The Easiest Exercise You're Overlooking
If you're a lifter, walking can be the perfect partner to hoisting and heaving all that metal. Yeah. Walking. Lifting and moving each foot in turn – the easiest exercise ever. You've probably seen some old people doing it at the park or at the mall.
In fact, if you were to hold a potato gun to my head and force me to confess which form of exercise I thought was best for general health, I wouldn't answer weight lifting. Nope. I'd say walking. And if that same potato-gun-wielding inquisitor asked me what form of exercise hardcore lifters should do to complement their sport, my answer would be the same.
Believe me, I didn't come to this conclusion easily. I'm a desk jockey. I ride an ergonomically designed, height-adjustable, lumbar-supported chair into the sunset every day. If I wore one of those FitBits that records the number of steps I take, the only times it'd have a fighting chance of hitting four digits was on gym days.
But I realized that I had to do something to complement my lifting and my otherwise sedentary lifestyle. After analyzing my options, I concluded that walking was the right path.
It turns out that 10,000 steps a day thing that a good chunk of the population still aspires to isn't based on any science at all. It was conjured up by some Japanese marketers who realized that those of us in Western society are suckers for round numbers.
Case in point: Why does getting 3,000 hits over a major league career celebrated, but hitting 2999 isn't? Why do people go overboard on "milestone" birthdays like 30 or 50? And how many of us dick around while filling up our cars at the gas station, pumping the handle multiple times with the same light touch a surgeon might use to operate a robotic scalpel to remove someone's prostate, all to get the scrolling numbers on the pump to hit a round number?
So yeah, those marketer-bastards knew what they were doing. Somebody finally did a study, though, to determine what the optimum number of steps to take for general health really is, and it wasn't 10,000. (Wouldn't you know it, though, that optimum number is still a round number – but not nearly as attractive as 10,000.)
A team out of the University of Massachusetts tracked 2110 middle-aged adults who'd worn a step-counting device for almost 11 years to see how many of them kicked and at what age. As you might guess, it turned out that six thousand steps were better than five thousand; and five thousand steps were better than four thousand for health outcomes. However, health benefits topped out at 7,000, reducing participants' chances of death by 50 to 70 percent.
But 10,000 steps? The additional three thousand conferred no additional health benefits.
So let's put that 10,000-step thing to rest because 10,000 is a lot of damn steps. And maybe we should just forget about counting 7,000 steps or counting steps in general. What, do we all have counting OCD, aka arithmomania, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?
If you're any kind of runner, you're likely familiar with the Fartlek technique. It's a Swedish term that means speed (fart) play (lek). It's a system where runners continually vary the pace to eliminate boredom and maybe enhance the psychological aspects of running.
A typical training session might look like this: A two-minute jog followed by 5 minutes of moderately hard running, followed again by a short jog that then transitions into a hard run. Any variation of speeds works.
I do the same thing with walking. I start with a leisurely, look-at-all-the-beautiful-birdies walk and then segue into a get-outta-my-way, I-gotta-find-a-restroom walk (at least 120 steps per minute) until I start to fatigue, at which point I either switch to a moderate pace or back to an admire-the-wonders-of-nature pace.
I don't want to get too specific or too technical about all this. Just walk as hard as you can for as long as you can, slowing down for short periods as needed (the Fartlek method).
The only thing you need to "measure" is time: Are you going to walk for half an hour, 45 minutes, or an hour? Unless you've got an appointment with the orthodontist, you should strive for an hour, at least most days.
But why walking? I certainly made a big deal about how it complements lifting, but maybe you want some examples of how it does that? Okay then.
I'm not going to drone on about how walking can improve cardiovascular health and improve insulin sensitivity, although it does both of those things. Instead, I want to list a few ways by which it can complement and even improve your gym workouts:
1 Fat Loss
I've generally been dismissive of using exercise as a means to fat loss. It's just that you have to exercise a long time to compensate for that 500-calorie scone you gave yourself as a reward for yesterday's workout.
Walking, however, is something you can do every day for a relatively long time without losing your mind. The same can't be said for most other fat-burning techniques, e.g., battling ropes, burpees, kettlebell swings, etc., which can usually only be sustained for a few minutes and require a big dose of willpower to initiate.
A good, mostly fast Fartlek walk can burn 400 calories an hour – more if you're a big dude – and that's significant. Burning that number of calories at least three or four times a week will equate to visible results in as little as a month. And the kicker? That fat loss will likely occur without any loss of muscle.
2 Helps with Recovery
Walking doesn't add to any physiological stress imposed by regular weight training. Equally important, it facilitates recovery by increasing blood flow. There's even evidence to suggest that it has a small "spinal flossing" effect, which is an alleged therapeutic gliding of the spinal cord and major nerves. In other words, it's like giving oil to the Tin Man.
3 Builds Fitness and Work Capacity
Lifters generally work at high intensities for short durations (the phosphagen energy system). Let's say there's a roomful of fat ladies attending a Noom meeting in a basement and they're suddenly threatened by a raging flood. A typical lifter would be able to hoist a few of them to the safety of higher ground, but that lifter would likely fail if they had to hoist a whole roomful of fat ladies. They'd all drown. So long fat ladies.
But a program that involves walking really fast, especially if you're lucky enough to live in an area with some hills, can actually improve V02 max to a level that will augment any high-intensity training session.
4 Helps Fix Bad Backs
I used to have a bad back. When I first got out of bed, I looked like Quasimodo scouring the ground for loose change. No more. Because of walking.
I'm not well-versed in orthopedic matters, so I'll let T Nation contributor Dr. John Rusin explain it:
"The key muscular players in chronic lower back pain are the quadratus lumborum (QL) and the psoas (muscles located on the back and front sides of the spine). These are deep stabilizers responsible for integrating the lumbar spine with the pelvis and hip complex. These two synergistic muscles are prime stabilizers and really act as somatosensory organs as well as mechanical movers and stabilizers.
"As lower back pain is initiated for whatever reason, the deep stabilizers are usually thrown into a heightened state, either becoming functionally tight or not activating to the point of smooth and sequenced function.
"Through research and real-world study with athletes, walking has been shown to be a functional remedy for these two muscle groups. During the gait cycle, the psoas and QL from opposite sides of the body interact and function together in order for you to walk normally. Your body will find a way to coordinate this movement, keep you upright, and moving.
"Improving your gait, finding optimal heel strikes, foot patterns, and keying in on the quality is the way we get you to tap into the vast benefits that walking provides for getting rid of that nagging lower back pain."
So yeah, what he said.
5 It Works Fasted
I'm not a huge proponent of fasted training because when I do it too hard, my blood sugar drops, I see birdies, and I fall and hit my head on a 50-kilo kettlebell. Still, if I were to practice fasted training, I'd use walking. It's not overly strenuous and it won't burn muscle, which is often a concern with fasted training.
6 It Makes Your Brain Work Better
I don't know if there are any studies on this, but walking clears the cobwebs and makes my brain work better. Maybe it's the increased blood flow, or maybe it's just getting away from computer screens and knocks on the door and noisy neighbors and the wife screaming, "Help me, help me, my hair's on fire," or some other selfish crap, but I always get great ideas while walking.
Do it on off days. Or do it every day. It's walking for crissake, and overtraining isn't remotely an issue. The more often you do it and the longer you do it (within reason), the better your overall health, the better your lifting, and the better your degree of naked attractiveness.
- Paluch AE et al. Steps per Day and All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged Adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Sep 1;4(9):e2124516. PubMed.