As winter weather wears on, it can be difficult to participate in your favorite outdoor activities. But rather than give up outdoor exercise, many people turn to walking. How can you get more from this basic exercise?
1. Preparation is key.
The most common injury among walkers, according to Dr. James Holdermann of the Acute Foot & Ankle Center in Medford, is "plantar fasciitis," an inflammation of the tough band of tissue that connects your heel bone to the base of your toes. While usually mild to begin with, if ignored it can become a painful problem. "It can set you back six months," he cautions.
The best prevention for injuries while walking, says Holdermann, is a good shoe combined with an insert that provides both functional and structural support. A shoe designed for walking will have support for both ankle and the Achilles tendon, cushioning in the sole and a shape that accommodates the build of your foot. But most shoes only come with a paper or sock liner, so Holdermann also recommends an additional insert. "I feel inserts are recommended in almost all circumstances," he says. His rule of thumb? "If you can ball [the insert] up in your hand, trust me, it's not doing anything for you."
With proper-fitting shoes and inserts, Holdermann assures there should be minimal discomfort while walking. But if discomfort persists, talk to your medical provider.
"There is a proper way to walk and thousands of improper ways to walk," says Bill Macy, certified health & fitness trainer and director of Avamere (formerly Waterford) Health & Fitness Club) in Medford. Macy emphasizes that proper posture alignment and strength training are really the best ways to begin a walking program. But, he cautions, leave the weights at home.
Patrick Frey, personal trainer in Medford and Ashland and owner of TOPFIT, agrees. "People tend to swing them too much," he says. Studies have shown that injury rates are higher for those who carry weights, especially ankle weights.
And don't forget to warm up. "Stretching is important but it is NOT a warm-up," says Macy. "There's no benefit to stretching when your muscles are cold." Instead, start with a slow five-to 10-minute walk to loosen your joints and limbs before picking up the pace.
2. If the shoe fits, wear it.
Once you hit the road, nothing is more important than a pair of proper-fitting shoes, says Frey. "Especially the older we get, the less our joints can take." Walking must be comfortable, but as Frey points out, you'll also want to consider things like an appropriate tread for wet sidewalks, or the individual fit of different shoe brands. Macy reminds, "Feet are so unique" - put them all on if you have to and find what is most comfortable for you and your foot."
3. Soften the surface.
"People will choose a forum for convenience but not the best choice for the long-term effect," says Macy. A rule of thumb is the harder the surface, the harder walking will be on your body. "Almost anyplace you go anymore is going to be a hard surface," acknowledges Frey, and roads and sidewalks have the added challenges of being slanted or uneven with up-and-down dips for driveways or street corners. While a good shoe will help minimize these impacts to a certain degree, consider walking off the beaten path. Perhaps a local school has a track you can use when school is out; a local park or field may have a trail to follow; or how about walking in water at a local pool? Water walking is intense, says Macy, but also supportive because it offers resistance while lessening weight-shocking impact.
4. Pick up the pace.
"Don't make your walk too comfortable," says Frey. "Push yourself a little bit." Once you are comfortable with the pace you're using, challenge yourself. Varying the routine means burning more calories, says Frey, because it keeps your body adapting to new situations. Try tackling a hill, increasing your stride or just changing your usual route. "The intensity principle makes the body work harder at all levels," says Macy. Your heart or breathing rate is an easy way to gauge an increase in intensity.
5. Enjoy the walk.
"If you hate walking, it won't be as beneficial," says Macy. "Use walking as a physical activity or as a mindful activity," he encourages. Walking is a proven stress reliever and the valley offers plenty of variety. Walking city streets may not be enjoyable but hiking a local trail may be your style. Listening to your favorite music while walking may speed the miles away. Find a way to enjoy the outing and the benefits will increase accordingly.