One of walking's great advantages is that you can do it almost anywhere. To figure out how to plan a walking route, really all you have to do is step outside your door. But by varying the paths you choose to take, you can make walking that much more pleasurable -- and practical.
Regular, frequent walks provide an ideal opportunity to explore the area in which you live. Each walk can be an adventure, a chance to experience what's going on around you.
Even brisk walking affords you a good look at the sights around you. You can see the seasons change -- and treat yourself to all sorts of sights, sounds, and smells. Where you choose to walk is up to you. The range of choices is unlimited -- at least as far as space is concerned.
Maybe you're lucky enough to live in an area, town, or city that offers not just walking space -- every area has that -- but different kinds of space to make your walks as interesting as possible. We'll help you find the right route on the next page.
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Finding the Right Walking Route
When finding the right walking route, pay close attention to the surface. A lot of walkers say grass or packed dirt is the very best surface for walking. These surfaces are soft, so they are good for shock absorption.
Ideally, the surface should be smooth enough to allow you to walk as fast as you want without tripping or twisting an ankle. If the grass or dirt is too clumpy, it won't provide good enough traction and you may stumble or fall. With a little exploration, you can usually find some strip of grass or other unpaved surface on which you can walk.
Walking on a sandy beach is very enjoyable. You can even do it barefoot -- but you need to watch out for sharp shells or other debris. Walking on soft sand or dirt can increase the energy you expend -- and the calories you burn -- by as much as one third. It also provides the muscles in the feet with more of a workout, particularly if you walk barefoot.
If you can't find a soft, springy surface to use, pavement is an alternative. One good thing about pavement is that you don't have to travel far to find it. But it does have its drawbacks.
Most foot and leg problems are either caused or aggravated by walking on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Wearing good, shock-absorbing walking shoes can help you avoid injury.
Hills and Stairs
Walking up hills and stairs burns extra calories and raises your heart rate more than freestyle walking does at the same speed on a flat surface. Thus, it does an even better job of helping you control your weight and build your aerobic capacity.
It also provides more of a workout for the large muscles in the buttocks and the muscles in the front of the thighs, which are responsible for lifting the legs, climbing, and pushing off.
With the heightened benefits of walking on hills and stairs comes an increase in your risk of injury. Some simple adjustments in your walking technique can help you hold down this risk.
For instance, while walking uphill, walk slightly slower, lean forward, and swing your arms more vigorously to increase your climbing power. Downhill walking is even harder on the bones and joints, and its high impact forces can aggravate joint problems and cause muscle soreness. To minimize the shock, shorten the length of your stride.
If you have trouble finding stairs or hills that you can climb, you can simulate this activity if you have access to an exercise machine called a stair-climber or to a treadmill that allows you to adjust the incline of its running bed; check a local gym or health club.
Cities, Suburbs, and Beyond
The ideal outdoor walking route is a course with a smooth, soft surface that doesn't intersect with traffic. For that reason, parks are excellent walking areas for urban dwellers.
Parks usually offer soft surfaces like grass and packed dirt to walk on. In addition, they are often secluded from traffic's noise and toxic emissions.
If it's allowed, you might also try walking along the perimeter of a local public golf course. You'll need to stay alert for stray golf balls, though.
There's another thing you can do to have an enjoyable walk, even if you're not surrounded by trees, grass, and fresh air. Find an old residential neighborhood with beautiful houses or historic buildings that can turn an ordinary walk into an architectural tour. Some historic areas even offer guided walking tours.
Be sure that you don't get carried away by the sights, however, and neglect to watch where you're going.
If you walk in an urban area, try to stay away from traffic lights and congested areas. A lot of stop-and-go walking can cause you to lose momentum and break your stride. It can also decrease the aerobic benefits you get from your walks by allowing your heart rate to drop out of your target range.
If your urban or suburban route is dotted with traffic lights, however, don't just stand still when the light is red. Instead, try walking in place until it turns green. This will keep your heart rate up while you wait.
If you live in a rural area, you'll have a wider selection of peaceful, grassy walking routes. Paths that border rivers and streams or encircle lakes can make pleasant walking routes, as long as they're not too muddy or slippery. If you follow a narrow rural road, however, you'll need to stay alert for ditches and fast-approaching vehicles.
If you choose a field or hilly area, watch out for holes and other stumbling blocks. Be sure to read about walking safety at the end of this article, especially if you'll be walking in the evening or early morning when lack of light can be a hazard.
Check out the next section to find out more about mall walking.
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Some cities, endeavoring to bring their declining downtown areas back to life, have created the opportunity for mall walking in outdoor malls by banning cars from certain shopping streets.
These outdoor shopping malls give you the opportunity to windowshop or run errands while you walk -- without having to worry about traffic. (Be careful not to stop walking too often or for too long, however, because you'll decrease the aerobic benefits of your walks.)
Even more common, though, are enclosed shopping malls that cater to walkers by lengthening their hours. Some even let walkers in before dawn or during holidays when all the stores are closed.
Many malls now have community-sponsored walking programs. Some have collaborated with local hospitals or health organizations to establish walkers' clubs that provide awards for walking certain distances, discounts for shopping at the mall, occasional free breakfasts, and mileage logs for members.
Some malls even offer measured walking courses, so walkers can calculate precisely how far they've gone. Also available in some malls are walkers' maps, fitness seminars, health screening (for blood pressure, for instance), and special stations with instructions for stretching and calisthenic exercises.
Mall walking has many advantages. It gets you out of the house but protects you from the safety hazards, inconveniences, weather extremes, and air pollutants that you might have to struggle with if you did all your walking outdoors.
Malls tend to be conveniently located and safe. Their climates -- temperature and humidity -- tend to be controlled and kept in a comfortable range. Thus, malls play a major role in promoting all-weather fitness. They offer real protection from the possible adverse health effects of walking in extremely cold or hot weather, a concern particularly for people with heart disease.
Malls that have become popular spots for walkers offer yet another advantage. They turn walking into a sociable activity. Even if you arrive at the mall alone, you'll probably be able to meet other walkers there.
Eventually, you may have a large group of walking companions, at least some of whom will be there each time you visit the mall. This kind of peer support can provide crucial motivation to keep you walking.
Of course, the advantages are reciprocal: Walkers don't just benefit from malls; malls glean benefits from walkers. Many mall managers realize that public services such as walking programs are a good way to get people to come to the mall.
Walkers help increase mall traffic and frequently patronize mall stores. If you're interested in mall walking but can't find a mall near you that offers a program, you might try contacting a local mall manager to discuss these reciprocal benefits of setting up a program.
Learn about walking options at a gym or health club on the next page.
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Gym walking at the gymnasium or health club can be approached in a variety of ways, such as walking on an indoor track, a treadmill, or a stair-climber. These options allow you to move your walking program forward when poor weather or safety concerns force you to cancel your outdoor walk.
This setting also offers you an excellent opportunity to integrate your walking program with weight training, aerobics, dance, swimming, and other physical activities.
Walking around and around the same track can be boring. If you are trying to walk a mile, it may take you 20 or more laps. Your mind can grow numb, and it is easy to become discouraged.
You can help fight this by walking with a companion, by varying your tempo lap by lap, by listening to music or books on tape, or by mentally organizing your schedule or planning your day as you walk.
If you are going to walk on an indoor track for several days or more, it is best to switch directions. By walking clockwise one day and counterclockwise the next, you will help avoid orthopedic problems that can result from continually rounding corners in the same direction.
Some clubs have even incorporated clockwise and counterclockwise days into their club's track schedule. This is particularly important if the track you're walking on is banked (slanted), because the leg on the down side will be subjected to extra stress.
Treadmills are not just for jogging. They are also good for walking. Essentially, a treadmill is a conveyor belt that is designed to allow you to walk or jog in a confined space. There are two kinds of treadmills: motorized and nonmotorized.
Walking on a motorized treadmill is as close to real walking as you can get without actually hitting the street or track. You simulate your natural freestyle walk almost exactly.
In motorized treadmills, an electric motor rotates the conveyor belt (sometimes called a walking bed) under your feet, forcing you to walk at a set speed (the speed can be adjusted).
The walking bed of many motorized treadmills can be raised at one end to simulate walking uphill or downhill, making the exercise that much more difficult and thus increasing its aerobic value. This is an especially useful feature for people who are in such good shape that they need to walk uphill to get their heart rates well into their target zones.
Perhaps most important, a motorized treadmill allows you to walk for precise distances at exactly measured speeds. This is particularly important if you need to monitor your fitness plan carefully or want to keep precise track of your speed.
Motorized models have mechanisms that adjust speed in small increments -- one-tenth of a mile or less -- so that you don't have to jump from a gait that is much too slow to one that is far too fast.
When you walk on a nonmotorized treadmill, your legs do the work of rotating the walking bed. Compared to motorized treadmills, nonmotorized ones are usually lighter and more compact.
Nonmotorized treadmills can also be adjusted so that the resistance against the running bed is higher, or lower, making the workout more, or less, strenuous.
Unlike motorized treadmills, they do not allow precise predetermination of the speed at which the running bed rotates, so you may have some trouble keeping track of your pace from one workout to the next.
Walking on a nonmotorized treadmill also tends to be less comfortable than walking on a motorized one. When you use a motorized treadmill, your legs propel you forward just as in normal walking. When you walk on a nonmotorized model, on the other hand, your legs push the running bed backwards.
Nonmotorized treadmills can be uncomfortable and difficult to work for the long periods recommended for aerobic conditioning -- 30 minutes or more. The belt is on rollers, and after a period of walking, exercisers may experience a "hot foot" because of the built-up friction.
Walking on a nonmotorized treadmill is fine if you're going at a slow to moderate pace, but it can lead to foot and leg irritation at faster paces. Nonmotorized treadmills are also generally built with an incline, which may be harmful to those with knee or hip problems.
Go to our final section to learn about walking safety.
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As you discover new and different places to walk, always consider walking safety.
Traffic must always be taken into consideration. Particularly if you have to walk directly on the street instead of on the sidewalk, you need to stay alert and watch out for vehicles. Even if you wear reflective strips on your clothing, you may not be seen by a motorist. So walk defensively.
A special type of mask has been designed to filter the polluted air many people in urban areas must breathe. If you must walk near cars and trucks that spew out carbon monoxide and other noxious fumes, a mask of this type might make breathing easier.
Even when you have a nice trail available, and traffic isn't a problem, you may still have to look out for bicycles. Collisions can cause serious injuries.
In addition, some city areas are just not safe enough to walk through -- certainly not after dark. The best way to protect yourself against these possible dangers is to avoid these areas.
If you're planning on walking an unfamiliar route, you may want to drive through it first to check it out. If you find that you've walked into a dangerous area, try to carry your body aggressively, walking briskly and purposefully to an area where you will feel safer.
Look like you know where you're going, even if you don't. A person who looks lost is an easy target of street crime.
There are also some things to watch out for if you plan to walk in the countryside. Make sure you're not trespassing. Also, be careful that you don't get carried away by the beauties of nature and the music of the birds -- and get lost. Many adventurous walkers like to take along a pocket compass as a safety precaution.
Wherever you go, be sure to watch out for dogs -- the well-known scourge of walkers, joggers, and mail carriers. If you encounter a dog, try not to look scared. Just back away from it slowly.
Do not turn your back on the dog. If the dog looks as if it's going to charge at you, shout "down" or "no" in a stern, angry tone; this may help scare the dog off.
If the dog does attack, lift your knee up to help protect your body and hit the dog in the snout with a stick, rock, or your arm. Call out for help. If you've been bitten by a dog, seek immediate medical care.
For safety's sake, if you listen to music as you walk, make sure to keep the volume low enough so you can hear what's going on around you. Because it is so easy to get carried away by the music, your attention to your surroundings may not be enough to keep you safe.
Always be alert. Listen and watch for cars, bicycles, and other pedestrians, especially when you're turning a corner.
When walking at night, follow these basic guidelines:
- Face the traffic as you walk, and stay close to the edge of the road. If a car seems to be bearing down on you, stop walking and step off the road.
- Wear light-colored clothes. White is best. You might also try wearing reflective tape or a reflective belt or vest.
- Carry a flashlight so you can see where you're walking; the light will also alert motorists to your presence.
- Try to avoid walking on any road at night before you've had a chance to get familiar with the road during the day. By checking out the road during daylight hours, you'll know where the curves and ditches are.
- Don't look directly at the headlights of oncoming cars. They tend to blind you, and as a result, you can't see where you are going. Instead, look off to the side. You'll still be able to see the car with your peripheral (side) vision.
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Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer