, backward and sideways, with straight or neutral posture, in water that’s waist-to-chest high, Baun says. Aqua shoes can give you better grip in the pool.
Stephanie Stephens is print and broadcast journalist focusing on health and lifestyle. She is also the host and producer of her own multimedia channel for female boomers, www.MindYourBody.tv.
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