The Walking Plus Programme

Walking is wonderful but it will not improve all four aspects of fitness which all begin with the letter S:

  • strength
  • suppleness
  • stamina
  • skill

Strength

The muscles of the lower limbs are obviously strengthened by walking, but it also strengthens the muscles of the lower back which can reduce the probability of back-ache.   To complement the benefits of walking to the lower limbs, it is useful to exercise:

  • the upper limbs with a set of weights; a small set of weights bought from any store or retail warehouse can help strengthen upper limbs and chest muscles.   Try press-ups; people aged 60 should be able to do ten press-ups to start with but every man should aim to do the same number of press-ups as his age;
  • the core muscles of the body, the muscles round the spine and abdomen: lie on your back and raise your legs from the floor; now criss-cross them 60 times. Now roll over on to your tummy, clasp your hands behind your head, and try to lift your head and shoulders off the carpet; do this 20 times.

Nordic walking also provides excellent exercise to the upper body.

Suppleness

No one understands what causes stiffness. You might find that your legs are stiff after your first long walk, especially if you do an hour of brisk walking, but it will soon pass. The best way of preventing stiffness is to take exercise more frequently. Neither ‘warming up’ is necessary before starting to take your Vital Steps, nor ‘warming down’ after you have finished. That is one of the many good things about walking as a form of exercise.

Walking helps maintain the suppleness and flexibility of the lower limbs, but because the act of walking rarely stretches the muscles and other soft tissues, it is not particularly good as a means of improving suppleness. For this reason, it is good to supplement your walking with other exercises to improve suppleness.

If you want to improve your health, it could be useful to join an introductory class for Yoga, Alexander Technique or Pilates, or consult a Shiatsu teacher.   Such a course will give you exercises that you can, and should, perform everyday, not just for your legs but for your shoulders, arms and spine.   This requires you to build a five minute routine into your day and, like the change needed to find time for extra walking, is just a matter of time management.   All these will undoubtedly improve your posture.

Stamina

Brisk walking can increase your stamina. When you start your Vital Steps programme, you may find it difficult to do brisk walking for more than 1,000 steps, but as you walk more frequently, your stamina will improve. It is, however, often difficult to measure your improvement. For example, you may feel less breathless, or be able to walk briskly for longer, or feel less breathless after brisk walking, but it may simply be the result of slowing down.   An article in the British Medical Journal called “How fast does the Grim Reaper walk?” came to the conclusion that the optimum walking speed to outpace the old chap is 1.36 mph! (1).

The best way to ensure that you keep walking briskly to maintain and improve your stamina is to walk against the clock. Walk 1,000 steps, and measure the time it has taken. A more practical approach is to walk briskly for a constant distance, for example, between certain bus-stops, or from your home to the bus-stop, and make that your test track. At least once a week, walk the track briskly and measure how long it has taken, preferably to the nearest second. The best equipment for increasing stamina is a flight of stairs or, better, four flights.

Death to lifts or they will be the death of you!

Skill

‘Physical activity programmes can help reduce the risk of falling, and therefore fractures, among older people’

At Least Five a Week – Evidence on the Impact of Physical Activity and its Relationship to Health, Department of Health, 2004

The effects of ageing are to reduce the body’s ability to cope with challenges, and one challenge is lack of exercise.   Similarly, even though you remembered how to ride a bicycle, your ability to regain your balance gets less good as you age unless you keep cycling.   This may not seem relevant to walking because people retain the skill of putting one foot in front of the other.   However, the skills that are lost are those that are more subtle but equally important, such as how to:

  • judge how far to lift your foot to clear the kerb or a bump; or
  • recover your balance if you do stumble, particularly if you cannot see where you are putting your feet.

The more you walk the better are these skills preserved but you should try other forms of exercise.   Dancing is particularly good, any sort, Scottish country, ballroom or ballet, and of course dancing has many social benefits.   For people who enjoy sport and television, try the amazing Wii – the technological development that allows you to play dance, box or compete in many other ways in your living room.

The main objective of this book is to help you change your lifestyle so that you walk more on most days of the week but it is strongly recommended that you complement and supplement the additional walking by taking up, or increasing

  • Pilates or Yoga or the Alexander technique for suppleness
  • Tennis or dancing for skill
  • The use of weights or an exercise band for strength

Increased strength and balance skills are essential in reducing the risk of falling (2)

References

(1) Stanaway FF et al (2011) How Fast Does the Grime Reaper Walk? Brit Med J 343,

(2)Morris M.E. (2012) Preventing Falls in Older People Brit Med J 345;14