Monday, August 31, 2009

Walking for Fitness and Weight Loss

Jane over at The Small Fabric of My Life asked:

Can you let us know more about your fast walking and how beneficial it is to fat burning. I've been told I can't run for a long time and terrified I will get fat! Can you still get that exercise high from walking?

Of course! I've been walking for exercise and fitness for over 15 years, but in the last 3 years since I started my weight loss journey, easily 90% of my exercise comes from walking. Walking is easy on your body, requires little equipment and pretty much anyone can do it.

I've had some racewalk training (racewalking is an Olympic sport), and when I race, I use racewalk form, which has all sorts of rules and gets judged in real sanctioned races. My usual walking style for to and from work incorporates some racewalking style but is not as strict, so it can be maintained for longer distance and duration. I did a marathon in my style and recovered in a couple of days, and I regularly walk between 6 and 8K (3.5-5 miles) easily and comfortably. I do break a sweat, but how fast you go is up to you. Let's call what I do a Fast Walk (FW), just for clarity.

I'm going to outline a few small things that you can do to scale down from running, like Jane, to amp up your evening or lunchtime walks, or to add walking as a fitness element in your exercise routine. Caveat: I am not a doctor or a personal trainer - I'm not an expert, so don't sue me if you hurt yourself.

Okay, everyone knows how to walk, right? You kind of look like this (minus cat):
Your arms are hanging loose, you're a little slumpy, your tummy's pooched out, and you're taking fairly small steps. If you walk for very long like this, your hands will puff up, your feet will slap the pavement and you can't go very fast. You are not going to get a good walking workout like this.

Don't get me wrong, any movement you do is awesome! But to get a workout from FW, you need to tweak a few things.

Movement in General: When you run or normally walk, your legs move like scissors, back and forth. Your arms naturally do the opposite movement, but they're really just there, not moving with any kind of purpose. Your hips don't move much and neither do your shoulders. Your core is not usually engaged unless you are going up a hill or are in a real hurry.

Hips and shoulders: When you do an FW, your hips do a piston-type of movement, rolling in an alluring figure 8 (haha!), which is echoed in your shoulders. Stand straight and let all of your weight fall on one hip, taking the weight almost completely off the opposite leg. Like so:
Shift to the other hip, and go back and forth and get used to the motion. You can slightly exaggerate your shoulders by rolling them backwards as you shift your weight. This is how Speed Walking engages your core: by having you use the power of your core, from shoulders to hips, do all the work. Your legs don't drive you forward - your core does.

This is how you hold your posture to FW:
Knees and legs: Shoulders back and down (loose, not tight), arms at 90 degree angles, and the hip whose leg is going forward is dropped, just like when you were standing still. See how the knee on my leg that is forward is so much lower than the other leg? That's because that hip is lower. That causes me to take a longe stride than if I was just stepping forward. I'm letting my hips do all the work.

My knee that is taking the step is also straight (but not locked). As I land on that leg, the straightness of it will cause that hip to lift and the other one to drop - it's all tied together! It's like science or something! Physics!

Try doing the hip shift again, but hold your leg forward instead. If your right hip is holding your weight, let the left leg go forward - it will naturally want to do that. Try walking forward slowly, knee straight (but not locked) and really shift your hips back and forth as you step forward. Feels weird, doesn't it? It takes a little getting used to, especially with your hips - this type of walking is great for keeping your hips loose.

As you step forward, think about your foot planting on the ground (minus cat):
Feet: You want to plant your heel first, then think about your foot rolling forward, deliberately and evenly, right from the heel to the toe. Keep your toes up! This is difficult, because most people have very weak muscles on the front of their shins (hello, shin splints). I have a very strong front muscle from FW - and I never, ever get shin splints.

Arms and hands: Also, notice how I'm holding my hands; my fingers are very loose, barely touching my thumb. The example I was told is, "Think of holding an ice cream cone." If you only do one tip here, bend your arms up when you walk. Your hands will not get puffy (or as puffy), and you don't have that wasted energy of your entire arm swinging like a dead weight. Your bent arms can speed you up, drive you up a hill, and keep time with your legs. By having them bent, you will be more conscious of your shoulder movement, which will in turn make you more aware of your hip movement.

And...that's it:
1. Use your hips like pistons (think of that figure 8).
2. Roll your shoulders backwards in rhythm with your hips.
3. Keep your knees fairly straight as you plant your feet.
4. Plant your feet and step deliberately.
5. Keep your arms bent and your hands loose (no fists!).

I find this type of walking exceedingly calming - every motion I make is deliberate and precise and efficient. When I walk, the top of my head stays completely even and level, as opposed to a runner's or a power walker's head, which bobs up and down with every step.

While you get used to the motion and re-train your body how to walk more efficiently, try alternating regular walking (but always try to keep your arms bent!) a block, then FW for a block. As you become more comfortable with it, try to speed up - you will be amazed at how fast you can get! I like to vary my pace to match whatever song is on my mp3 player. FW is a very similar feeling to walking in waist-deep water - you have to use your entire body to generate forward movement.

FW works your shoulders (flexibility), back, stomach (if you work on holding it in), hip flexors, butt, quads, fronts of shins, calves and tops of feet. Make sure you warm up by walking slowly in your normal way for a few blocks if you aren't used to exercising, and make sure you stretch your quads, hamstrings, shins and calves well afterwards.

I can do a 10K in the range of 1 hour, 7 minutes - 15 minutes when I'm going all out - I am faster than most slow runners. It is excellent aerobic (and therefore, fat-burning) exercise, but you won't get out of breath unless you push yourself to go faster. I do get a real high when I go out for a long walk, because I am able to put my body on auto-pilot (I walk like this a lot), and enjoy my music and my surroundings.

Jane, I hope that helped you! I'm sorry to hear about your injury and hope that some of these tips are useful for you.

To my fellow fitness women: keep it up and be strong! You can do it!


  1. Sheila - Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to post about this - just for me.
    I am off for a FW tonight with my friend and I will pass on the tips and try to remember everything. I am impressed with the 10k time!

  2. Sheila, this was very informative. Thank you for taking the time to explain and demonstrate. I may give it a try!

  3. This was interesting Sheila, I am actually thinking of going walking tomorrow.... if I get up early enough, I´m gonna try this out.

  4. What a great and informative post. I never understood what racewalking was!

    Also, I loved the "minus the cat" descriptions/photos. Adorable!

  5. You're welcome, Jane! Have fun!

    Chris, thanks. Let me know how it goes.

    Lorena, that's awesome!

    Thanks, Lain. Racewalking is great exercise. Ha! Yes, Inigo loves the camera.

    Ruth, of course you are. I need your guidance.

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