Physical exercise spans a very broad range, from running a marathon, to cycling around town, to simple routines at a gym. Depending on the type of physical activity, there are sets of appropriate “healthy habits” to keep in mind as a rough group of guidelines that will help you perform at your best, and avoid injuries. These healthy habits could include what to eat in preparation, they could include best gear choices, they could include techniques and warm-ups, each a different collection per physical activity. Today, we’re focusing in on the simple yet powerful activity of walking.
With walking, footwear is at the top of the list. Well-fitting, supportive, and light weight are all beneficial features to look for. The feet are supported by a well-padded arch, and most people will use an orthotic style arch supporting insole, which helps keep the joints and muscles properly aligned. These factors help prevent injury to the ankle and knee. Some may not put much focus on their footwear, but even a short walk with poor-fitting, unsupportive footwear will leave you with blisters, cramps, and strained ligaments and tendons that could take several days to feel better. It’s a simple piece of gear, but it makes all the difference.
Stretching prior to walking is an essential key to success, and yes, even for something as slow and low-impact as walking! Your muscles and bones can usually handle a large amount of stress with little preparation, but your tendons and ligaments need time and dedication to be conditioned to avoid very serious injury. Not only is stretching immediately before exercise important, but maintaining flexibility during longer periods of downtime will make it easier and more comfortable when you get to the pre-exercise stretches. Your body needs to reach for a nice relaxed stride with a confident stretch of the hamstrings, relying on the tendons in your arch to convert the step into a stride, up through your knee, connecting your lower leg to your thigh and lower back, while maintaining your posture and engaging your core muscles. If you just start walking without properly preparing your body, you’re putting your body at risk of strains and sprains—all preventable by taking just a few moments to stretch!
3. Watch Your Step
Another way to develop good healthy walking habits is to be sure that your stride length is evenly matched throughout your walking exercise. Keep your steps symmetrical from your left leg to your right leg. Having an uneven gait is a sure way to develop bad habits, leading to pain and injuries in your feet, knees, hips, all the way through your lower back. Keep your gait even between both legs, and keep a steady “marching rhythm” to keep your strides deliberate and smooth which will decrease overall impact. The only reason it may be a good idea to leave any dogs at home would be the interference holding onto a leash could cause to your ability to focus on a well balanced stride with both feet.
4. Engage Your Core
It’s always a good idea to increase your fitness level. Even if all you do is walking, it’s not enough to just change your stride; engaging your body’s core muscles while walking will bring your balance into alignment from your shoulders to your feet. Contracting your trunk muscles (all four sides of your abdomen) to stabilize your spine during exercises, along with taking steps to ensure proper posture when walking, you need to stand firmly on both feet and maintain a forward-leaning gait. Your stride length has to be appropriate, with your knees slightly bent and heels slightly lifted from the floor.
5. Keep Moving Forward
Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone is going to help you prepare for walking, especially since you have to be more alert to your surroundings while you do so. When you prepare for a walk, you should plan to go for at least half an hour outside of your house. This way, you get a better workout from your workout routine, and you prepare your body mentally for the long journey ahead.
6. Positive Thoughts
One more easy healthy habit for walking is mindset: remember that just by walking, you’re introducing cardiovascular exercise into your daily routine. The easiest type of cardiovascular activity is something you’re already doing. Walking is such a great choice because it provides a low-impact aerobic activity that provides numerous health benefits. Keeping this in mind while walking, you’ll feel a self-sustaining motivation, that you’re improving your mental and physical health just by walking. And the more you do it, the better you get at it!
7. A Different Type of Support
The first important type of support we speak about when it comes to walking for exercise is arch support. The other type of support, just as important though on the mental/emotional side rather than physical side, is the support of family and friends. Maybe you want them to go on walks with you; maybe you’re a lone wolf and part of the therapeutic nature of walking for you is your self-time—that’s just fine, but get support from your family and friends in other ways than their presence—tell them about the walks you go on, if they’re truly part of your emotional support system they’ll see you making a positive change and cheer you on! They may have experience and advice, they may have funny stories, they might have some good trekking poles you might want to try out if you’re taking a hike in the woods… Either way, speaking about exercise out loud, even if it doesn’t spark a huge conversation, makes it more real to you. It creates a stronger ownership for yourself and your new hobby. If you’re not very talkative in groups, a quick update or a pic taken on a walk is a great story on social media. You may inspire others to go grab their shoes and go on a walk.
8. Focus on Balance
A simple walk in the park or along a sidewalk is enough to improve your balance and coordination, which can lead to better overall health. Balance is very important because your body needs to remain centered while you are walking. Developing better posture is very important, as walking requires your entire body to keep a steady footing. Finally, you should look into developing longer strides when you walk to improve your overall gait. Longer strides will help increase your pace, which lowers impact as your gait becomes smoother, and you will be less likely to end up with ankle pain or other injuries that impact your knees, hips, and lower back.
9. More and More
Once you have developed good balance, good posture, and you have developed long strides, it's time to increase frequency. At the beginning you may be lucky to get enough time set aside for a weekly walk, if that. As you continue, however, you’ll notice yourself thinking “I should go for a walk” more and more often. Before you know it you’ll be taking a couple walks per week, and eventually opportunities will arise to introduce walking into your daily routine. Start by just taking a brisk walk around your block. Don't forget that walking briskly is one of the best ways to increase your aerobic activity and reduce your stress level. A quick short walk is better than no walk at all.
10. What’s Next?!
As you naturally lead yourself toward a healthy weight loss, you will realize that you can continue to add more and more walking to your exercise routine and reap the physical health benefits that go along with it. And that may be all you need. At this point though, with a well-developed balance, joint health, and a good relationship with your feet and pace, you may consider taking the next step and take a jog or run around the block or track. Wherever you end up in your personal favorite exercise or sport, remember that it started with a good pair of shoes with great arch support, and going out for a walk.