Step this way: walk your way to better health

What I love most about walking is it’s so easy,’ says walking expert Annabel Streets. ‘You can step out of your front door and just go. It’s hugely beneficial for your health, but without the sweat and strain of cycling and running or the faff of swimming. And almost anyone can do it, even if it’s only slowly.’

Annabel walked a lot as a child as her family didn’t have a car, but in her early twenties she learned to drive and got her first job, which was sedentary. ‘After a few years, I noticed my clothes didn’t fit and I was out of breath. So, I made an effort not to use my car as much and walk instead,’ she says.

This had a positive effect on Annabel’s weight and fitness, but then she got married and had children and reverted to using her car to ferry them around ‘because it was easier’. After her four children started school, she began working from home as a writer, sitting at her desk for six-seven hours a day, and by her forties she was suffering from debilitating back pain. ‘I went to an osteopath who told me I’d damaged my back because I wasn’t moving enough and I needed to walk every hour,’ Annabel explains. ‘That was my epiphany moment: I had spent a fortune on physiotherapy, acupuncture and a special chair, when all I needed to do was walk.’

‘Walk within an hour of waking because it sets up your body clock for the day’

It took five years for Annabel to get better and, as her health improved, she began to experiment with different ways of walking. It’s been clinically proven that regular walking can reverse diabetes, lessen the risk of heart disease and cancer, lower blood pressure, reduce weight, and ease depression and anxiety. But Annabel discovered that varying the time, location and duration of a walk, as well as the pace and weather you walk in, all have a slightly different effect on your body, resulting in extra physical and mental benefits such as improved memory, vision and sleep. Now she’s compiled her research into an inspiring new book, 52 ways of walkingin which she shares these different walking styles, one lesson for every week of the year, explaining the latest science behind them and providing practical tips for anyone who is stuck in a walking rut.

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So, what’s Annabel’s number one lesson? ‘I urge everyone to walk within an hour of waking because it sets up your body clock for the day,’ she says. ‘A bright blast of light ensures that our production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel drowsy, eases off and sends cortisol flooding through our bodies, energizing and invigorating us – just ten minutes is enough. It also triggers our bodies to make serotonin, which makes us feel good and regulates how well we sleep. Odd though it seems, an early-morning walk might be the best thing we can do to improve our night-time sleep.’

Other good tips include walking in the cold to burn extra fat and build more muscle: ‘It increases our metabolism, regulates our appetite, and improves the way our bodies respond to insulin’; jumping to strengthen bones: ‘The very best exercise we can do, both to build and preserve our bones – try starting and ending your walk with ten jumps. Skipping and hopping have the same effect, too’; and taking in a wide view to feel calmer: ‘Studies have shown that using “panoramic vision” to scan the landscape, as opposed to the intense focal vision we use for reading or looking at a screen, quietens the brain’s threat-detection system, making us feel less anxious. It also helps to restore our peripheral vision, which declines as we age.’

However, Annabel’s favorite way to walk is in the rain. ‘Pounding raindrops release specific chemical compounds into the air, which when inhaled can have profound effects on our sense of wellbeing,’ she says. ‘Rain also releases scents from trees, plants and soil, awakening our sense of smell, and it cleans the air as each drop attracts hundreds of pollutant particles. So, don’t be put off going out in wet weather – all you need is good waterproof clothes and footwear.’

Annabel advises everyone who isn’t used to walking any distance to start with short strolls. ‘Try half an hour, gradually building up to longer walks. Go with a friend or join a walking group, which means you are more likely to stick with it. Walking with others transforms an ordinary fitness session into a richly rewarding social occasion – in one study, regular group walkers reported a “statistically significant” drop in feelings of stress and depression,’ she says.

But as you get older and perhaps find walking difficult or suffer from an injury, don’t make the mistake of putting your feet up. ‘Although brisk walking around four miles per hour (6-7km per hour or 100–130 steps per minute ) has the most health benefits, all walking is good for you,’ says Annabel. ‘As you age you can adapt by using walking sticks, moving at a slower pace and taking frequent rests – go somewhere with lots of benches, such as in a park. And there are some instances when walking slowly is best, such as after eating, which helps digestion and keeps everything moving, reducing the risk of constipation and regulating blood sugar.’

‘Every time I think about getting in the car, I ask myself if I really need to’

On a typical working day, Annabel takes three shortish walks on her own, ‘which is good for reflection: I usually go out as soon as I wake up for about 30 minutes; after lunch I’ll nip to the post office or supermarket for about ten minutes; and in the evenings I’ll walk for an hour or so along the River Thames near where I live in West London. At weekends, I go for longer walks in the country with my husband and children [now aged 15-23]. My favorite walk is along the South Downs in Sussex, but there are lots of great urban walks in parks and alongside canals.’

These days Annabel only uses her car for essential journeys. ‘Every time I think about getting in the car, I ask myself if I really need to. The answer is usually no. For the weekly food shop, I just take a backpack.’

At 57, Annabel feels fitter and healthier than ever. ‘My back ache has completely gone, my weight is steady, and I feel better mentally. There are so many different ways to walk, each with their own benefits – all you need to do is mix them up.’

52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time by Annabel Streets (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is out now

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Improve your gait

  • To avoid injury and joint strain, accelerate your pace and increase your brain function Push off from the back foot, using the muscles at the backs of your legs.
  • Peel through each foot from heel to toe, using all your toes to drive yourself forward.
  • Lift your ribs and lower spine to activate your abdominal muscles and create space in your core – this helps to improve breathing and posture.
  • Lengthen and straighten your neck, which frees your spine to move as you walk, while counteracting the stiffness that comes from hours spent hunched over a computer.
  • Swing your arms freely from the shoulders, using your elbows to impel you forward as if your arms were a pair of smoothly jointed pendulums. Your hands should be loose, not bunched into fists.
  • Lower your eyes rather than your head when you need to check the ground to reduce the chance of neck pain.
  • Breathe through your nose to filter out airborne pathogens and allergens. The nasal cavities also produce nitric oxide when you inhale, which boosts the flow of oxygen and blood.
  • Use walking poles for support and balance, especially going downhill.

Walks with a difference

Transform your daily stroll with these diverse ways of walking

Walk in woodland trees emit potent compounds called phytoncides, which have been proven to lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels. They also reduce inflammation and strengthen the immune system.

Climbhills walking uphill works the body as intensely as a run, but doesn’t impact your joints or appreciation of the landscape.

Walk barefoot forgoing footwear on sand or grass improves knee osteoarthritis, reverses back pain, and positively ages gait. Studies show that cushioned shoes actually cause us to tread more heavily, increasing pressure on knee joints. Alternatively, try minimal footwear such as Vivobarefoot, found to strengthen the bones in your feet.

Walk vigorously For 12 minutes scientists have discovered that this is sufficient to impact your health dramatically by reducing metabolites (small molecules in the blood) associated with heart and liver disease and diabetes, while raising ones that help break down fat stores.

Walk with your nose whether you’re in the city or the countryside, sniff out different aromas, from leaves and damp earth to herbs and pine trees. Loss of smell is thought to be a potent predictor of how long we may live, but you can often restore your olfactory range with smell training.

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