The more consistently you walk, the more benefits you’ll reap. That’s why it’s so important to minimize your risk for injury and make walking as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Since walking is low-impact, it’s already a low-risk activity, but how you walk, and what you do when you’re walking, can raise or lower your risk of getting hurt or developing aches and pains. Here are seven dos and don’ts that will help keep you on your feet and walking strong.
Don’t walk with weights. The thinking is that you’ll burn more calories by swinging dumbbells as you walk. In theory, it seems reasonable. The heavier you are the more calories you burn. But when researchers put this strategy to the test, walking with three-pound weights didn’t increase calorie burn compared to walking at the same speed without weights. The only thing it upped was the effort, according to the study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. In addition, swinging a weight could set you up for wrist, elbow, shoulder, or even neck problems. Instead, leave the weights at home and pick up your pace. You’ll burn more calories as well as improve your heart function. If you’re carrying weights in hopes of toning your arms, you’ll get more definition by using heavier weights before or after your walk. Bottom line: there are more risks than benefits of walking with weights.
Do warm up. This may seem obvious, but when your time is limited, it’s all too easy to immediately kick it into high gear. The result can be burning muscles, gasping breaths, and possibly even an injury. Instead, start at a slower pace to feel better and prepare your body for activity. Muscles get warm and more pliable so you’re less likely to strain them. More nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood is pumped to working muscles to fuel them for better performance. More lubricants are produced in your joints, so they move more freely and have a greater range of motion. In a review of 32 studies, 80 percent of the studies found that warming up first improved performance.
Don’t bounce. Up and down movement is common when you bound off of the ground while running. But, when you’re walking, you want to think about directing all of your energy forward for a speedier, more efficient stride. Ask a friend to watch you while you walk (or have them videotape you). If you’re bouncing, your head will be going up and down, and all that vertical motion increases impact on your joints. Instead, you want your head to stay level as you walk, which will minimize impact on your joints even as you walk faster. To do that, keep your front leg straight, but not locked, as you land and until your foot is under your body. Also, avoid landing flat-footed, and instead roll from your heel to the ball of your foot and toes.
Do posture checks while walking. Maintaining good posture allows your arms and legs to swing more smoothly, your chest to open up so you can take deeper breaths, and your vertebrae to be properly stacked which can prevent backaches. A great way to realign your posture mid-walk is by doing a shirt pull, an exercise I learned from walking coach Suki Munsell, Ph.D. Cross your wrists in front of you as if you’re getting ready to take off your shirt. Raise your arms as if you’re pulling a shirt up and off (but don't actually do it). As you reach up, lengthen your spine. Then let your arms float down to your sides as your shoulders drop away from your ears. Repeat every 10 minutes or so, or anytime you feel like you’re slouching or notice any aches or stiffness.
Don’t walk the same way all the time. You may not notice the slight variations in roads and sidewalks that can alter body mechanics. For example, many are sloped to allow for water runoff which means one leg may be slightly higher than the other. Or you may always turn your head to the same side to talk with a friend as you walk. Over time, little alterations like these may make you more prone to injuries or problems because of muscle tension or imbalances. Instead, occasionally change direction, take different routes, and alter positions as you walk. This can help to keep you more physically balanced and prevent mental boredom.
Do stretch after a walk. This is when your body is primed for traditional static stretching, the kind where you hold the stretch. Stretching when your muscles are warmed up and your joints are loose after a walk helps to keep you flexible and increase your range of motion. It’s also a relaxing way to wind down after a vigorous walk.
Don’t ignore aches and pains. The sooner you address any issue the less likely you’ll end up being sidelined. Some discomfort like muscle fatigue or a little post-workout stiffness or muscle soreness is normal, but in general, exercise should not hurt. Feel a blister starting? Apply moleskin or a bandage to prevent it. Notice rubbing under your arms or between your thighs? Apply petroleum jelly or a lubricant like BodyGlide to prevent chafing. Achy low back? Check your posture. For more persistent problems, talk to an appropriate doctor: podiatrists for foot problems, orthopedists for joint issues, or physiatrists (also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors) for any issues impairing your activity level. The sooner you remedy problems the quicker you’ll be back to walking regularly, and the stronger you’ll be.
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Always check with your physician before beginning any new exercise program.