Step Outside: Experts Say That Walking Has Many of the Same Benefits as Running
As stay-at-home mandates switched on in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, many people complied by parking on their cans. Fitbit, the company that makes smart activity trackers, shared data a short while later showing that users of its devices across the U.S. were suddenly taking 12 percent fewer steps per day, on average, than they had during the same period in 2019. In the months since, however, many of us have gotten up off our couches and started going for walks again, since it's a safe way to exercise in fresh air and reconnect with ourselves and others. Science backs up just how good this feels: Getting our steps in, as we love to say, not only can improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone, balance, and blood-sugar regulation; it also helps protect long-term cognitive function, reduces depression, and helps us think more creatively.
In fact, a 2014 study by researchers at Stanford University found that walkers were significantly better than sedentary folk at finding innovative ways to solve problems, both while walking and immediately afterward, because the movement appeared to increase divergent thinking. In other words, it counts as real exercise, and comes with the same positive—and potentially transformative—gains. If you haven't strutted your stuff in a while, or want to get in on the action, read on for the path to success.
Treat the Road Like Your Runway
Considering that so many of us have been working from home this year, curled over laptops perched on coffee tables and kitchen counters, Michele Kehrer, founder and CEO of Balance Chicago, is not surprised that she and other physical therapists are hearing more complaints of back and neck pain. Thankfully, walking is an efficient way to undo the knots, both physical and emotional, that we twist ourselves into. Striding "with your shoulders back and your head over your shoulders will help your breathing and your posture," says Kehrer. It can also improve digestion, since slumping forward increases pressure on the abdomen, which pushes stomach acid upward, potentially leading to heartburn. Work up to a brisk clip, arms swinging at your sides, and you'll feel calmer faster, too; escalating your pace reduces stress hormones and increases the flow of feel-good endorphins in your brain. If you are working from home, Kehrer suggests bookending your "office" hours with two outings lasting 20 to 30 minutes each, or average commute length. "Walking twice a day, for about 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back, will automatically put your body in better alignment and clear your head," she says. "It's a great way to symbolically mark the start and end of your day."
Play the Numbers Game
For years, we've heard that 10,000 steps (about five miles) is the ideal amount to take every day. But a study from the National Cancer Institute, National Institute on Aging, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published earlier this year showed otherwise: A good goal is actually one that's relative to your starting point. The researchers, led by epidemiologists Charles Matthews, PhD, and Pedro Saint-Maurice, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute, found that for people getting a low number of steps per day (around 4,000 or fewer), taking just 4,000 more significantly reduced their risk of premature death from all causes. Those who walked 8,000 steps a day were about 50 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who took 4,000. And 12,000-steppers were almost 65 percent less likely to die prematurely than 4,000-step-pers.
Don't worry—this doesn't mean you should keep aiming for more, ad infinitum; just try to go the extra mile (or two). "As their health allows, adults should aim to move more, sit less, and take more steps per day," says Matthews. Using a step-logging device—whether an app on your phone, a smartwatch, a digital tracker, or an old-school pedometer—makes it easy to clock them, even while doing yard work or pinballing around the kitchen as you cook. But because the best devices still may have about a 10 percent margin of error, Shane O'Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin and author of the new book In Praise of Walking ($20.49, amazon.com), shares the mental trick he uses to meet his goal: Assume your tracker is counting 10 percent too much, and keep going.
Supercharge Your Stroll
If you think power walking is an oxymoron (or a hilarious '80s trend), think again: Hustling not only helps you burn more calories, but tones your muscles as you go. Before starting any new exercise program, it's wise to get the go-ahead from your doctor, says Ashley Borden, an American Council on Exercise-certified master trainer and lifestyle consultant in Los Angeles. After you've done that, find shoes that give you solid arch and ankle support. Ideally, visit a sporting-goods store with salespeople trained to analyze gait; when shopping online, search for a pair that suits your arch, whether it's high or flat. Then start with intervals. Cover one block at a swift clip that has you panting, the next block at a moderate pace, and keep alternating. This will improve your cardiovascular capacity and quickly increase the distance you can cover without flagging.
Ready for more? Head to the nearest hill for some hardcore inclines. "Really marching up them, pitched slightly forward, pulling your elbows back and pushing off the first and second toe of your back foot," will target your glutes and hamstrings even better than flat running, says Borden. To get sweatier still, try adding a few pounds: She suggests loading up your torso or arms (not your legs) with a weighted backpack or sleeves, such as those by Wearable Weights ($129, wearableweights.com); they won't torque your wrists the way carrying hand weights can, or add to the burden on your joints and hip flexors like calf or ankle weights. By wearing the form-fitting sleeves, which are "friggin' awesome," Borden adds, "you can do biceps curls or lateral raises, or exaggerate your arms' swinging motion to activate your lats and engage your torso."
Sync Up with Others
Navigating sidewalks and parkways on foot in these days of social distancing can require some graceful do-si-dos—a few steps back, to the left or right, then forward again. But there's nothing, uh, pedestrian about the lift we get from walking alongside other people, even with masks securely on. Per O'Mara, social walking—marching with your buddies and loved ones, an ancient human habit that arguably has led to our success and survival as a species—provides tremendously reassuring proof, as our footsteps start to fall into rhythm with our companions', that we are not alone. "The double-whammy benefit we get from walking together comes partly from movement itself, but also the engagement" from communicating, with words or unconscious signals, what's on our minds as we move. "You know the old saying, 'A problem shared is a problem halved?'" O'Mara adds. "It turns out that kind of sharing is important to us. We are social beings."
Circle Back to Yourself
If getting lost in a podcast or bumping reggaeton gives you happy feet, Godspeed. But tuning into your environment is another way walking can make you feel more centered and whole. A growing body of research shows that tramping through nature helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and improve concentration. Set out with the intention of noticing your surroundings, no matter what they are, and odds are you'll return feeling refreshed. First, silence your phone and stick it in your pocket. That way, it can count your steps but otherwise leave you unbugged. Then tune into the rustle of the wind, the sound of the birds, or whatever captures your attention. You may get lost in thoughts or worries, but just keep bringing your focus back to what's around you, says Heather Sorensen, co-manager of the UW Health Mindfulness Program, in Madison, Wisconsin. This is especially helpful if you're feeling too agitated and jittery to sit and meditate. Walking mindfully can provide "a gentle entry into the present moment and help your nervous system calm down," says Sorensen. "When I take a walk and just allow myself to travel across space and vary my pace, pausing to look at whatever bird or tree intrigues me, I feel better."
Walks to Remember
To bank your daily quota in natural beauty, head for scenic routes we've culled here—all are accessible by car, and long enough to clock at least five miles (or 10,000 steps). First up? West Coast natives should bookmark the four-mile-long Estero Bluffs State Park Trail in Cayucos, California, which is just off Highway 1. It offers sweeping views of the Pacific on one side (look out for whales) and waving salt grass, sagebrush, and wildflowers on the other. Before you head back to your car, scuttle down to investigate the tide pools. As for those in the midwest? In the 1830s and '40s, workers hand-dug a waterway to connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi. You won't see steamships tooting up and down it today as you amble the green, 15-mile Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail in La Salle, Illinois, but you can discover its history and say hi to the herons and beavers that call it home.
If you're headed south, the 13-mile Riverwalk winds through Chattanooga, a town along the Tennessee River, so you're never far from a restroom or an iced coffee. To venture into wilder, more challenging terrain, start at the south end, where it links to the Guild Trail and epic Lookout Mountain. And if you're from the Big Apple and are looking for a retreat, consider this: A world away from nearby Manhattan, the paved Bronx River Pathway follows its namesake under wooden bridges and past waterfalls to the marvel that is the 307-foot-tall Kensico Dam in Valhalla, New York. To really work your glutes, bob up and down the 179 steps on the western side.