How to Get a Better Workout from Walking

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Illustration of a couple with backpacks walking outdoors

The benefits of walking for good health come into clearer focus all the time.

A recent study found that even a few minutes of walking after a meal can lower blood sugar levels, which lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

To reap the full benefits, of course, you need to walk more than that. Thirty minutes of brisk walking, five days a week, is all the aerobic activity you need to meet federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

But what if you want a more vigorous workout to get that heart rate going? Should you be shopping for running shoes?

Not necessarily. University Hospitals pediatric sports medicine specialist Laura Goldberg, MD, says there are a number of things you can do to get a more robust workout from a walk.

Nordic Walking

Think of cross-country skiing on dry land, not with skis but with poles in each hand to push yourself forward. That’s the idea of Nordic walking. You get an upper-body workout along with a cardiovascular workout.

Developed in Scandinavia, Nordic walking burns more calories than simply walking. It increases the heart rate and overall endurance and helps strengthen the upper core, Dr. Goldberg says.

“Nordic walking is accessible to all ages and skill levels,” she says. “Poles offer support on even and uneven surfaces and can ease the load on joints by involving more muscular support using the upper body.”

There are many types of walking poles on the market aside from specialized Nordic poles. Dr. Goldberg says any poles that make you use your arms are helpful, even sticks.

“The goal is to have poles to the height of your elbow or higher, so your arms elevate some as normal gait occurs,” she says.

Put On the Pounds

Adding weight while walking helps use more muscles and increases the workout. It’s important to be careful how and where you add the weight. Carrying a load of dumbbells or other weights in a regular backpack could put undo strain on your back and neck.

“The design of the load is most critical,” Dr. Goldberg says. “If the goal is to increase energy expenditure, more load is better but not at the cost of your body’s mechanics. Proper form must be maintained to avoid injury.”

Dr. Goldberg offers these tips to minimize extra stress on the joints:

  • Aim to add 10 to 15 percent of your body weight when exercising.
  • If you use a weighted backpack, keep your body upright. Don’t lean forward or carry too much weight. Weight should be strapped as close to the body as possible, to reduce negative stress load.
  • Weighted vests balance the load front and back, decreasing strain.
  • Carrying light dumbbells in each hand is another option. It’s important to maintain posture and have adequate upper body strength.
  • As with any workout, start out light.

Step It Up

Simple ways to increase the workout without too much effort include walking with a friend, listening to music or podcasts or having phone conversations while you walk.

Increase intensity by adding in a flight of stairs, hills or running intervals – incorporating periods of light jogging during your walk. Depending on your goal and overall health status, exercise intensity will vary.

“If you spend no more than 9 percent of the time at 90 percent maximum heart rate, you will see benefits while limiting symptoms of overtraining,” Dr. Goldberg says. Maximum heart rate can be measured several ways. An easy one is taking the number 220 and subtracting your age. So, if you’re 50, that would be 170 beats per minute (220 minus 50).

“If you walk or jog for an hour, you can push to your max heart rate for 5.5 minutes,” Dr. Goldberg says. “This may mean adding in intervals of stairs, high intensity calisthenics like burpees or running. As you add in intervals, your body adapts and you can do more at a lower heart rate.”

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At University Hospitals, our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other health care professionals ensure the very best in health and medical care for active people. Learn more about sports medicine services at University Hospitals.

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