When it comes to fitness, we have a lot of sources trying to tell us that their way is the best way. From ridiculous claims on television ads telling you that in ‘just 10 minutes a day’ you can achieve your fitness goals (often by doing something absurd) to businesses claiming that their classes (insert ‘bootcamp’, etc.) will get you in the best shape of your life; it’s complicated.
As someone who’s been involved in fitness, trained others, and studied the topic for decades, I can tell you that applying the Ockham’s Razor principle will get you further down the field toward fitness. The simplest option is going to be the best option. Simple > Complex.
In 2008, I began a decline in my own personal fitness and by 2009, I was in the worst shape of my life. I had gone from a healthy weight of 165 lbs to over 200 and rising. At 5’8”, this was a road to a fast decline in my health on multiple levels.
Stressed out, facing personal and professional crisis, I began to eat poorly (and emotionally), as well as neglecting exercise in order to spend more time working at my desk fretting. My mindset at the time was that if I just focused on the problems more, I could make them go away. This wasn’t the case, but that’s a story for another time.
Before moving to Ohio in 2010, I saw a doctor who for the first time in my life said,” There is no way around it – you’re unhealthy. Your cholesterol is high, your blood pressure is high, and frankly…(long awkward pause), you’re overweight. Your belly fat is a serious health concern.” Holy hell…what just happened? How did this go so wrong?
I was faced with a dilemma - keep going the direction I was going, or something would need to drastically change. Fortunately, we had some life reprieves, which gave me some time to pause and evaluate what was going on in my life and how I could turn things around. So, I did what I thought might work and started going to the gym. $24 a month to get back to lifting weights and feeling better. Good plan right? Not really. I was the heaviest I had ever been and a lot of what had worked for me in the past was much harder now.
Let me give you a frame of reference. In the Marine Corps I won a push-up competition completing 256 push-ups without stopping. I could do 38 pull-ups, and endless sit-ups. Now, I found myself gasping to pull myself up. I could still lift heavy weights, but after my workouts, I found myself eating much more than my body needed. I had to come up with a better way to get myself fit.
The Epiphany Moment
It was my birthday 2011. I woke up, went to the bathroom and took of my shirt - I had to face facts. Nothing was going to change by osmosis. Granted some of the changes moved the dial a little. I weighed 197 pounds, but I was unhappy. My joints hurt, I was carrying a lot of extra pounds, and I really wanted to feel good again.
That was it. I put on my shoes, left the house, and started walking. The first day, I walked about a half a mile out and a half a mile back. I was winded, but determined. The next day, I walked a mile and a half. Over the next several weeks, I would increase this to walking 4-6 miles every day. On the weekends, I pushed myself even harder and over the period of a year I was walking 11 miles a day.
What happened to my body weight and composition? Well, it quickly changed. I started out losing 1-1.5 pounds a week, but this quickly jumped to 2 or more and eventually, in about 5 months time, I went from 197 - 162. This is all primarily from walking. As I progressed I added in some core work in the form of planks, crunches, and leg lifts at night before bed.
What? How does that work? Well, I am going to share that with you here. First, let’s talk about walking and why it’s such a great method of getting fit.
Benefits of Walking
There are several reasons why walking it a great way to get your body healthy and fit.
It’s easy. Almost everyone can do it without much instruction or outside help. You don’t need a doctor’s clearance to walk (in most cases) and we walk every day to some extent. While form will become important later, the most critical piece is to get out and walk.
It’s low-impact on your body. Don’t get caught up in the term – it doesn’t mean low benefit – it just means you are less susceptible to injury and it is not harsh on your bodies joints, tendons, and nervous system.
It’s accessible. Whether you live in the city or the country, you can walk. I have done it in California, New York and Missoula. Whether you walk on a trail, the street, or a treadmill (the least optimal - I’ll explain shortly); walking is as simple as putting on your shoes and going. You can do it anywhere at any time - no need to consider the hours or if they are open (anyone out there ever show up to the gym and it's not open because they overslept? Ugh.) You can do it anywhere without any equipment – no special gear required, and you can walk in the city, you can walk in the park, suburbs, or at the mall.
It’s affordable. Most fitness options are going to set you back - from CrossFit ($100-200/mo), Pure Barre, Pilates, or bootcamp ($80-200/mo), to yoga ($80-150/mo), or the good ‘ol gym ($15-35/mo), but walking is FREE.
Ghrelin is reduced. What the heck is ghrelin? Well, without getting overly complicated, there are two central hormones involved in hunger - leptin and ghrelin. Leptin helps stave hunger and ghrelin increases hunger. Ghrelin is impacted in part by the stimulus it receives. So, if I go and do a hard weight workout, my body is craving food (primarily fats) and many (if not all of us) will tend to overeat. Walking reduces this hormonal response, whereas, running and many other forms of exercise trigger this.
You can do this forever. Walking is something you can always do. Many forms of fitness are limited somewhat by age or are things you cannot continue for a lifetime.
How It All Works
Walking is a simple equation of creating a high caloric burn, without increasing the appetite and eating an equal or higher amount of calories than your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). Check yours here: http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/ and enter the weight you would ideally like to weigh. This is the number of calories you should be consuming. This is a good, but rudimentary way of calculating how many calories you should have daily to achieve your goal weight.
It will take a couple of weeks to ‘reset’ your metabolism and get the ball rolling on significant fat loss. But, stick in there…it’s coming. Here is the rule of thumb for seeing changes – it will take 4-weeks to see a change in yourself, 8-weeks for family and friends to notice, and 12-weeks for others to notice. Be consistent and stick it out. Your body will change.
What I Hear Most Often
I get it. Walking seems counter intuitive to what conventional wisdom might have you do. It seems like running would ‘burn more calories’, that something more aggressive like CrossFit might get you in shape faster, or that biking, yoga, or some other type of exercise might be equally beneficial. Well, maybe. If you are working on losing the last 5-10 pounds of body fat or you are already fairly fit and are taking on something new - great. Get it on.
But, if you are struggling with significant weight loss goals or you are dealing with health issues that may preclude other forms of fitness - walking is definitely for you.
If you are on top of your fitness game, walking can also help you maintain low body fat percentages, provide additional caloric burn, and help with muscle recovery or overcoming an injury.
What Happens to Most People
So, you decide that walking seems too passive and you want to take on the world? Okay, great. But, here is what often happens to those that jump into other forms of fitness without a general state of health, strength, and mobility.
Injury - at nearly 50, I have had disks compressed, torn ligaments, pulls, strains, and other set backs that have taught me to take care of the vessel I live in. Unnecessary injuries can be avoided by using some common sense and by learning to walk before we run. (Pun intended.) We can wade into the waters of taking on more vigorous activities, but the goals is to develop longevity, strength, and health. Moving well is a goal. Walking will get you there with the least injuries and highest yield.
Lack of Consistency - you know why gyms hit people up with great monthly rates? Because they know after two weeks, they won’t see much of you. I used to work at a small gym in Northern California that taught me this ploy. When you have to gear up, drive to the gym, either go home or shower there, and then go to work or forbid you go after work - most people give this up quickly because, well, life happens. If you take classes at a gym, these happen at certain times, so you only have access when they are scheduled. This means you are missing workouts if you don’t can’t conform to their schedule, and soon you just stop going.
There are many other reasons we could talk about, but this gives you the general idea. So, if you've read this far, you are probably interested in how to get started.
What You Will Need
1. Get a decent pair of shoes – you're going to put some miles on these puppies, so get something comfortable that fits well and has decent support. I walked in zero drop Inov-8’s for the first year and then bought some walking shoes (I know, right? They have those? Yes, they do). Find what's right for you.
2. Measure your progress - Use your smart phone, a FitBit, Apple Watch, or another fitness wearable to help track your progress. You need to measure the distance you're walking, the time it takes to complete it, and other things that might be helpful will be: your pace, calories burned (although this is often not accurate), your heart-rate, and any other factors you would like to consider in your journey. I used the Nike Running App for 2 years on my iPhone and didn’t need anything fancy. Athena got me an Apple Watch 2 for our anniversary so I have now geeked out on other data I want to track.
3. Use good walking technique – your pace should be fast enough to push yourself, but regular enough that you can hold a conversation with someone. Use your arms to actively engage and increase speed. Also, keep your abs and core active while you walk.
4. Water. You need to hydrate. Get a small backpack with a hydration bladder or carry a water bottle. Camelbak has some good options for both, but there are plenty of options out there. Depending on where you walk, you will want your phone, keys, wallet, and sunglasses, etc. This helps keep things out of your hands to focus on walking, while providing water and necessities.
Walking on a treadmill is not equal to actual walking on a hard surface. On a treadmill, you are more likely to walk slower and less efficiently than on solid ground. Proprioception is more active on a trail or other surface compared to an indoor treadmill. As well, there is a tendency to look at an odd angle to watch the display, read a book, or see the television at a gym, which places undo stress on the cervical spine. If you have to, it’s better than not walking at all, but set an incline, and push yourself to walk faster than what initially feels like the same speed.
Warm up. This doesn’t need to be extensive, but make sure you have taken 5-10 minutes to get your joints warmed up before you take off.
Cool down. Same as above. Don’t run the engine hard and then stop. Take a few moments to cool your body down. You can do this by walking slower and some mild stretching.
Weight vest. How would you like to increase your walking effectiveness? If you are already overweight or obese, ignore this. Your natural bodyweight will suffice in creating adequate ‘work’ and benefit from walking. If you have been doing this for some time, then you may want to consider a weight vest to increase your output from walking. Here is the math: Work = Force x Distance. In other words, by adding additional weight to your workout, you will increase the amount of force it takes to complete it. It’s additional calories that add up quickly.