Turns out walking isn't just something your mom does on weekends
Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
Over the last several years, numerous studies on HIIT (high intensity interval training) have shown that it is not necessarily how long you work out that determines weight-loss and fitness results. The beneficial effects of short periods of sprinting interspersed with longer periods of running can match those of individuals who ran for much longer periods of time.
In one Canadian study, men and women who alternated four-minute runs with four to six 30-second sprints on a treadmill actually lost twice as much body fat as another group of people who ran anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes three times a week.
But what if you’re not a runner? Not to worry — a similar effect is true with walking.
The Perfect Exercise
But first let me once more celebrate the perfectly natural activity of putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is a fabulous activity. You can do it anywhere and any time — even in bad weather, just head to the high school indoor track or the closest shopping mall, or even your own office building. Walking requires no special equipment other than a pair of comfortable cushioned shoes, although I do strongly recommend you get yourself a Fitbit to see how many steps you take (at least 10,000!), and how you can fit more steps in to your day.
You can walk alone, but it’s also great way to socialize with friends or even have a mind stimulating, on-the-hoof meeting with a workmate. Walking works for everyone, whether you’re a young mom toting a toddler in a stroller, a senior citizen or just a time-starved person of any age and fitness level.
It’s Not All About Speed
What kind of walker are you? Do you like to take one long walk a day or do you head out the door whenever you have a few spare minutes?
How about your pace? Are you an ambler who stops to smell the roses and marvel over the sunset or a speed-walker? There’s no wrong answer here. Fast isn’t better than slow, and slow isn’t better than fast. The answer is all of the above. Although walking is less intense than running and certainly than sprinting, it appears that a similar approach of alternating faster and slower movements is the way to go for maximum results.
The most recent research on walking suggests that you can get more out of your walks — meaning more calories burned — by varying your speed. According to Manoj Srinivasan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, “changing speeds can increase the [caloric] cost of walking substantially.”
Even the acts of stopping and starting may burn more calories than assumed until now. Srinivasan’s co-author Nidhi Seethapathi, who is getting his doctorate in the same field, adds, “Changing the kinetic energy of the person requires more work from the legs and that process certainly burns more energy.”
The Long and Short of It
The two researchers had study subjects walk on a treadmill running at a constant speed, but instructed them at different times to walk at a faster pace (staying at the front of the treadmill) or a slower pace (falling behind to the back of the belt). The researchers then measured the metabolic cost, meaning the number of calories burned for each subject at both speeds.
One of the findings was that given the choice, the subjects were more likely to walk more slowly when they had to go a short distance and more quickly when they needed to walk a longer distance. This could mean that earlier research on walking short distances could have underestimated the potential to burn calories. The same person might walk faster when faced with a longer distance to cover. For maximum results, the authors of the study offer a counterintuitive piece of advice, namely to experiment with walking in way that feels “unnatural” to you.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
Or perhaps it is more than just the spice of life. Variety in motion — and likely in diet, as well — may just be the key to a healthy life. In addition to moving as much as you can throughout the day, increasing and decreasing your pace and taking at least 10,000 steps a day, add variety to your walks — and burn more calories.
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