Walking might be one of the most underrated forms of exercise — it's accessible to beginners and fitness experts alike, it doesn't require much investment and it can be done almost anywhere.
Plus, a regular walking routine can have lasting health benefits. An April 2013 study in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology determined that walking was just as effective as running in reducing the risk of hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, while another small study published in December 2017 in the Turkish Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that a moderate-intensity walking routine lead to weight loss.
While walking is a simple habit to pick up, it's also easy to make a few mistakes that can hinder your progress or worse, cause harm.
"Although walking is low-impact and can seem like an easy activity, injuries can still occur," says physical therapist Jaclyn Fulop of Exchange Physical Therapy Group. Make sure not to fall prey to common mistakes during your walking routine.
1. Wearing the Wrong Shoes
Whenever you start a running routine, experts are quick to recommend a new pair of shoes that fit your feet properly. The same goes for when you start a walking routine.
"Depending on your foot structure and strength, improper shoes may set you up for future aches and pains," says physical therapist Leada Malek, DPT, CSCS.
According to Fulop, there are three styles of walking shoes: neutral, stability and motion control. There are also three components to finding the shoe: shock absorption, proper cushioning and structural support.
For example, if you have weak feet or hips and a lower arch, you’ll want shoes that promote stability with a wider base and more arch support, Malek says.
While some running shoes might also be appropriate for walking, you might benefit from specialty walking shoes. They're typically less cushioned, lighter and less bulky than running shoes, according to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine.
Still unsure which shoe to choose? Talk to an expert at your local running shoe store to find the right pair for you.
2. Not Walking Fast Enough or Long Enough
Although any amount of physical activity is generally better than no physical activity, particularly if you're just starting out, a leisurely stroll that doesn't get your heart rate up won't progress your fitness levels the way a faster walk will.
As for the length of your walks, in general, you should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week for substantial health benefits, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. That works out to about 30 minutes of walking five days a week.
How fast is fast enough? According to January 2019 research in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, you should aim for between 100 and 130 steps per minute. This equates to moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise, respectively. To determine your cadence on a walk, count your steps for 15 seconds, then multiply by four.
3. Not Using Proper Form
Next time you go for a walk, take stock of your posture and the way your body moves. Are you slouched? Looking down at the ground? Arching your back? Proper walking technique can help you walk longer and faster, according to Harvard Health Publishing, as well as promote a greater range of motion for your muscles. Plus, you'll avoid aches and pains associated with bad posture.
Before hitting the trails, take a beat to align your body. According to Harvard Health Publishing, you should:
- Stand tall, as if you were being lifted from the top of your head.
- Keep your eyes looking about 10 to 20 feet in front of you.
- Relax your shoulders, keeping them back and down.
- Position your pelvis so it’s neutral, rather than tucked under or sticking out.
- Let your arms swing from your shoulders instead of from your elbows.
4. Walking Downhill at the End
It makes sense to start your walk going uphill and save the downhill portion for the end when you're more fatigued, right? However, that could be risky for your muscles and joints, Malek says.
"Downhill walking is hard to control because of the nature of gravity pulling you down and the 'eccentric' muscle contractions required to control your movement," she says. "If you're just beginning a walking program, saving all the downhill for last would actually set you up for a greater chance of injury."
Be familiar with the path you choose to walk, Malek says. While many outdoor routes are bound to have uphill and downhill sections, make sure that the final stretch isn’t entirely on a decline.
5. Doing Too Much Too Fast
Walking might seem like an easy exercise, but it's possible to start off too hard and either burn out or injure yourself. This can occur if you increase your mileage too quickly or forget to let your body have a break from time to time.
When you start a walking routine, keep your mileage consistent for two to three weeks, Fulop says, then increase it slightly — by about 10 percent — and, again, stay consistent for another two to three weeks.
“While everyone’s fitness level, age, lifestyle and overall health varies, I recommend listening to your body and using this as a general guideline,” she says.
6. Wearing Ankle Weights
In general, adding more weight to an exercise helps you burn more calories and burn more muscle. But that doesn't exactly hold true for walking.
Strapping on a pair of ankles weights and heading out for your daily walk puts unnecessary stress on your lower-body joints. "They force you to use your quadriceps (the muscles in the fronts of the thighs) and not your hamstrings (in the backs of the thighs)," according to Harvard Health Publishing.
And that can lead to muscle imbalances and ultimately, injury. Since the weights pull on your ankle joint, it poses the additional risk of tendon or ligament injuries to the knees, hips and back.
The fix on this one is simple: Don't wear ankle weights while walking, especially if you have any injuries to your hips, knees or ankles. Same goes for weights you strap around your wrists (for similar reasons).
Not sure what to do with the weights you purchased? Use them for resistance-training moves like glute kickbacks and leg lifts for your lower body and reverse flyes and shoulder presses for your upper body.
- Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology: "Walking Versus Running for Hypertension, Cholesterol, and Diabetes Mellitus Risk Reduction"
- Turkish Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: "Efficacy of Moderate-Intensity Walking Provided Feedback by ECE PEDO on Abdominal Fat in Overweight and Obese Women: A Randomized, Exercise Study"
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: "Walking Cadence (Steps/Min) and Intensity in 21-40 Year Olds: CADENCE-Adults"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Perfecting Your Walking Technique"
- American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine: "Walking and Your Feet"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Wearable weights: How they can help or hurt"