The ten things you’ve got wrong about walking

Diet & Fitness

So you’ve heard that it won’t help you lose weight, is bad for your joints, and isn’t worth the effort? We’re setting the record straight with the help of soon-to-be Olympian Jemima Montag.

#1 Walking is for those who can’t run

The connotation here is that running is superior and if we aren’t good/fit/strong enough to run then we must resort to the easier / second prize option. I like to run and walk every day and to be honest – I walk faster than I run, so it’s certainly not the lazy option.

Unless you have an injury that prevents you from running, it’s really about what you’re in the mood for. Some days you may crave a sweaty, puffy run ending in that endorphin rush. Other days you might prefer a walk with your dog and a coffee. What I’d really like to get across is that everyone can run, and everyone can walk.

We’ve been shown one cookie-cutter image of what a runner should look like and it’s a huge deterrent for anyone who looks different. If you’re intentionally exercising, then you are an athlete. Do what makes you feel good.

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#2 Walking is only effective when you’ve done 10,000 steps

You might assume that the number 10,000 emerged after years of research on long-term health. In fact, it arose from a marketing campaign for a pedometer invented in 1965 by a Japanese health science professor who believed walking 10,000 steps daily would help the Japanese avoid obesity.

Whilst the 10,000 step daily goal is not universally appropriate for all ages and levels of physical function, it is considered a reasonable target for healthy adults. Most adults take 4,000-6,000 steps though general daily action. If you add the 30 minutes of recommended exercise, that’s another 3,000-4,000 steps.

The potential benefits include: increased physical activity and motivation to exercise, reduced anxiety and better mood, improved glucose tolerance and blood sugar levels.

The potential detriments include: it can deflate people by underlining their inability to meet a daily goal, discourages us from exercising at all, waking may begin to feel like work, reducing its intrinsic pleasure.

Count if it motivates you, but remember there’s nothing special about 10,000 steps. Set the goal that’s right for you. It may be more, less, or throwing out your tracker. As you work towards meeting your own target, keep these three ideas in mind:

  1. The quality of the physical activity matters more than the actual number of steps. 10,000 window-shopping steps aren’t as beneficial as a brisk walk. Aim for 100 steps per minute.
  2. Some days you will fall short of your goal, other days you will surpass it. If you’re not mentally prepared for either outcome, tracking isn’t the right plan. Physical activity should be enjoyable and motivating, not stressful.
  3. Step counting isn’t a complete picture of how active you are as pedometers don’t measure activities like cycling, yoga and swimming.

#3 Walking is too low impact

We need a range of high and low impact exercise to maintain healthy bones and avoid injury. If you were only doing high impact exercise, you’d likely burn out or hurt yourself and then have to take six weeks of training.

Walking and other moderate-low impact activities are an essential part of a great exercise routine. Aim for balance!

#4 Walking must include weights

Adding ankle weights or hand-held weights to your walking routine can provide an extra challenge with added resistance. This will add a new dimension to your aerobic training which is a neat way to strengthen your muscles. Adding weights will also make you work harder and expend more energy, contributing to weight loss if that aligns with your goals.

However, it’s not essential that you walk with weights. You are still getting countless benefits from walking just as you are – from reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease to preventing and treating anxiety and depression and promoting positive mental health. It’s much more important to establish a regular, enjoyable walking routine first and if you’re up for an extra challenge, throw in those weights.

#5 Walking is for beginners

You can do any form of physical activity at a range of levels. No mode of exercise is fixed at a level and no individual is fixed in their skill. Walking is for anyone. It is for toddlers right through to my 78-year-old grandmother who swears by her 1-hour morning powerwalk ritual. It is for friends with coffee, it is for people traversing the Lara Pinta trail and it is for Olympians covering 20-50km.

You may be a beginner for a little while, but once you find your rhythm with physical activity, shake yourself free from that pigeon-hole. Movement shouldn’t be about comparison to others, who’s doing what, who’s a beginner and who’s experienced. Walking has been coined a best buy for public health (Bull and Hardman, 2018).

Getting everyone walking more in the day will do wonders for our mental and physical health, the non-communicable disease epidemic and the environment.

#6 Walking won’t help me lose weight

Weight loss comes from a calorie deficit. Food is our energy input, and things that use energy such as physical activity and physiological functions are our energy output.

Creating a deficit means reducing your input or increasing your output. The former is the more efficient way to lose weight, but being more physically active can also contribute. The amount of energy you use is dependent on your exercise intensity, not the mode of exercise.

This doesn’t mean that high-intensity training is the answer for everyone. Many people find greater enjoyment and less injury risk with lower-intensity exercise. Ultimately, a sustainable exercise routine, no matter the intensity, will be the one that helps you lose weight.

#7 Walking is too hard in winter

The minutes between getting out of bed and being fully dressed are hard, full stop. But warming you up is just one of the many benefits of walking. Here’s how to make it easier to get going:

  • Lay out your outfit the night before.
  • Include comfy socks, good shoes and lots of layers you can peel off as you warm up.
  • Find some walking buddies and schedule in regular mornings to meet.
  • If you prefer to go solo, pick out a great podcast, playlist or audiobook to listen to.
  • If it’s rainy, hit the treadmill or try my grandma’s technique: walk up and down the hallway for an hour with the radio on.

#8 Walking isn’t as productive as jogging

Running may be superior in terms of time-management and weight loss, but many people find walking more comfortable, enjoyable and thus more sustainable.

Walking is associated with a lower risk of injury and, ultimately, going for an enjoyable walk every day is more productive than going for one hard run and being put off exercise for months.

#9 Walking will hurt my joints

When people see me race walking they make one of three expressions: sympathy, excitement or concern. The concern is often followed by a suggestion that walking is terrible for your hip and knee joints.

When you walk, you strike the ground with less force than when you run or jump, which means there’s less stress on weight-bearing joints such as your hips, knees and feet. Walking increases blood flow to your cartilage, bringing the nutrients it needs to cushion and protect the ends of the bones in your joints.

Movement also lubricates your joints, decreasing pain and stiffness while increasing your range of motion. It strengthens your muscles, shifting the pressure and weight away from your joints, ultimately supporting and protecting them, not hurting them.

#10 Walking will make my legs and calves too muscular

This is a significant deterrent for many women and girls, but addressing the problematic societal pressures on how we look is beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll focus on the physiology of how muscle is built. (A caveat: your genetics influence how much muscle you can build and how quickly.)

Exercise puts stress on a muscle that tells it to create larger, stronger fibres to tolerate the increased load. This kicks off a cellular response that can lead to an increase in the size and number of muscle cells.

Resistance training increases power, strength and muscle size, while aerobic exercise such as walking increases the extent to which muscles make use of oxygen, boosts their efficiency and can actually reduce the number of fast-twitch muscle fibres (those “bulkier” muscles).

Put it this way: consider the difference between an AFL player and a marathon runner – that should lay the “walking leads to bigger legs” myth to rest.

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