Half an hour of daily walking can be hugely beneficial to your health. Your challenge is to walk 30 minutes a day for a week
Pilates, yoga and the classic treadmill get all the attention when it comes to popular ways to stay healthy. There is, however, a more unassuming workout that might not get the column inches, but has all the benefits: walking.
Certified fitness professional Jolynn Baca Jaekel explains: "What I love about walking is that anyone can do it at any age and any fitness level. Plus it is good for your heart, your head and your wallet."
A recent report by the Ramblers and Macmillian Cancer Support entitled Walking Works (PDF) details the health benefits of the humble walk. The report found that regular walking to fulfil the 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise every week recommended by the UK's chief medical officer could save 37,000 lives each year. It could also lead to nearly 300,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes.
In some cases walking can be more effective than running. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, found that brisk walking reduces the risk of heart disease more effectively than running. They observed participants aged between 18 and 80 over a six-year period and found that walking reduced the risk of heart disease by 9.3%, while running reduced it by 4.5%.
And there's even more good news: 30 minutes of brisk walking over five days could help you sleep easy, according to research by Oregon State University. A study by the university showed that walking helped participants sleep better and feel more alert during the day.
The recommended amount of exercise for adults is 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. That breaks down to 30 minutes of exercise over five days a week.
Even though 30 minutes is the ideal, Dr I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, suggests starting with three shorter 10-minute walks each and slowly building up to the 30-minute walk once you feel comfortable.
The sooner you get started the sooner you'll notice the difference in your mind and body. If your aim is to lose weight, then according to the NHS walking estimates, just 30 minutes of walking will help a 60kg (9.5 stone) person lose 99 calories.
The mental health charity Mind found in their report Ecotherapy: The Green Agenda for Mental Health that country walks can reduce depression and raise self-esteem. So ditch the smoggy congested route for a nearby park or green space when you head out for your 30-minute walk.
Walk the right way
Walking is a great way to stay active and improve your fitness, without the added intensity that other exercise forms bring, so almost anyone can do it. A good walking technique is key to staying healthy and improving fitness.
Jaekel says: "The first rule of exercise is always engage your core muscles. This is particularly important in walking because you are upright the whole time and supporting your entire body weight. So tighten your stomach muscles."
The best way to do this is to make sure you are not slouching when you walk, she explains: "Spinal alignment is part of this core strength. You should stand up straight, trying not to lean too far forward or backward with your chin parallel to the ground.
"Of course, you want to be mindful of potential hazards in your path, just keep your gaze a few feet in front of you instead of right at your feet. Let your arms swing naturally and roll through your foot from heel to toe," adds Jaekel.
Get the right footwear
• When you are shopping for walking shoes try them on with the socks you'll wear during your workout and go at the end of the day when your feet are slightly swollen. Both of these things can make a huge difference in the way a shoe fits.
• Look out for specialist walking shoes. Because we strike the ground first with our heel when we walk, most specialist walking shoes have an achilles notch (a little dip down in the back of the shoe) that helps relieve stress on the achilles tendon.
• It's important that your toes have room to wiggle in the toe box and that your heel should not slip. You also want a somewhat flexible sole that will move with your foot, and a shoe that is lightweight and breathable.
• Try them out. I love that some shoe shops now have treadmills. It's a great way to take the shoes for a spin.
Track your walking progress
There are numerous ways to do this. Here are some of Jaekel's recommendations:
• The Map My Walk app, which lets you map out your course and calculate your miles.
• If you would like to know how far you walk in a day, not just when you're doing more than the recommended amount of exercise. Invest in a fitness tracker and be surprised by how much extra walking you are doing, in addition to the recommended 30 minutes. Certain fitness trackers let you interact with friends and you can encourage one another to go further.
• Traditional walkers can invest in a pedometer and use a good old-fashioned pencil and paper to track progress.
Change your routine
Once you've mastered the 30 minutes of exercise per day, changing your walking route is a great way to keep motivated. "It's always a good idea to keep changing your course so your body doesn't get too familiar with your workout. That's a surefire way to plateau," says Jaekel. Here are some tips for keeping your walk varied:
• Walk up hills for a great glute workout. Or if you are exercising in a gym, increase the incline for a similar effect. Walking uphill uses more energy than walking along flat surfaces.
• Do speed walking sprints, using trees, street signs or buildings as your targets.
• Try a long, flat walk for endurance.
By tracking your walking you can assess how far you are going and start considering how much to increase your mileage by. But don't overdo it, says Jaekel. "It's important to pay attention to how you feel after your longest walks. Is it safe to increase this week or should you wait?"
Walking is a great way to connect with nature. Green Exercise, the Essex University research team that have been studying the benefits of walking in green spaces (PDF), found that it reduces stress levels, improves mood, enhances psychological wellbeing and improves attention and concentration.
Walking also helps the planet. By parking the car up and walking instead, you help to reduce air pollution. This is particularly important for short journeys. Taking the car for short journeys uses almost twice the CO2 per mile. So leaving the car keys at home, helps you and the environment.
The best thing about walking is that you can do it solo or with friends, and it doesn't cost a thing. Websites such as Britain On Foot and the Ramblers have dedicated walking groups set up all over the country. The Ramblers website even has a list of recommended walks that you can download and take with you. Walking For Health, England's largest network of health walk schemes, organises weekly walks across the country with volunteers leading the pack. Perfect for when summer shows up.
And being social doesn't have to mean meeting new people. It can also mean bringing along a pet for your daily walk.
Interested in finding out more about how you can live better? Take a look at this month's Live Better Challenge here.
The Live Better Challenge is funded by Unilever; its focus is sustainable living. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.
Walking in green spaces can reduce your stress levels and boost your mood, say researchers. Photograph: Alamy