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Walking: the best exercise of all?

Walking can be used either as part of an active lifestyle, or to help almost anyone achieve their fitness goals. Here, Fitpro investigates how and why it could be time to incorporate walking into your fitness regime.

If you wanted to find one thoroughly researched physical activity, which repeatedly and consistently showed that it results in considerable health benefits, has a very low injury risk, and suits almost everyone whatever their age, fitness level and background, then look no further than walking. Pick up almost any research paper (1), (2) dealing with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancers, life expectancy, and public health, and you’ll see familiar and frightening statistics, and the same, consistent message: physical activity matters.

Hidden in this research, and often left unreported, is a statement such as this: “The overwhelming majority (of the public) is able to be physically active at a very modest level (e.g., 15-30 minutes per day of brisk walking), which brings significant health benefits.”1 Furthermore, researchers invariably come to the conclusion that: “Walking is a convenient, inexpensive and safe form of unsupervised physical activity that is recommended for persons with cardiovascular disease risk factors and that improves fitness, decreases weight, enhances quality of life and reduces mortality.” (3)

Resources: starting a walking programme

For all kinds of relevant information, facts, ideas and support in the UK, a great place to start is with Walking for Health, supported by the Ramblers association (4). As described on its website: “Walking for Health is England’s national network of health walk schemes, offering free short walks over easy terrain led by trained walk leaders.” The brainchild of Dr William Bird, who started taking health walks from his GP surgery in 1996, Walking for Health is now a national programme. It supports around 600 local schemes across England, which deliver a range of group walks for more than 75,000 regular walkers. Once on its website, you can enter your postcode, enter a search radius and any other criteria (such as walk length), and a list of walks and groups near you will pop up. Among other resources, a free 36-page booklet, Walking Works, is available, the first half of which provides a summary of the health risks of physical activity, followed by a persuasive argument for walking being the solution to ‘get the nation moving’. In the US, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is firmly behind the promotion of walking as part of its Exercise is Medicine™ initiative. Helpfully, the ACSM has produced a two-page flyer that describes how to start a walking programme (5). The ACSM grants permission to reproduce this as long as it is reproduced without alteration. Included within this flyer is information on the benefits of walking, questions you should ask yourself, how to develop the programme, and advice on walking technique. Also included is the physical activity readiness questionnaire (PAR-Q) and advice on using a pedometer to count steps. Note that the ACSM equates the often-quoted recommendation to achieve 10,000 steps per day with a distance of five miles. It is important to emphasise that the ACSM’s physical activity recommendations for healthy adults6 still include strength training in combination with moderate-intensity physical activity:

“Strength training should be performed a minimum of two days each week, with 8-12 repetitions of 8-10 different exercises that target all major muscle groups. This type of training can be accomplished using bodyweight, resistance bands, free weights, medicine balls or weight machines.” (6)

Case Study: WalkActive

One FitPro member who saw the potential of getting her clients active through the power of walking is Joanna Hall, creator of the highly successful WalkActive programme.

“The programme began as a way for me to get back to fitness and good posture after surgery and while 12 weeks’ pregnant,” says Joanna. “I was conscious that both posture and alignment are significantly compromised during pregnancy. I was also seriously concerned about my fitness and the risk of potential back and joint problems as I recovered from my abdominal operation, and wondered how I might now progress through a further two trimesters of pregnancy. As soon as I was pregnant, I just did not feel right doing any high-impact exercise, so walking was the obvious choice.

“The very specific WalkActive technique I teach evolved from a personal need to ensure I was improving my posture and fitness, so that I’d be in the best possible shape post-operation and pre-baby! Then, working with my team and teaching the WalkActive system to our clients, we realised that we were getting fantastic results and people wanted more. They loved the fact it was so easy to fit into a busy life, complemented other fitness programmes, and delivered improvements in posture in just one session. In over eight years, we’ve now had more than 5,000 participants around the world.”

With a sports science background, Joanna decided to commission some scientific research from an independent research team at South Bank University, London. “We were getting great feedback, but I wanted some evidence to say that this fitness education programme improves an individual’s health, fitness and body shape: and that’s now been shown. Posture is improved, waistlines are trimmed, and joint stress at the knee and ankle is reduced. Furthermore, participants in this study increased their walking speeds by up to 24%.”

 

Education

Education, effectiveness and enjoyment are central to the WalkActive system, which is delivered through trainer-led workshops, clinics, one-on-ones and group classes. Lifestyle factors − as well as biomechanical muscular imbalances – often mean the simplest of all movement patterns are performed ineffectively and incorrectly. Joanna believes that these minimise each client’s results and contribute to potential further problems.

“Applying sport science to walking lies at the heart of the programme,” says Joanna. “Clients are taught to optimise postural alignment as well as correct faulty muscle recruitment patterns. We teach people to walk correctly, so every step they take becomes effective. The client is taken through a three-stage process to ‘Learn, Achieve, and Sustain’ while focusing on maximising results in an educational and enjoyable manner.

WalkActive really is for everyone – whether clients want to improve their health and well-being as they commute to work, minimise injury risk, rehabilitate, start out on a new road to fitness, fit exercise into a busy schedule or use it as a serious workout – I believe that WalkActive transforms the body as well as fitting seamlessly into a busy schedule. Education, effectiveness and enjoyment are central to the programme’s delivery. For me, the process of teaching the programme is deeply rewarding and stimulating. I’m passionate about it!”

About the author

Joanna Hall, MSc, is the creator of the highly successful WalkActive programme. This programme is a whole exercise system that fitness professionals, physiotherapists, sports therapists and health professionals can train to teach through the WalkActive Teacher Trainer Academy. For more information about becoming a licensed trainer, visit walkactive.com

References 

References

  1. I-Min Lee, et al (2012) Impact of physical inactivity on the world’s major non-communicable diseases, Lancet,, 380(9838): 219-229.
  2. Hanson, S. and Jones, A. (2015) Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis, Br J Sports Med, 0:1-7.
  3. Richardson, C. R. et al (2016) A comparative effectiveness trial of three walking self-monitoring strategies, Translational Journal of the ACSM, 1(15):133-142.
  4. walkingforhealth.org.uk, accessed 5 January 2017.
  5. acsm.org/docs/brochures/starting-a-walking-program.pdf, accessed 5 January 2017.
  6. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2011/07000/Quantity_and_Quality_of_Exercise_for_Developing.26.aspx

This article first appeared in Fitpro Spring 2017 Magazine