Follow these easy steps, take them all in your stride and use walking to get fitter and keep in shape. Like any exercise programme, success is all about having specific goals and a set route to achieving them. If you’re not getting the most out of your walking, it’s probably because you’re not walking fast enough, long enough or often enough.
Apply some structure to your regime. The way you work the frequency, intensity and time of your walks (the FIT Principle) will determine the results you are likely to get from your programme.
It’s important to distinguish between walking as part of your daily life and stepping out specifically to get fitter. Some guidelines recommend walking (or an equivalent moderate-intensity activity) for 30 minutes most days of the week to safeguard health. However, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a world authority on exercise, suggests that for fitness we work at 55 to 90 per cent of our maximum heart rate for 20 to 60 minutes - three to five days a week.
Try and see these three to five sessions as over and above your daily walking rather than counting towards it.
The pace at which you walk is an individual thing — one person’s sprint is another’s leisurely stroll. The goal is simply to increase your pace over a period of time. The important thing is to work at your own speed. However, research does suggest that while any amount of walking at any pace is good — faster walking and more of it — is better for you. Women walking at a brisk pace are about 50 per cent less likely to develop heart disease than those adopting a more leisurely pace, according to research. It’s been revealed that an increased pace - from 3 to 4mph (4.8 to 6.4kph) - can double fitness improvements.
Both steady paced and faster walking have an important role to play in your overall fitness, which is why it is so essential to vary both your speed and distance. Walking at a steady pace for a prolonged period has many health benefits. The major boost is to the cardio-respiratory system — the heart and lungs. Moderate-paced walking will also teach your body to become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the blood and burn fat instead of carbohydrate as a fuel. It will also improve endurance in the lower body muscles and strengthen the connective tissues such as ligaments, tendons and cartilage.
Providing you do it for long enough, a walk will burn a substantial amount of energy. For example, a day’s hike (six hours cross-country walking, with a stop for lunch) for a 70kg (154lb) male will burn 2,520 calories (10,544 Kilojoules). Faster walking has additional benefits… Working at a greater intensity makes your heart more efficient at pumping blood around the body and gets you accustomed to working at a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate.
A combination of the two works really well. Going at a leisurely pace means you can probably walk for longer than if you go ‘all out’, so your calorie expenditure has the potential to be higher.And walking at both fast and slower speeds helps you become adept at identifying your own perception of what is a ‘comfortable’ or a ‘challenging’ pace. The great news about time and intensity is that as one goes up, the other falls. You don’t need to try to increase how hard you walk and how long you walk at the same time. For the best results, it’s a good idea to work on increasing length in some sessions, and on increasing intensity in others.
When you start, it may be that a 15 minute walk leaves you exhausted, but a few weeks down the line, once your body has adapted, that route will no longer leave you sweat-soaked and breathless. But that doesn’t mean that you simply continue doing it — you need to up the ante a bit.If you don’t make your body work harder than it is used to, then it will have no reason to get fitter. Your programme needs to be constantly adjusted to be more challenging, if you are to continue making those fitness gains. Sport scientists call this ‘progressive overload’.
It’s only when this overload is repeated often enough that the body begins to adapt. And that is why consistency is so important. The stop-start cycle that many of us get stuck in with exercise and eating plans can be unproductive. Not only does it make the journey to fitness much more arduous, it also means you are putting a lot of hard work in — albeit sporadically — without reaping the rewards.
When following a progressive walking programme, you also need to think about scheduling in rest days. Rest is a crucial part of your training. It’s when the body takes stock of the physical demands placed upon it, and triggers the necessary adaptations, so that next time you make those demands it is more prepared to cope.