Written by Tim Rigby, M.A., NSCA-CPT
It’s the world’s oldest and most commonly performed physical exercise: walking; it’s widely known as being a beneficial, low-impact exercise that can raise your endurance and even strengthen bones and muscles which may be deficient or injured. There is scientific evidence that walking first thing in the morning on an empty stomach is a good way to use up energy and burn stored fat. Walking also takes you away from the drudgery of the gym and allows you to explore the outdoors, even if you’re confined to an urban environment (obviously, a more rural environment comes with its own unique aesthetics).
Walking is also something you can do any time, including when you’re a little stressed and you want to drop what you’re doing and go for a “constitutional”. Whether with friends or alone, walking is a popular choice (and certainly effective) at clearing your head. Finally, doctors often recommend the commencement of a walking program to people suffering from gastrointestinal disorders like chronic bloating, constipation, water retention and even IBS. Studies have in fact shown that subjects can experience relief from all these symptoms simply by undertaking a session of walking. Sounds like a perfect exercise, doesn’t it?
In reality, although walking is a very healthy endeavour, it comes with a lot of limitations, particularly if you’re above the beginner level of fitness. It’s not difficult to appreciate how compared to other cardio exercises (and of course, resistance training), you’re not going to have the same degree of metabolic effect. This is manifest very simply in the fact that you typically don’t work up a good sweat when you walk – an indication of intense physical exertion. Furthermore, once you stop walking, your heart rate will return to normal very quickly – as opposed to more intense exercise which will keep your metabolism stoked for hours afterward.
Another disadvantage to walking is that it’s overwhelmingly a lower-body exercise. When you walk at a low to moderate pace, it’s very easy to propel yourself forward without much use of your arms. It really just comes down to the use of your legs, especially your calves. If you want proof of this, simply look around your neighbourhood and take a glance at both runners and walkers. Pay attention to the movement of their upper body – you’ll see clearly that it’s quite engaged with runners and joggers as they move at a brisk pace; on the other hand, walkers don’t swing their arms much at all.
To correct the preceding flaws with walking, you need only take a few simple steps (pun intended). You can increase the challenge and cardiovascular effect of walking by approaching a steep incline or trail up the side of a hill. This will require more exertion from you. An interesting side note is that although walking downhill is certainly easier, you actually engage more muscles by going downward. You can also try simply walking at a faster pace, or partake in intervals where you walk hard for a set period, intertwined with intervals at a slower pace. This will certainly play upon your metabolism more.
As for the negligible effect on your upper body, there’s not much you can do about it except make a conscious effort to swing your arms more. You can also try holding onto a light weight like a 3- or 5-pound hand weight in each hand, and then swing your arms consistently during your walk; you’ll definitely feel the burn throughout both halves of your body.
The upshot is that walking is a very good, healthy and sensible thing to do. It can be done daily very easily, but if you’re looking for a moderate to advanced level of fitness workout, you should employ some modifications as listed, or engage in some other activity requiring greater exertion.
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