Sometimes overlooked as a form of exercise, walking can help you build stamina, burn excess calories and make your heart healthier.
It is also one of the easiest and safest forms of exercise to improve your mental wellbeing – and it’s absolutely free.
Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara believes that plenty of regular walking has the power to unlock the cognitive powers of the brain like nothing else.
And the simple form of exercise can drastically improve the quality of life for middle-aged people struggling with mental health problems, according to an Australian study by Queensland University of Technology.
Participants who averaged 200 minutes of walking every week had more energy, socialised more, felt better emotionally, and weren’t as limited by their depression when researchers followed up after three years.
Dr William Bird, author of Walking for Health, says: “You’re never too old to introduce walking into your life, or increase the amount you do.”
Here he gives the Sunday Mirror his six-week plan on walking to happiness…
Day one : Walk around your local streets for 10 to 20 minutes. Do this all at once, or split it into two sessions at a light to moderate speed level so you are still able to carry on a conversation.
Day two: Repeat.
Day three: If you found the last two days easy, increase your walk to 30 minutes. If not, stick to the daily dose of at least 10 minutes.
Day four: Planning day. Using a map of your local area, plan a route roughly two miles in length, with good even surfaces that you can walk in all weathers with some green spaces.
The route may take you between 30 minutes and an hour depending on your level of fitness.
Day five: Walk the route you planned on day four. Time yourself as you go.
Day six: Stick to the daily dose of at least 10 minutes. This walk can be done anywhere and is not your planned route.
Day seven: Walk your planned route at a “light-to-moderate” level and time yourself again. As you get fitter, you should find yourself able to complete the route in a shorter period of time.
Walk your daily dose of at least 10 minutes every day this week.
You should also aim to walk your planned route at least twice, at a “moderate” level, to increase your heart rate.
You should still be able to hold a conversation at this level but feel slightly out of breath.
Fit in one extra walk lasting 40 minutes to an hour during the week, but this time at a “light to moderate” level.
Try to make it different to your set route so your body does not get bored.
These walks should be done in addition to the daily dose of at least 10 minutes every day.
Weeks Three to Six
Your minimum target is a daily dose of 10 to 20 minutes. Walk your set route at least once a week and aim to improve your time by one minute by week five.
On your set route, spend five to 10 minutes walking at a “moderate to hard” level, making you feel more out of breath and conversation more difficult.
Take two longer walks during these three weeks lasting up to an hour.
Try to walk at an out-of-breath pace for at least 20 minutes of the walk in addition to your daily dose of at least 10 minutes every day.
How far should I walk?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to do a Forrest Gump to see the benefits of regular walking.
The British Heart Foundation recommends 30 minutes of walking on most, if not all, days of the week.
You can break that 30 minutes down into three brisk 10 minute walks while you build up your strength and endurance.
Studies have found that short bouts of walking were just as effective at raising the heartbeat – therefore boosting your fitness levels – as longer exercise sessions.
When shall I walk?
Whenever you can. Walking is easy to fit into your daily life and routine.
You don’t need to find the time to go to the gym, or even change your clothes as you would to go jogging.
You just need a comfortable pair of shoes or trainers and off you go.
Go out at lunchtime for a walk instead of staying at your desk and get off your bus, train or tube a stop early to force yourself to walk more.
Walk to visit friends. Walk whenever you would take the car if the journey is short and you have the time.
Where shall I walk?
Anywhere. If you live and work in a busy city or town, just go outside and pound the pavements.
It doesn’t have to be a countryside walk or a stroll around a park.
Don’t let bad weather put you off. Mall or shopping centre walking provides an ideal, climate-controlled environment with stairs or escalators for added intensity.
Get a dog or borrow one
Dogs make great exercise companions as they need regular exercise just like us. There are schemes allowing you to borrow dogs (www.borrowmydoggy.com) and the RSPCA runs a dog-walking scheme where you can volunteer as much or as little as you want.
Regular walking has been shown to improve not only your physical fitness levels, but also your mental alertness and emotional wellbeing.
It can also improve your cardio-vascular fitness – working your heart and lungs – and your muscle strength and flexibility.
It can also improve your immune system and metabolism and lower your stress levels.
More energetic exercises such as jogging may achieve weight-loss more quickly, but the risk of injuries is higher.
Because walking is more gentle, you avoid the risks, but can still reap the health benefits.
Walk tall. Imagine a string attached to the top of your head that is pulling you up to the sky to keep your back straight and your chest open to ensure you are breathing properly.
Walk heel to toe to absorb the impact of hitting the ground, and keep legs muscles relaxed and avoid locking your knees.
Arms should be at 90 degree angles at the elbows. Swing them close to your body, but keep low.
Shoulders should be loose and free of tension and your hands should be slightly cupped.