Walk that body: A stride to fitness

Walking costs nothing, suits any level of fitness – and it's more effective than many of us realise. Rob Sharp learns the simple techniques that can make it even better for your health

It's cheap, you can do it anywhere, and you have a usefully instinctive knowledge of how to do it. Whether you are working off a belly acquired over Christmas or looking for a regular way to improve your health, putting one leg in front of the other is the way forward.

The NHS advises that walking 10,000 steps a day, or five miles, can give you a healthy heart and reduce your body fat. It's good for your circulation and lungs, and can improve your cardiovascular fitness.

"We emphasise that to do walks close to your house you need no special walking gear or shoes. Virtually anyone can do it," says Moira Halstead, promotions manager for Walking the Way to Health, a government organisation that promotes healthy walking. "In financially strapped times like these, you can save money on petrol, gyms and buses and get fit in the process," she says. "Everyone can go at their own pace. Even the slowest walker can do it and not hold other people back, as might happen in other sports."

Walking boosts the activity of the muscles of our lower body and helps to build them up. It can also improve our bone density, because it is a weight-bearing activity. And as it is low impact, it does not place unnecessary strain on the joints, as running can.

The best way to do exercise walking is to team up with a friend. "There's nothing like walking with someone else," says Martin Christie, a London-based personal trainer who specialises in the pole-based Nordic walking. "All the studies show that if you go out with someone else you are much more likely to stick to it. Get a friend, choose which type of walking you want to exercise with, and then go for it."

Regular walking can reduce the risk of coronary disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, osteoporosis and arthritis. It can help you to cope with anxiety and stress, and may even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. The NHS claims that anyone can turn back the clock three years by getting even a small amount of exercise, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift.

You can build walking into your daily routine – by incorporating a longer walk into your daily commute, for example. Experts recommend that you stop driving to the local shops, or get off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way. Equally, taking a walk in your lunch hour, or after a meal, cuts the amount of fat your body stores.

But if you want to step it up a level, there are now a number of types of exercise walking "techniques" that are a bit more demanding and offer greater fitness benefits. I took to a London park with Christie to try out a few of the techniques. (For more information, see www.exercisewithfriends.co.uk.)



Nordic walking

Nordic walking is essentially propelling yourself along with the help of hand-held poles angled back at about 45 degrees. The technique allows you move faster by taking the load away from the knees and hips and bringing the upper body into play, so making the exercise more comfortable.

When I first tackled it, it was easy to make elementary mistakes, like moving the same-side arm and leg at the same time, but I was soon able to get into a basic rhythm. I quickly felt the pull on my upper body, and the poles aided my natural walking motion. "Because we are using our body above the waist, it works the back, chest, arms and stomach," Christie explains. "And, as it uses more muscles, it burns 20 per cent more calories, which increases to 46 per cent with good technique."

The important thing is to remember to move the poles in a natural movement, angling them back, and with the arms relatively straight. Then, swing the arms from the shoulders rather than bending the elbows. Crucially, make sure that you move your left arm forward along with the right leg, and vice-versa – and then work yourself as hard as you can. (See www.nordicwalking.co.uk.)



Pacer poling

Pacer poling makes use of similar techniques to Nordic walking, but it employs a different kind of pole. Christie explains that the ergonomically designed handle (pictured on opposite page) makes the extension of your arm and the handling of the pole much easier, and allows you to propel yourself more efficiently. Essentially, what you are getting is more power for less effort, and this puts less strain on your body.

"Lots of people find the handle more comfortable," Christie says. "There's no strap [which Nordic poles have], so you can pick it up and go straight away." He says that many people find the technique easier to learn than other forms of "equipment assisted" walking. "As with Nordic walking, in a single session you should be able to learn all the basics you need."

As Christie suggests, these poles are easier to use than the Nordic ones, but they do more or less the same thing. I would almost certainly opt to use these if I had to choose. Equally, I can see how they might be easier for elderly people to use than other types of pole. "Some older adults may find the ergonomic handle and lack of strap a much more comfortable option," Christie says. "It is a more effective option because you can put more power down them." (See www.pacerpole.com.)

Power walking

Power walking is simply walking at a speed closer to the upper end of the natural speed range for the walking gait. At such speeds, jogging and power walking burn roughly the same amount of energy. Many people opt for speed walking rather than jogging, as the walking gait creates less impact on the joints. To qualify as power walking, as opposed to jogging or running, at least one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times.

"The great thing about this is that you don't need any walking equipment," Christie says. "You just get a pair of trainers and away you go. It's a more vigorous use of your upper body and so will increase calorie consumption." Christie advises me to bend my arms at the elbows and to punch forward with every stride. "If you bend your arms correctly you can swing them faster so that your legs move faster. This technique allows you a quicker cadence than you would have in Nordic walking, in which people tend to take longer strides."

Power walking along, I do feel slightly embarrassed, although this is mitigated by walking with a companion. But it is certainly much easier than jogging, and as my fitness levels are not as high as they should be, it is more straightforward to adapt to. The pull on the arms begins to strain after a while, though, without the added propulsion from using the poles. "You can carry a couple of bottles or weights to increase the intensity of the exercise," Christie says. "Then, begin to swing your arms faster, and your legs will move more quickly.

"You could, after a five-minute warm-up, time yourself on a route you know well, walk it regularly, and then time yourself again six weeks later and see how you are improving." (See www.powerwalkersworld.com.)



MBT walking

MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) shoes, which have been dubbed "anti-shoes", are popular with celebrities and those who can afford the cost of up to £150 a pair. The curved soles of the shoes in effect transforms flat, hard surfaces into uneven, soft terrain. While the top of the trainer looks like a regular running shoe, the sole is rounded from the middle of the heel to the ball of the foot, to create an effect almost of rocking forwards and backwards on your feet. The shoes' manufacturers, the Swiss firm Masai, claim the shoes help posture and reduce foot pain.

Initially they feel strange to wear, and they are hard to adapt to. It is also difficult to be sure how much good the shoes are actually doing you. As they work best while walking on flat surfaces, they are useful for a quick spin during a lunch break, as opposed to walking across a park. I hobble along for a few paces. While the shoes do put a spring in my step, I find it hard to keep my balance – it all feels slightly awkward.

MBTs may not be for everyone, and some specialists question their effectiveness. "The claims as to assisting posture, and [helping with] back, hip and knee problems, are not supported by evidence or any good rational explanation," says Dr David Johnson, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at St Mary's Hospital in Bristol. "Indeed, the instability provoked [by the shoe] will increase the muscle activity and energy required to walk – thus increasing fatigue and tiredness." So opinion on the MBTs is divided. (See the MBT section on the King's Road Sporting Club website at www.krsc.co.uk.)

Stride with pride: The benefits of walking

* Walking improves your cardiovascular fitness, boosts your immune system and is good for your lungs. As a weight-bearing activity, it can help to improve bone density.

* It can help to prevent heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer and osteoporosis.

* Walking can improve your sense of well-being, boost your metabolism and help you to sleep better. It may help in cases of depression.

* It consumes a surprising amount of energy – 30 minutes of brisk walking (5mph) burns 200 calories.

* Most people walk about 4,500 steps in their average day. Increase that to 10,000 steps and you'll feel the benefits. A pedometer is a great way to count your steps – and will encourage you to walk a little further to meet the target.

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