When lockdown restrictions were at their most stringent, options for getting exercise and even leaving the house were suddenly and severely limited. As a result, huge numbers of us began to lace up our trainers and take to the outdoors for a good, long walk every day. Now that restrictions have eased somewhat, many have held onto their new hobby and are still heading out for an evening stroll once work wraps up for the day.
So, we turned to Professor Nanette Mutrie, director of the physical activity for health research centre at the University of Edinburgh (and avid walker) to talk us through some simple steps we can take to make our walks better for our bodies and brains, or to simply enjoy getting our daily steps in a little more. This is what she had to say.
If you are new to walking, you might not have any inclination of how far you walk in 20 minutes, how high your heart rate gets when strolling versus pacing and how long it takes you to complete a 5,000 step walk. That’s where a fitness tracker can come in: “I think pedometers or any step counting app in your phone or a fitness tracker can help you to hit initial goals and to help you learn about how walking to the shops, taking the dog for an extra walk or parking further away from where you need to go can impact your health, heart rate and step count,” Nanette says.
However, she stresses that once you are in a rhythm of how much movement you and your body needs, it’s important to detach yourself from the numbers on the screen and only check back every so often to check that you are on track. “The whole point of walking is that it should be an enjoyable thing you can integrate it into your lifestyle until you’re really not thinking too hard about how to do it,” Nanette adds.
Manage the intensity
It might not be surprising that walking at a faster pace is linked to increased health benefits, including a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, compared with walking at a slow pace. However, it’s important to remember that this is all relative: that what might be deemed as slow to one person is actually quite intense to another, for example, if they are less fit, have an injury or are older.
And pace isn’t everything: “higher intensity exercise does have additional benefits, but only to a point,” says Nanette. “A brisk pace is only better than a slow pace if you like doing it. If you don’t like fast walking and so stop doing it, you’ll get no benefits whatsoever.”
It’s also important to remember that current recommendations for activity in the UK stand at 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. So, if you are heading out for a half an hour walk every evening, you’re probably hitting that goal easily – the only exception will be unless you are very fit already, as you’ll need to work a little harder to get your heart rate up.
“There is evidence that using trekking poles adds to the amount of effort that walking takes because it uses our upper body muscles as well as our lower body,” says Nanette. According to one piece of research by Bristol Nordic Walking, heart rate was up to 33 beats per minute higher when using poles while the time taken to complete a half-mile circuit was over a minute faster.
Great if you’re into countryside walks, perhaps not so practical if you’re walking around your very concreted town. If that’s the case and you want to add resistance, you could try using handheld weights, says Nanette, just make sure that you don’t add on ankle weights for resistance: “You have to carry the weight above your centre of gravity to get the benefits. Using ankle weights can injure your hip flexors by dragging the weight from one position to the next.”
Find a friend
Joining a walking group is an amazing way to maximise the health benefits of your walk, says Nanette. The social benefit of exercise is proven to help us hit our fitness goals, and being part of a team can “bring different challenges, help you build up your confidence in walking and improve your ability to do it,” Nanette adds.
A lot of walking groups have had to halt their meetups during the coronavirus outbreak, so if that is impossible right now, simply try heading out with a friend or your household for some encouragement, chats or even some friendly competition.
Listen to music
A study published earlier this year in Frontiers in Psychology found that listening to high-tempo music when exercising resulted in the highest heart rate and lowest perceived exertion, so the exercise feels like less effort but is more beneficial. And the type of exercise it proved best for was endurance-style training, such as walking.
Of course, for others, more mindful, unplugged exercise works best, particularly when it comes to optimising the mental health benefits of our walks. “The bottom line is we’ve got to find ways to make walking pleasurable enough to keep doing it for our whole life. If music, an audio book, a podcast or being alone with your own thoughts is the way to do that, then great,” says Nanette.
Hit 7,500 steps
Turns out, 10,000 steps a day is more of an advertising tool than scientifically sound advice. In fact, the actual research suggests that the health benefits of walking actually plateau around 7,500 steps a day, so don’t stress over hitting five figure digits.
If walking is truly a mental health boosting sport for you, listen up: a Japanese study from 2015, conducted in young women, found that walking in a forest, rather than an urban environment, was associated with significantly higher parasympathetic nervous activity and dampened down sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, nervous activity.
Alas, “if the weather is terrible, you’re shielding because of Covid, or you’re stuck in the house with kids, you will still get benefits from stepping indoors or using a treadmill to walk,” says Nanette. “Any movement, even if it’s moving about the house, is better than no movement.”
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