CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES – At 76, Judy Fog is one of the fittest people her daughter has known. Take your VO2max, for example — a common fitness metric that measures how much oxygen you can take in during exercise.
“She’s got a VO2max that’s not too far from a Nordic skier, and she’s considered to be the top of the top,” said physiologist and fitness trainer Robyn Fog-Wiltse. Her mother’s secret? Daily walks.
In recent years, the world has significantly changed its relationship with walking, and millions of people are strolling neighborhood sidewalks or strolling local trails in hopes of improving their fitness, community spirit, and mental health. Studies have shown that walking for at least 30 minutes a day is enough to achieve significant physical and emotional benefits.
But circumnavigating the same drab pavement for thousands of steps can quickly turn from a daily pleasure into a repetitive chore. There are dozens of ways to change it up and put the hiss back into your walk if you’re willing to think outside the box.
TRY NORDIC WALKING
Originally developed in Finland to train cross-country skiers in the off-season, Nordic walkers use specially designed rubber-tipped poles to grip the pavement and help activate the arms and core muscles, turning a simple walk into a full-body workout.
Trekkers who can stomach the stupidity of walking around town with poles will, on average, see a 22 percent increase in calorie expenditure and 23 percent more oxygen use. The more oxygen your body can absorb, the more effectively it can generate energy during exercise.
Companies like Leki and Black Diamond sell a variety of expensive, high-tech poles for aspiring hikers, but technique is more important than labeling.
“Whether you’re using a pole with a handle and loop or two poles, the focus of Nordic should really be on the fact that you’re using everything to activate your upper body,” said Kirk Shave, who trains at Nordic Walker Mountain Trek Fitness Retreat and Health Spa in British Columbia.
He said to hold the bars with your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle and your forearms parallel to the floor. Next, you should use your triceps to push the tips of the poles into the trail behind you and push off, propelling your body forward.
“Ultimately, the biggest problem for hikers, runners and walkers is knees and ankles,” explained Shave. Taking the pressure off the lower body by using poles when walking on flat terrain and downhill can help prevent compression issues in those joints, he added.
HAVE A LITTLE FUN
“Play is crucial,” said executive director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University and co-author of the book Designing Your Life Bill Burnett.
From a young age, he said, our brains learn and develop habits through fun.
“As a kid, you learned to do things by playing with them,” he said.
After two years of strolling the same streets of San Francisco during the coronavirus pandemic, he’s become hungry for novelty, sometimes taking himself on scavenger hunts for secret staircases, orange flowers, or birdsong.
For Burnett, the way we design modern workouts burns out after a while because it’s easy to get into the crippling habit of counting steps on a smartwatch.
Bringing a sense of curiosity to a walk can be a powerful antidote to the mundane.
Adventurer and author of Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes Alastair Humphreys said you can fuel your adventurous side in your own neighborhood.
In 2020, he pushed himself to walk, walk or bike every street in his London suburb and discovered places he never knew existed. “The challenge is trying to see things with fresh and open eyes, as if it’s the very first time,” he said.
Climb a tree, take a full moon hike without a flashlight, have your morning cup of coffee in a new place every day, or find your local disc golf course. Be silly, don’t be serious.
ATTACH THE PROPS
Some hikers may have lofty long-term goals. You might want to travel a longer distance or try backpacking. The best way to prepare your muscles for higher-intensity activities is to increase resistance, perhaps by training with a weighted daypack, Fog-Wiltse said.
She suggested starting with no more than 15 pounds in a backpack with a full waist belt, which, when strapped snugly around your belly button, transfers the weight to your legs as you walk. This helps exercisers avoid neck and back pain caused when a heavy load compresses the spine.
Fog-Wiltse, who has coached clients to climb Mount Everest and compete in the American Ninja Warrior finals, added that stuffing a set of elastic exercise bands in your backpack and carrying a set of sumo (or Monster -) Taking walks while you’re on the move important muscles like the gluteus medius which is important for dynamic stability.
In a semi-crouch position, place the band just below your knees, then step side to side to the right, keeping your knees parallel and hips apart. Next step sideways to the left, repeat the movement for a few steps and keep your weight in your heels by deep squatting. Make sure your feet are parallel throughout, and aim to do two sets of 10 reps at some point during each walk.
Finally, a good set of insoles helps prevent a condition called overpronation, said Dr. Michael Fredericson, Professor of Orthopedics at Stanford University.
Pronation is when the foot rolls inward, usually caused by an arch that isn’t strong enough to properly support body weight. Those with flatter feet are more likely to experience it.
Products from brands like Superfeet and SOLE can counteract the most common forms of pronation by supporting the mid-arch of the foot, said Dr. Fredericson. But if you have a more complex problem, he added, a custom-made orthosis might be needed.
MULTITASK LIKE A PRO
One of the hardest parts of committing to a daily hiking routine is fitting it into an already busy schedule, said author and Blue Ridge Hiking Company owner Jennifer Pharr Davis. But, she said, you can add extra steps in a surprising number of places. For example, if you’re picking up your kids from school, park six blocks away and walk the rest. Having 10 or 15 minutes to relax while walking to the car can also help kids relax and get some energy, she said, adding that “it helps me spend more focused time with my kids.” .”
Pharr Davis also likes to swap her Zoom meetings for walking meetings whenever possible, especially with local colleagues. “When your body moves, your brain gets stimulated in a different way and you’re more creative,” she said, noting that these moving gatherings often lead to better conversations among her peers.
RUN THE TUNES
According to a recent meta-analysis, listening to music during a walk or intense exercise session has been shown to decrease perceived exertion and increase physical performance. In other words, harder workouts don’t feel as tiring when we’re tuning in to our favorite playlists.
Fog-Wiltse added that she saw similar results when her clients engaged in some type of “preferential listening” during training. “If music isn’t your thing, podcasts could do the same,” she said.
HUG THE FARTLEK
Fartlek workouts, Swedish for “speed game,” use a type of interval training that involves a series of high-intensity bursts with recovery periods in between.
The beauty of the Fartlek is that unlike traditional high-intensity interval training sessions, walkers or runners don’t need to be glued to a watch or fitness tracker to increase their muscular endurance. Simply ramp up your walk to a light jog or power walk for a short distance to get your heart rate up, slow down until you feel recovered, and repeat.
If you prefer a more structured approach, “start with a 10-minute warm-up walking, then do six to 10 faster one-minute intervals, each followed by two minutes of easy walking,” said the author of 80/20 Running and Co-founded a training company called 80/20 Endurance Matt Fitzgerald. “And then cool off with a five to ten minute walk.”
Splitting your weekly workout so that 80 percent of your time is spent at low-intensity and 20 percent at moderate-to-high intensity, similar to the training schedules of competitive marathoners, she said, can help everyday athletes get fitter, faster.