Fitness. Transportation. Physical rehab. Stress management.
These are all good reasons to get out and take a walk. And there are many more. The health benefits of walking have been recognized for decades. Walking is easy for most of us to do, doesn’t cost anything, and provides a good outlet for combating cabin fever during these times of social distancing.
Perhaps you’ve already made walking a part of your routine. But are you walking the right way?
“If you’re experiencing pain or stress, walking helps you focus and process those things.” –Michelle Wimberly, outdoor fitness trainer, Medford
Kelly Martin of Medford is a physical therapist who is devoted to coaching others to use proper walking technique. “I am ridiculously passionate about walking,” says Martin. It became her primary form of rehab after suffering a debilitating injury. “I injured my back 11 years ago, and the way I rehabbed was through walking and breathing.”
Martin champions the belief that combining proper walking form and breathing technique can produce a healing result. The way Martin describes these proper techniques can sound complicated. “Each step requires the coordinated action of some 200 muscles, activating eight chains of movement, all in a split second,” she says. Fortunately, most people do those movements naturally, even subconsciously.
But beginning in young adulthood, Martin says the pelvis can get out of alignment, causing the body to develop asymmetrically and robbing us of our youthful, efficient walking form. “And when there’s stress or injury, the asymmetry becomes exaggerated, and then you start having pain.”
For efficient walking, some practice is required
Martin helps athletes and everyday folks alike rehabilitate injuries and regain mobility and stamina through simply practicing walking. She says practicing just a few easy habits will promote alignment and efficient movement. These include keeping the abdominal muscles engaged, but not tight; breathing in a way that rotates and moves the ribs; swinging the arms so they help propel your body weight forward; and keeping your eyes glued to the horizon rather than on the ground, to support your spatial orientation as you move in three planes (forward, side-to-side and vertically).
Her top recommendation for practicing proper form is walking uphill. “It activates the glutes, arms and deep breathing, and keeps the heels planted so you can use your glutes and hamstrings to pull yourself forward.”
Practicing these habits may give walkers a lot to think about, but Martin emphasizes that they’re easy to learn and master. And once you get these down, there are more advanced techniques to learn.
Outdoor fitness coach Michelle Wimberly of Medford first became interested in walking as a teen when she realized it was useful for combating depression and regulating her mood. As a trainer, she began adding walking to her clients’ routines “to do something that I love and share with other people.”
Today, Wimberly coaches walking and hiking to clients ranging from runners training for an upcoming race to those who just want to participate in everyday activities.
“Evidence shows that at least 20 minutes of hiking helps the brain process stress,” she says, adding that hiking outdoors fits today’s social distancing guidelines. “But it has to be at a moderate pace. I always use the talk test, asking clients questions to gauge how hard they’re breathing.”
Wimberly adds that for neurological reasons, 20 minutes of moderate walking is the best for stress relief. But stress relief is only part of the goal, she says. “After 20 minutes, I usually have clients do some uphill lunges to build their strength and stamina.”
Because walking is frequently used as a workout warmup, Wimberly emphasizes it in her training. “People walk to lose weight and for rehab, and walking helps bring things into focus. If you’re experiencing pain or stress, it helps you focus and process those things.”
Steps for more advanced walkers
“Each step requires the coordinated action of 200 muscles, all in a split-second.” –Kelly Martin, physical therapist, Medford
Once Martin’s clients master the initial habits of efficient walking, she has them add more challenging concepts. These include leading with the chest facing the front foot; planting the heel and pulling forward to activate the hamstrings; using the big toe to activate the groin and inner thigh muscles; and using the arch of the foot to activate the glutes. These are all things that the brain does effortlessly, but they need to happen in a correct sequence for true efficiency.
And, of course, pelvic alignment remains the key. During the coronavirus shutdown, Martin is having clients check their own pelvic alignment from home, and sending videos for her to analyze. Despite social distancing, she can still provide coaching, therapy and guidance virtually.
Getting started: The first step is the most important
Martin, who walks daily, says avoiding walking is bad for one’s health. “We’re spending so much time sitting now, and that’s bad for your immune system and emotional health.” She says that walking movement stimulates the immune system, hormonal activity and the intestines, all of which are beneficial. But beyond those health benefits, much her coaching helps runners rehabbing injuries. “You can’t run again until you walk,” she says. “Efficient walking is the template for efficient running.”
Wimberly says getting started is easy when you begin with short distances. “It’s pretty much the same as with any other endurance sport,” she says. “Just do a little bit every day, and keep building up from there.”
And despite the complexity of her coaching, Martin reminds walkers to not think about it too much. “You just have to take that first step.”