6 Ways to Level Up Your Daily Walk

At 76 years old, Judy Fog is one of the fittest people her daughter knows. Take, for instance, her VO2 max — a common fitness metric that measures how much oxygen one can absorb while exercising.

“She has a VO2 max that’s not too far off from a Nordic skier, and they’re considered peak of the peak,” said Robyn Fog-Wiltse, a physiologist and physical trainer. Her mother’s secret? Daily walks.

Over the past couple years, the world has significantly changed its relationship to walking, with millions of people strolling their neighborhood sidewalks or local trails hoping to boost their fitness, sense of community and mental health. Studies have shown that walking at least 30 minutes per day is enough to reap significant physical and emotional benefits.

But circling the same humdrum sidewalk for thousands of steps can quickly turn from a daily treat into a repetitive chore. There are dozens of ways to change it up and put the sizzle back into your saunter, if you’re willing to think outside the box.

Originally developed in Finland as a way to train cross-country skiers during the off-season, Nordic walkers use specially designed poles with rubber tips to grab the pavement and help engage the arms and core muscles, turning a simple walk into a full-body workout.

Trekkers who can stomach the goofiness of city walking with sticks will see, on average, a 22 percent increase in calorie expenditure and will consume 23 percent more oxygen. The more oxygen your body can consume, the more effectively it can generate energy during workouts.

Companies like Leki and Black Diamond sell various expensive, high-tech poles for would-be hikers, but proper technique is more important than the label. “Whether you use a pole with a handle and strap, or two sticks, the focus of ‘Nordic’ should really be on the fact that you’re using anything to engage your upper body,” said Kirk Shave, who trains Nordic walkers at Mountain Trek Fitness Retreat and Health Spa in British Columbia.

He said that you should hold the poles with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle and your forearms parallel to the ground. Next, you should use your triceps to press the pole tips into the trail behind you and push off, propelling your body forward.

“The No. 1 problem for hikers, runners, walkers is ultimately knees and ankles,” Mr. Shave explained. Taking some of the strain off the lower body by using poles while walking on flat terrain and down hills can help avoid compression issues in these joints, he added.

“Play is critical,” said Bill Burnett, executive director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University and co-author of the book “Designing Your Life.” From an early age, he said, our brains learn and develop habits through fun. “When you were a kid, the way you learned to do things is you played with them,” he said.

After two years of strolling around the same streets in San Francisco during the coronavirus pandemic, he’s become hungry for novelty, sometimes taking himself on scavenger hunts for secret staircases, orange flowers or birdsong. To Mr. Burnett, the way we frame modern exercise burns people out after a while, because it’s easy to get locked into a mind-numbing habit of counting steps on a smart watch. Bringing a sense of curiosity to a walk can be a powerful antidote for the mundane.

Alastair Humphreys, adventurer and author of “Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes,” said that you could stoke your adventurous side in your own neighborhood. In 2020, he pushed himself to run, walk or bike down every street in his London suburb and discovered places that he never knew existed. “The challenge is to try to see things with fresh and open eyes, as if for the very first time,” he said.

Climb a tree, go for a full-moon hike without a flashlight, drink your morning cup of coffee in a new location every day or look up your local disc golf course. Keep it silly, not serious.

Some walkers may have lofty long-term goals. Perhaps you want to cover more distance or try a backpacking trip. The best way to prepare your muscles for higher-intensity activities is to increase resistance, perhaps by training with a weighted day pack, said Ms. Fog-Wiltse.

She suggested starting with no more than 15 pounds in a backpack with a full hip belt, which, when cinched snugly near the belly button, transfers the weight into your legs while you walk. This helps exercisers avoid neck and back pain caused when a heavy load compresses the spinal column.

Ms. Fog-Wiltse, who has trained clients to climb Mount Everest and to compete in the American Ninja Warrior finals, added that popping a set of elastic exercise bands into your pack and doing a series of sumo (or monster) walks while out could help strengthen important muscles like the gluteus medius, which is important for dynamic stability.

In a half-squat position, place the band just below your knees and then step side-to-side towards your right, keeping your knees parallel and hip’s distance apart. Next, stepping laterally towards your left, repeat the motion for a few paces, keeping your weight in your heels by holding a deep squat. Make sure your feet are parallel throughout, and aim to do two sets of 10 sometime during each walk.

Lastly, a good set of insoles will help prevent something called overpronation, said Dr. Michael Fredericson, a professor of orthopedics at Stanford University. Pronation is when the foot rolls inward, usually caused by an arch that is not strong enough to properly support the body’s weight. Those with flatter feet are more likely to experience it.

Products from brands like Superfeet and SOLE can counteract the most common forms of pronation by supporting the center of a foot’s arch Dr. Fredericson said. But if you have a more complex issue, he added, a custom orthotic might be needed.

One of the trickiest parts of committing to a daily walking routine is fitting it into an already tight schedule, said Jennifer Pharr Davis, an author and the owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company. But, she said, you can squeeze in extra steps in a surprising number of places. For instance, when picking your children up from school, park six blocks away and walk the rest. Having 10 or 15 minutes to decompress while walking to the car can also help children unwind and get some energy out, she said, adding that “it helps me have some focused time with my kids.”

Ms. Pharr Davis also likes to trade in her Zoom meetings for walking meetings whenever possible, especially with local co-workers. “When your body’s moving, your brain’s stimulated in different ways and you’re more creative,” she said, noting that these moving meet-ups often lead to better conversations among her colleagues.

Listening to music during a walk or an intense training session has been shown to decrease perceived exertion and increase physical performance, according to a recent meta-analysis. In other words, exercising harder doesn’t feel as strenuous when we turn on our favorite playlists.

Ms. Fog-Wiltse added that she saw similar results when her clients engaged in any type of “preferential listening” while working out. “If music’s not your thing, podcasts could do the same,” she said.

Swedish for “speed play,” fartlek workouts use a type of interval training that involves a series of high-intensity bursts with recovery periods between them. The beauty of the fartlek is that, unlike in traditional high-intensity interval training workouts, walkers or runners don’t have to glue themselves to a watch or a fitness tracker to boost their muscular endurance. Just amp up your gait to a light jog or a power walk for a short stretch to get your heart rate up, slow back down until you feel recovered and repeat.

If you prefer a more structured approach, “start with a 10-minute walking warm-up, then do six to 10 one-minute, faster intervals, each followed by two minutes of easy walking,” said Matt Fitzgerald, author of “80/20 Running” and co-founder of a training company called 80/20 Endurance. “And then cool down with five to 10 minutes of walking.” Dividing up your weekly exercise so that 80 percent of your time is spent at a low intensity and 20 percent is spent at a moderate to high intensity, much like the training regimens of competitive marathoners, she said, can help everyday athletes get fitter faster.

Emily Pennington is a freelance writer, photographer, and columnist for Outside Magazine currently working on a book about visiting every U.S. national park.

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