Walking is the most natural activity for most people, since it’s just an extension of an activity of daily living. Just try to sneak it in as often as possible. In rainy weather get a nice big umbrella, in cold weather wear a scarf or ski mask in necessary. When I lived in Boulder we once had a cold snap of -20° F for a couple of weeks. I walked and ran during that period wearing a balaclava and a surgeon’s mask to warm up my breath. It was challenging at first but exhilarating afterwards. Saner people than me can always find indoor places to walk in such conditions.
Walking is one of the best ways to get the meditation-in-motion feeling. Your arm swing, gait, and breathing all fall into harmony and you notice your surroundings. Being in a beautiful outdoor place obviously helps.
If I had to pick a single activity to do, it would probably be walking. When rehabbing from my heart valve replacement, building up to where I could walk again at a decent pace for a longer period was my most important goal. I would have felt great if that was all I had been able to get back to.
Another benefit of walking is that the activity feels enjoyable and natural right away for many people. For running you have to build up to it, using a run-walk transition program. It may not be comfortable at first, but will feel better after a few weeks. For biking there are comfort issues that will resolve when, for example, your butt toughens up. But it may not feel great until then. But lots of people can go for a 5 minute walk and feel good right away. You then can just add a minute a day or so, enjoying the activity the whole time, and get to the “gate at 30 minutes” in a short time.
As you get fitter you can start making your pace a bit brisker. Or look for some places nearby to hike. You can always try transitioning to running later if you feel like it, and it should be easier than starting from scratch.
A variation on walking is to carry hand weights. I’ll describe more about the technique under heavyhands below. I actually find that this can add to the enjoyment, the weights make me feel the rhythm of the “four-limbed” motion more. Try walking with a vigorous arm swing using the weights and see if you enjoy it. If not, forget about it. To paraphrase what Mark Twain said about golf, I wouldn’t want hand weights to cause a good walk to be spoiled.
There’s one caveat I’d like to mention about walking specifically: a lot of books teach “power walking” with arms bent unnaturally at 90 degrees. That actually comes from race walking, where it makes sense because you’re going so fast that a natural arm swing has trouble keeping up with your gait. At slower than race pace, though, it actually makes it a less vigorous exercise, as well as ruining the natural feel of the walk. For fellow nerds, this is simple biomechanics, your arm has a higher moment of inertia so it takes more work to swing it from the shoulder when it is closer to being straight than at 90 degrees. Racewalkers bend their elbows to be more efficient, they’re trying to maximize their speed, not their calorie burn.
This is a way to get a bit more of a workout from your walk, as well as some upper-body exercise. It can also make it more fun if you like the feel of it, as I do. Heavyhands was invented by Dr. Leonard Schwartz . He was in his 50s, overweight, and trying to get back into shape. He didn’t like running and didn’t feel he could get enough intensity walking. Since cross country skiers have some of the best aerobic capacity of any elite athletes, he figured the four limbed motion was the key, so tried adding hand weights to his walking. He also came up with a lot of variations to get more muscles involved, and named the activity heavyhands. He did this exclusively as his exercise, and got extremely fit (and buff) and stayed that way until his death from lymphoma at age 84 in 2010. We lost a great man with his passing, and unfortunately his body of work on exercise is no longer as well-known as it deserves to be.
I do heavier training with bands (or at the gym) for some of the key muscle groups as discussed previously, and also do heavyhands. Based on Dr. Schwartz’s example, heavyhands is probably enough by itself if you don’t like conventional strength training. Brisk walking with a normal gait, swinging arm weights, is a great workout. It’s essentially your normal arm movement in a controlled manner while walking briskly, but with weights in your hands. Dr. Schwartz preferred saying “pumping” to “swinging” to imply a more controlled motion.
Depending on how uninhibited you are in public, you can also do a more vigorous arm motion: a normal arm swing comes up to about your waist. Adding more vertical motion, like up to the level of your chest or shoulders, is more challenging. I also add a punch motion (when no one is looking) that gets in a trunk twist and is a good way to build stamina for kayaking.
Another fun one is mimicking the motion of skate-style cross country skiing: step forward and slightly diagonally to the left with your left foot while simultaneously swinging both weights up to the front (the higher you go, the better the workout, I go about head high). Then step off and slightly diagonally to the right with your right foot while simultaneously swinging both weights down and back. After doing this for a few strides, switch sides and move the weights up with the right foot and down with the left. The arm movement is similar to the poling action in skate-style skiing.
You can also get a good combination quad, ab, back, shoulder, and arm workout with double-poling, which can be done stationary. I described this in Getting Started With Resistance Training.
There are many other exercises in Dr. Schwartz’s book Heavyhands Walking (which you can still find on Amazon). If you are embarrassed doing some of the other motions in public, you could stick to walking outdoors with the weights without too high of an arm swing, which looks perfectly natural, and do alternative movements in the privacy of your home.
You can also do interval training with hand weights, just do the walking with arm swing, for example, but faster and/or with somewhat heavier weights. Alternate going at a more leisurely pace with doing the motion quite vigorously for around 30 seconds. Start out with small weights that don’t interfere with your arm swing, as little as 1 lb. If you do enjoy it, over time you’ll get a bit stronger and can increase the weights. I “cruise” with 3 or 4 lbs. now, and use 6 lbs. for intervals.
I suggest weights with straps, because this spares your grip and prevents cramping. Dr. Schwartz invented Heavyhands weights specifically for this purpose that are adjustable in weight; millions of these were sold by AMF in the 1980s. They are hard to find nowadays, but some are still available on ebay. But there are still other companies making weights with straps, including GetFit, Gymenist, Spri, Tone Fitness, WalkPlus, and Weider. You can find weights in sizes 1 through 5 lbs by searching for “walking dumbbells” or “walking weights”. There is also an easy way to make your own wrist straps:
If you have given heavyhands a try with one of these options and like it, you may want to treat yourself to the cadillac version of hand weights offered by Michael Senoff on his website. His are adjustable in weight, comfortable and very nicely made, with ergonomic grips and custom fitted straps. Michael’s website is also a treasure trove of information about heavyhands and Dr. Schwartz, including interviews with people who knew him well. You can get as vigorous as you’d like with a heavyhands workout. If I were to walk briskly down the street with 6 pound weights or so swinging up to my chest or higher, I’d get tired in a few minutes, but I could work up to doing it longer if desired. Or I can do a less vigorous arm swing, and throw in high intensity intervals with faster walking and higher arm swing.
Walking with Poles (Nordic Walking)
Another way to add some intensity (and fun) to your walking is with poles, sometimes also called Nordic walking because it is similar to the motion of cross country skiing. The adjustable walking poles found at most sporting goods stores are fine for starting out. The basic movement is similar to normal walking with a vigorous arm swing, but as your arm reaches the limit of its forward swing you plant the pole and push on it as your arm swings back. This is a lot easier to do than describe!
There is plenty of instruction, including videos, online. I use this as a supplement to heavyhands. Basic walking with hand weights uses more of the front shoulders, chest, and biceps muscles because they are working against gravity while raising the weight.
Pole walking uses more of the complementary muscles to heavyhands (rear shoulders, lats, and triceps) as you are pushing back on the pole. For this reason I do both of them. You can make this movement pretty high intensity by walking briskly and pushing back hard, or by doing it uphill.
- Schwartz, L, Heavyhands Walking Book, Panaerobics Press, 1990