Walking for Fitness

Just put one foot in front of the other, and you're on your way to a fitter self in just 12 weeks with our simple program.


Posture Perfect

You know how to walk, but do you know the best way to walk? Stand up straight, keep your chin parallel to the ground, and move with a sense of purpose. Your ears should be directly over your shoulders, hips, knees, and feet. Arms should swing freely, and when you want to pick up the pace, bend your elbows to an 85-degree angle and keep them close to your body. Your hands should never rise above mid-chest level or fall past your hips, says Kathie Smith. "Your arms are like pistons -- boom, boom."

An easy way to remind yourself is to think R-A-C-E-S:

  • R -- roll your foot to the ball of your foot;
  • A -- arms swinging with purpose;
  • C -- contract your tummy;
  • E -- eyes straight ahead; and
  • S -- shoulders back, down, and together.

To really work, lean your entire body slightly forward as if a rope is around your chest pulling you. Your steps move in closer, with one foot in front of the other as if you were walking a tightrope. But stick to the same pace.

To help keep your head up, scan the path by looking 15 feet ahead and lowering your eyes, not your chin. Keep your hands free by wearing your portable radio, heart monitor, or water bottle on a hip belt. Skip leg and hand weights, which throw off your gait and could hurt your back and shoulders.

How Hard?

Strive to exert yourself at level 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 0 being very relaxed and 10 being your maximum output. You should be able to talk, but not be able to sing, says Smith. "If you're panting, you're working too hard."

Those into mental aerobics also can use a heart monitor, striving for 60 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate. To determine how fast your heart should beat in a minute, you subtract your age and your resting heart rate from 226. Multiply the resulting figure by 60 percent and add in your resting heart rate. For example, if you're 40 years old and your resting heart rate is 75:

(226 - 40 - 75) x .60 = 66.6

66.6 + 75 = 142 (rounded)

To get aerobic benefit, your heart rate during exercise should be about 142 beats per minute.

You can also use Fenton's trick to determine whether you're walking fast enough for aerobic fitness benefits or just enough to lower your heart-attack risk: Count how many steps you take. If you are taking 30 to 40 steps in 20 seconds, you're getting health benefits. To tone and hone your body, you need to exceed 45 steps in 20 seconds. (Every time a foot hits the ground counts as a step.)

Tips for Success

  • Drink 8 ounces of water an hour before you start walking, then another 4 to 5 ounces just before you start, says Martin Yadrick, a registered dietician and sports nutritionist in Los Angeles. To determine how much fluid you need to replace after exercising, weigh yourself before and after. For every pound lost, you should drink 16 ounces.
  • To avoid injury, increase the length of your walks by no more than 10 to 20 percent from week to week.
  • If you find you're losing steam, focus on the next mailbox you'll pass, or on reaching the end of the song you're listening to. Music does more than help you pass the time, however. It also boosts your energy, according to a recent study conducted at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Just don't have the volume so high you can't hear traffic.
  • Women exercising on stationary bikes stretched their workout times by about 25 percent and men by 30 percent when music was added, as reported in the Journal of Physical Therapy. You also might want to make a pact with yourself that you'll only watch your favorite TV show when you're on the treadmill. Or if you'd prefer some company, the American Volkssport Association, a nonprofit, noncompetitive walking association (800-830-9255), can put you in touch with walking clubs in your area.
  • If you ever want to see how far you're walking, measure your route with your car's odometer. Just be sure not to walk alone outdoors after dusk, and keep one ear free to hear traffic if you're listening to music.

Our Walking Program

This basic, yet demanding walking program was designed by Kathy Smith, fitness video instructor and author of Walkfit for a Better Body (Warner Books, 1994).

Weeks 1 to 3: The Foundation

  • As with every walk, start with a five-minute stroll and then your stretches.For the first two weeks, walk three times a week for 10 minutes (this doesn't include warm-up time). The goal is to build up to 20 minutes by the end of the third week.
  • For the first few days, focus on keeping your chin up. Once you've mastered that, focus on a tight tummy and on keeping your shoulders down and relaxed.
  • End each workout with the same stretches you started with.

Weeks 4 to 9: The Workout

  • Your goal -- in addition to increasing the time from 20 to 30 minutes and adding a fourth day a week -- will be to build speed. To do this, continue thinking about posture, but also focus on landing on your heel, rolling to your toe, and then pushing off with your toe.
  • Once that becomes automatic, focus on squeezing your butt as you push off your toes.
  • By the end of your ninth week, you should be walking for 30 minutes, four times a week -- at a faster pace.
  • To further increase your speed, focus on your arm swing, taking care to have an unclenched, loose hand. Then concentrate on walking a line.
  • Once you've mastered the footwork, try "the interval," a marathoner's training tool, in which you vary your speed to increase results. Here's how it works: After walking 10 minutes at a steady pace, do five sets of intervals for a total of 15 minutes. First, walk as fast as you can for 90 seconds. Then recover for 90 seconds by walking at a leisurely pace. Repeat four times. Walk at a steady pace for the rest of your workout. Cool down with a five-minute stroll.

Seven Great Stretches

To avoid injury, start every walk with a five-minute stroll and these stretches:

  • Neck stretch. Bring your left ear to your left shoulder until you feel a pull. Hold 10 seconds, bring your head back to center and then lower your right ear to your right shoulder. Don't turn or twist your head.
  • Shoulder shrug. Lift your shoulders toward your ears, hold for two seconds and then release your shoulders for four seconds. Repeat four times.
  • Calf and Achilles tendon stretch. Facing a wall, put your palms against it and stretch your right leg in back of you, with both feet flat on the floor. Bend your left knee slightly forward, but not beyond your toe. Be sure to keep your back straight, not leaning forward. Your toes should point forward and both hips should be parallel to the wall. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds, and then repeat on the other side. Don't bounce on this, or any, stretch.
  • Hamstring (back thigh) stretch. Find a bench or sturdy chair and put one foot on it so the leg is straight. Lean forward slightly until you feel tightness in the back of that thigh. Keep the knee slightly bent and the foot flexed. Hold for eight seconds and then relax for eight seconds. Then stretch the same side again, for up to 30 seconds for a more extensive stretch. Repeat on the other side.
  • Quadriceps (front thigh) stretch. Stand facing a wall. Lift your right foot behind you and grab your right ankle with your right hand. Keep the right knee pointed toward the floor and pull your foot back until you feel a stretch in the leg, but not in the knee. Tighten your right buttock to enhance the stretch. Make sure you stand straight, not leaning forward or to the side. Repeat on the left side.
  • Chest stretch. Stand up and put your hands behind your back and interlock your fingers, with palms facing each other. Raise your hands up and stretch. Another option is to stand in a doorway and extend your hands out to the frame. Hang on, and lean forward as if you were the masthead on a ship.
  • Lower back stretch. Have you hugged your knees today? You can get a great stretch by sitting in a chair and hugging yourself, right above your knees. If a chair isn't handy, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your hands on your thighs just above your knees. Tuck your pelvis and tighten your tummy as if your belly button were pressing into your spine. Round your back into a C shape, hold for 10 seconds, and release to your natural position. Repeat.
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