It seems like an easy skill, but it turns out there’s a technique to it…
We’re a nation of walkers. According to research by UK charity Living Streets, 68% of the population claim to walk for at least 20 minutes a day for exercise or leisure.
The biggest motivators for walking are fresh air, physical fitness and mental health.
‘Walking is a free, easy and accessible way to get active, and it’s good for our minds and bodies,’ says Dame Jane Roberts, medical doctor, psychiatrist and Living Streets’ Chair.
‘Walking for just 20 minutes a day can have fantastic health benefits. It can prevent long-term chronic health conditions and improve the management of existing conditions. This includes certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
In fact, direct NHS savings from an increase in urban walking and cycling have been estimated at £17billion over 20 years. Power walking, in particular, is a great way to boost fitness and energy levels.
By walking on different surfaces and inclines, you can activate different muscles and strengthen them.’
However, did you know there was a correct way to walk? You might be forgiven for thinking that the skill of putting one foot in front of the other was a natural one, but if you want to do it properly, there’s a technique.
Ann Clare is an MBST UK Physiotherapist — Magnetic Resonance Therapy, which is a non-invasive form of treatment using electro-magnetic fields to help those with long-term joint pain improve mobility — and she says that if you want to get the most out of your walk, there’s a correct way to go about it.
‘Walking with the right technique and posture isn’t difficult, however you do need to be mindful of how you move to ensure you don’t fall into bad habits,’ she says.
‘Those who don’t focus on the correct posture when walking tend to lead with their head, looking down, causing their shoulders to round. This causes increased stress on the neck and shoulder muscles, which can lead to muscle soreness.
‘Walking the “wrong” way can affect muscle and bone health as well as the path of your sciatic nerve from your lower back to your foot.
‘Poor or bad walking postures can cause bone and muscle misalignment and excessive stress on your upper and/or lower back, which can lead to all sorts of problems from sciatica, to shin splints and muscular tightness.’
So if you’re looking to improve your technique, Ann says posture is key. ‘Keep shoulders over hips as this helps to lengthen the spine,’ she says.
‘To ensure that you have the correct position, push your shoulders up to your ears, roll them back, and then drop them down, and this is where your shoulders should be as you walk.
‘Keeping your shoulders away from your ears will also help to reduce upper-body tension and muscle soreness, particularly across your upper back and neck.
‘And look straight ahead when walking. Remember that if you are feeling unsteady, walking a little faster with a slightly longer stride length may help you regain your balance. The natural response is to assume a shorter stride and to watch the ground immediately in front of your feet to prevent falling.
‘In actual fact, this throws the centre of gravity forward and it becomes less stable and increases the risk of falling. The forward gaze helps balance and the ground surface can be checked about six to eight feet ahead.
‘The longer stride helps with momentum, balance, arm swing and creates a more propulsive gait. Engaging your core will also protect your spine and help you walk tall.
‘The easiest way to ensure that you are doing this is by imagining that you are pulling your belly button in towards your spine.
‘However, do make sure you keep breathing as you contract your abs. Finally, use your bottom. Let your glutes push you up a hill. These large muscles are often underutilised and to get them into action simply take a step forward and focus on landing on your heel pushing through to the ball of your foot and up.
‘When you make contact with the ground, squeeze your glutes to help propel yourself forward. It takes a little practice but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be away.
‘Or you could try walking backwards. As crazy as this sounds, it engages the glutes far better than walking forwards.
‘You only need to do it for about 50 yards or so, then resort to walking forwards. This will “pre-engage” the glutes (glute max) so they are more likely to engage when walking forwards.
The same can be said of walking sideways.’ Next you need to think about accessories and Ann advises walking poles and she says, sturdy footwear is a must.
‘Poles are a great accessory for helping to keep balance and avoid falls. They also add additional upper body exercise to the walk,’ she says. ‘You hold a walking pole just like you would ski poles. Using them in order to be assisted by the ground. This suggestion would be for those who lack confidence in their walk or need to build up their fitness.
‘Poor footwear can have a detrimental impact on your knees, hips and spine. If you know that you will be walking for sustained periods of time, then you should choose a shoe that pads and contours your foot but also fits snugly around the heel, providing stability.’
Once you’re engaged and away, you’ll not only reap the fitness benefits, but the mental ones too as walking is a great mood-booster.
‘It stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals, including endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin,’ adds Dame Roberts, whose charity is encouraging people to walk for 20 mins each day.
‘These trigger positive and happy feelings, and helps improve mental wellbeing, and reduce stress and anxiety. It also improves sleep, and tackles depression and social withdrawal.
‘The repetitive, rhythmic movement of our feet also stimulates and balances both the left and right sides of our brain, helping to process emotional distress. Walking is the perfect way to relax and connect with nature, our world and those around us.’
To find out more about Living Streets and the #Try20 campaign visit their website.
No excuses: Let’s take it outside
In a survey by Anytime Fitness, 65% named walking as the most beneficial physical activity for their mental health. However, the top barriers to being physically active were cited as a lack of motivation (38%) and lack of time (30%).
With this in mind, Dame Jane Roberts shares her top tips to get you moving.
1. Take your meeting outdoors
‘Instead of holding a work meeting in a stuffy office, or in your house if you’re working from home, go out and enjoy some fresh air.
‘Combining a work meeting or phone call with a walk can boost your energy and productivity.’
2. Walk to or from the office
‘A 20 minute walk before work will set you up for the day, while a stroll afterwards can help you unwind and switch off.
‘If you’re working from home, you can take a stroll around your house, such as going up and down stairs, taking laps around the living room, or even heading into your garden or balcony for some fresh air.’
3. Do local errands
‘Try walking to your local shop, beauty appointment, or friend’s house instead of taking the car.
‘By swapping a short drive for a short walk, you can also help to reduce air pollution, congestion and road danger, while saving yourself some money and getting active in the process.’
4. Go for an evening stroll
‘Do something different tonight and shake up your evening plans. Head out for a walk with a friend, loved one or by yourself and watch the sun set to create the perfect end to your day.
‘It might inspire you to cook a special meal or watch a favourite film when you get home.’
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