We all know that a brisk stroll can give you a real boost – just 20 minutes a day may reduce your risk of premature death by 16-30%, according to a recent Cambridge University study.
But for seriously good health benefits, it’s not so much how often you walk, but the way that you do it.
Ingenious training programme WalkActive reinvents the way you move to make the exercise more effective. Its creator, Joanna Hall, explains the science behind the system.
What’s wrong with the way we usually walk?
‘Walking is the most obvious and accessible form of exercise for the vast majority of people,’ says Joanna, 48. ‘But we tend to do it wrong, due to lifestyle and physiological issues, so we don’t get the benefits we could.
‘One reason is that many of us have sedentary jobs, sitting in front of computers or talking on the phone, with our head leaning forward. The shoulders get rounded and, along with the back, they get stiff, reducing walking mobility and rotation.
‘Our hip flexor muscles cause problems, too. They run from the lower spine through to the front thigh bone and we use them for everything from moving across the office to sports such as skiing and rugby. This means they become very strong, but they are also quite short, and start to pull on the spine, creating a misalignment, again causing immobility.
‘The ageing process limits motion even more, as can conditions such as arthritis.’
Is the way we use our arms and feet a problem?
‘People tend to walk with a passive foot strike. The foot just lands as one unit, rather than pushing off with your toes. That means you have less extension through the leg and you bend your knees more, putting greater pressure on them.
‘Our arms tend to do one of two things. We either mechanically swing them for things such as power walking, or we just let them hang by our sides. What we want is a fluid, pendulum-like movement from the shoulder girdle.’
What problems does poor walking cause?
‘If you’re walking slumped in your hips with your head slightly forward, your posture is poor, affecting your breathing, causing back and neck pain, and making you looked more stooped and older.
‘Because you’re not walking as efficiently as you could be, you don’t get the cardiovascular and other health benefits of walking further and faster, too.’
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How can WalkActive help?
‘When you see Mo Farah run, it looks beautiful, smooth and flowing because he’s got great technique. The “muscle-recruitment pattern” is absolutely correct. WalkActive is teaching people to do the same with their walking.
‘There are four parts to the basic technique. We start with your feet. Rather than letting them hit the ground as one lump, we teach what we call an active foot, where you put your heel down first, then transfer your weight to the ball of your foot, before coming to the point of your toes. This helps to engage your glutes [the muscles in your buttocks] and lengthen your hamstring.
‘Then we get you to lift yourself out of your hips when you walk, rather than slumping into them, so instead of pulling yourself forward from the hips, you push yourself from the glutes.
‘The next thing is stop the head jutting forward, so there’s more alignment with the shoulders. Lastly, we get people’s arms to move in that fluid, pendulum manner, to really help propel them along.
‘We take people through simple drills that are easy to cement. By learning each part well, the next stage becomes easier, too.’
What health boosts can it bring?
‘Medical consultants have been very positive about the programme because, by creating length and strength in the torso, it’s creating space around the internal organs, rather than them being squashed and crushed. This helps with things such as digestion, and we’ve had slightly asthmatic people tell us that they used to need an inhaler after exercise, but don’t following a WalkActive course.
‘When people have learnt the basic technique, we have different programmes with walking exercises of varying length and frequency [participants on WalkActive courses walk up to seven miles in one go and do four-mile time trials] to concentrate on specific things such as improving your fitness, your internal health and your waistline.
‘If you want to manage your blood glucose, for example, though it depends on the individual, you might do three ten-minute walking sessions a day, rather than one 30-minute one, because that helps glucose to metabolise.
‘The technique, along with a series of foot and other exercises that we use, may also help to manage arthritis, by increasing mobility and making joints less stiff. We’ve helped people recover from knee surgery and hip replacements.
‘During a recent residential course in La Manga, one 48-year-old woman was able to hike seven miles up a steep hill, despite having had three recent slipped disc operations, and hip surgery as a child. She said that she didn’t have any back pain and took some Nurofen next morning, but only for blisters on her feet.
‘I have a sports science background and have worked in the fitness industry for 25 years, but I started developing the programme about eight years ago, when I was pregnant. I’d recently had deep abdominal surgery and knew I needed to heal.’
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Are there any mental benefits?
‘It boosts people’s confidence and learning the technique is a physical and mental process – you’re having to relearn something ingrained and fundamental – so you really have to concentrate. Participants find it very stimulating.’
How much can it help improve your waistline?
‘The technique has been proven to increase your walking speed by up to 24%, so you can go further and get more exercise. And because it teaches you not to walk sunk into your hips and engage your whole body with each step, you use the abdominal muscles more, toning up your stomach.’
‘One woman lost a stone after doing nothing more than 10,000 steps, using the technique, every day for three months. Another lady reported losing two inches off her hips in five days on a residential course – despite not focusing on how much she was eating.’
How many people have taken a WalkActive course?
‘More than 2,000 – the programme book has been translated into three different languages and our online mentoring has clients from Australia, America and across Europe.
‘People can apply WalkActive to gain huge benefits in all aspects of their life. I find that very joyful and humbling.’
How to get involved with WalkActive
You can choose from a variety of introductory workshops and short residential courses teaching the basics of the technique. There are also five-day camps in Spain, developing the training. As well as the book Joanna Hall’s WalkActive Programme (Piaktus, £11), a 28-day online mentoring programme is available, along with audio coaching downloads and a new app that includes video drills and walking tasks that measure your progress. For more information, see walkactive.com