Throughout the pandemic, the daily walk has become sacred – one of the only legal activities we have left to break up the monotony. For frazzled home workers and schoolers, it’s a welcome break from the screen and the sofa.
In many ways walking is the perfect exercise – free, requiring no equipment, with an almost zero injury rate – and has a multitude of benefits for physical and mental health.
An hour of moderate intensity physical activity – such as brisk walking – has been shown to eliminate the harms of sitting down for long periods of time. And if you’ve only got time to go around the block, recent research from Sweden shows even a two-minute stomp improves concentration and problem solving skills. So how can you get the most out of a walk? We asked the experts for ways to shake things up.
Vary your terrain
Planning out a route that includes different terrains can have impressive benefits for your brain and body, according to research. Walking on bumpy footpaths engages more muscles, and so increases your calorie burn by 28 per cent, according to a study.
Choosing a route on uneven ground will also improve your balance, and even give your brain a workout – as it is challenged to make thousands of subconscious microdecisions that make sure you stay balanced at all times. This extra stimulation can protect your brain against ageing, according to neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin, author of The Changing Mind.
Get your gait right
It might seem odd to teach a grown adult how to walk, but it’s not as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, says Joanna Hall, founder of fitness programme WalkActive. In fact, most people are walking incorrectly. "When someone wants to improve their golf drive or tennis serve you would appreciate there’s technique in that, but we totally neglect how we walk," she says. People are often over-reliant on the power of their front foot and neglect their back one while walking, says Hall, which means that our hamstrings and glutes are not used as much as they should. This will slow us down and can lead to discomfort in the lower back. Instead, she recommends focusing on pushing off your back foot.
Your upper body may well be in the wrong position, too. Plenty of people lean their heads forward as they walk, which reduces mobility in your spine and shoulders, says Hall. Instead, think about keeping your torso lifted up and your head directly above your spine. Obviously, walking while checking your phone will not improve your posture.
Carry extra weight
If you feel up to it, carry extra weight to work up more of a sweat, says Tom Cowan, exercise physiologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance in Harley Street. In studies, wearing weighted vests has been shown to increase both cardiovascular fitness and strength after a few months of regular wear. "Walking is a weight-bearing exercise, so the heavier you are the more demanding it is," says Cowan.
However, be careful about the type of weight. Both Hall and Stewart warn against hand or wrist weights, which can put pressure on your shoulders, and against weighted rucksacks, which can pull you backwards if you don’t have perfect technique. If you do want to carry something more, a vest may be best as it distributes weight evenly – steer clear if you have any injury or joint issues.
Walk for better sleep
Many experts agree that the best time to get outside for a walk is first thing in the morning, as this helps to calibrate the body’s internal clock, and keep it working to a circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. In fact, getting outside in natural light in the morning is thought to be the best thing you can do for good sleep – and more important than anything you do in the evening.
One US study, published in the journal Sleep Health, found people who were exposed to sunlight in the morning slept better and felt less depressed than those who didn’t.
However, walking later in the day offers other rewards. A study from 2018 found that walking for just 15 minutes after each meal helped to stabilise blood sugar for the whole day, compared with one longer walk midmorning or midafternoon.
However, Hall says that the best time for a walk is a time you can stick to – and advises forming an association with another habit that’s already in our routine: "Maybe you go for a walk just before you check your emails in the morning, or at lunch," she says. "Then you will build a relationship to that habit."
Use your arms
Engaging your upper body will help you go faster and burn more calories, says Gill Stewart, director of Nordic Walking UK. In Nordic walking, poles are used to mimic the movements of cross-country skiing. "It’s a propulsion movement: imagine you’re on the snow, you put the pole into the ground at an angle and push yourself forward and glide," explains Stewart. She says this turns your body into a "4x4": you harness the power of all four limbs to move, which can increase speed without burdening your lower body.
Lightening the load on your legs can have even greater benefits for people with problems with their hips, knees or ankles, says Stewart. "You feel light on your feet and if you have lower body issues with your knees, hips or ankles, it relieves that."
If you don’t want to use poles, then your arms can still boost your pace, says Hall. Many people make the mistake of rigidly swinging their arms back and forth "like a robot", she says, which will put pressure on your lower back without adding speed. "The movement in your arm should come from the shoulder girdle at the back of your body," she says. "Good technique should look smooth and flowing."
With many experiencing heightened stress at the moment, a walk can also be a good opportunity to calm the mind. Leave the phone at home and observe the world around you – whether it’s birds or unusual architecture.
Studies have shown that "awe walks" – where you set out to look at something that triggers a feeling of wonder and perspective – have a particularly powerful effect on mood. Setting a "scavenger hunt" with a list of sights to look for, are good ways to encourage children to go for walks, too.
The Daily Telegraph