By John J. Schaffer, MD.
There’s no denying that almost any exercise is good. But for those who want to step up their walking routine to gain maximum health benefits, John Schaffer, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Sentara Leigh Hospital has three words.
Posture, speed, and duration—these three factors are critical to produce the long-term and complex health benefits of regular and vigorous walking.
Whether it’s a simple walk in the park or a speed walking competition, the health benefits of walking are directly related to the amount of effort put forth.
According to Dr. Schaffer, “Slouching your shoulders and rolling your pelvis won’t provide optimal results. It all starts with posture.”
Hold your head high. The ideal walking posture is upright, with your shoulders back. Taking this posture requires the use of a range of muscles and increases the effort involved in walking. This posture necessitates tightening your tummy and buttocks and yields better overall muscle tone and a tighter, firmer appearance.
Now step it up. The faster you walk, the more you’ll use your thigh, trunk and abdominal muscles to hold your posture erect. That effort requires more muscle contractions, burns more calories, and yields a firmer physical appearance. In this way, serious walkers can add muscle mass and strength.
Go the distance. The faster and longer you walk, the more calories you’ll burn and cardiovascular benefits you’ll rack up. By working muscle groups longer (using good walker’s posture), you’ll ultimately build more muscle mass. Muscles—even those at rest—burn more calories than non-muscular tissue. With more muscle mass, you’ll increase what’s known as your basal metabolic rate. This is the amount of calories burned while your body is at rest and can help with weight loss.
Another benefit of sustained and vigorous walking is the body’s release of internal hormones called endorphins. The release of endorphins produces significant “feel good” effects or a “runner’s high” which can last throughout the day.
Some people wonder if using a weighted vest or hand weights improves results. The added weights will not likely add to your benefits. And holding hand weights could add to the stress on your joints or change the good posture you’re developing.
One other important point to consider is no study has shown increased activity damages previously healthy joints. What we do know is regular and prolonged exercise can cause damaged joints to show increased symptoms such as pain or swelling.
If you begin to develop pain lasting a week or two or your pain isn’t relieved with rest or anti-inflammatory medicine, seek medical attention.
Tips for Getting Results without Injuring your Joints
• Talk with your doctor about your intent to start a walking program.
• Start slowly.
• No matter your age, gradually work up to more distance, speed, and time.
• All tissues—muscles, tendons and bones—react to exercise by getting stronger. By slowly increasing stress, you will encourage muscles and tissues to get stronger without injury. It can take a couple of months to work up to a challenging program.
• Stop if pain persists and seek medical attention if rest and anti-inflammatory medicines don’t relieve the pain.
An exercise program can do wonders for your physical and mental well-being. Won’t you consider stepping it up and walking with purpose?
John J. Schaffer, MD. is a fellowship trained orthopedic surgeon with Atlantic Orthopaedic Specialists. He is team physician for the Norfolk Tides and Old Dominion University.