If the Smithsonian is to be believed, the first human ancestor began to walk on two legs around 1.89 million years ago. Then the great migration began between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago with people walking all the way from Africa to Asia and Europe. Walking has been a highly rated activity since then; the means of the ultimate survival of man.

Now, in parks, forests, trekking trails and city sidewalks, the great mass of humankind is constantly on their feet—to the market, to work, to school or college, to play golf, to watch birds and animals, to climb absurd heights, to root around unknown places and lost cities.

Or simply, to walk. Being a conscious walker is the greatest health activity in the world, an industry in itself with accessories, videos, medical programmes and even trainers. In India, where walking is a normal activity, the pandemic took legging it to new levels. Walking is no longer a walk in the park.

It is an addiction that has lasted 25 years for Delhi-based Ram Srivastava and his wife Madhu, both in their 60s. Their day is incomplete without a round trip of brisk-walking from their house in Mayur Vihar Extension to the farthest end of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary—a trip that adds up to a little over six km. On some days, they like to take two rounds of a large park next to the sanctuary.

“That makes it around eight km total,” says Srivastava, who likes wearing a body-hugging T-shirt and a golfer’s cap whenever he steps out. The man who had undergone heart surgery and has suffered from a few other ailments in the last few years says that his body remains fit, thanks to his daily walks. His routine was interrupted by the pandemic. But the couple made it a point to clock the distance walking around their apartment block or on their terrace. Their daughter who lives in America tracks their daily step-count online on the fitness band she gifted them a few years back. “If you ever find a day when I am in a bad mood, you can be sure that I didn’t go for my walk,” he laughs as his wife nods assent. 

More than 2,000 km south of  Delhi, in Bengaluru, RN Bhaskar Reddy, 46, discovered the benefits of brisk-walking after his yoga classes came to an abrupt end in March 2020. Weighing more than 100 kilos, he had joined the yoga classes a few weeks before, after he was diabetic. One of his yoga mates suggested that he could take to brisk-walking as an alternative.  “I’ve lost more than 15 kilos in the last six months and am feeling fitter than ever before,” says Reddy, a businessman, who stays on the outskirts of Bengaluru in his own farm.

He would now like to add to his walking repertoire and increase the intensity. Immersive “walking around” videos are getting millions of views on YouTube as people crave pre-Covid normalcy and get off the couch.  As fitness becomes a holistic research-based industry, walking has moved to broader horizons. There is power walking that involves a fast pace, short of jogging with rigorous arm swings to build cardiovascular strength.

There are Chi walks that emphasise postures that reinforce core muscles. Nordic walking involves poles to engage the upper body to propel you forward, like walking on ice in Nordic lands—a full body and core workout. Farmer’s Carry exercise is done using anything heavy from a dumb bell to a suitcase. Using your body as a machine is a new trend, says Rishikesh Kumar, CEO and founder, Xtraliving.

Source: Mayoclinic.org

Gaits Galore
According to Shalini Bhargava, fitness expert and director at JG’s Fitness Centre, Mumbai, people like Reddy can adopt new concepts to walking by adding power, Chi or Nordic walking methods, and add intensity and torch the calories. “Your body tends to transform only when it notices a fluctuation in its standard routine. It becomes familiar with the amount and intensity of workouts on a day-to-day basis. In order to trigger your body to make substantial changes, it is advisable to perform above your baseline,” Bhargava says. 

You get the idea. Walking is not just moving your feet. There are many kinds of it and have some rules. Nutritionist and fitness expert Erin Palinski-Wade sums up the procedure: First, align your posture. Chi walking is based on the T’ai Chi practice of needle and cotton; the needle is the thin straight line of strength that runs vertically up the spine. Focus energy on your centre  and let go of the tension in your arms and legs. Keep your spine long, tall and straight. Suck in your stomach. Don’t arch your back, keep your chin parallel to the ground, and fix your eyes 10 to 20 feet ahead of you.

Now, engage your core. Your core muscles hold your spine erect and allow the balance to operate your legs. First your feet must be apart at hip width and parallel to each other. Relax your feet and make your knees soft. Lengthen your spine by imagining your head is being pulled up gently by a thread all the way up to the sky. Level your pelvis along the natural contour of your spine, not tilting forward not backward. If you do not know which pelvic muscles to use to get into position, just laugh or cough. Never walk with your head down, it strains your upper body and neck.

Release the stress in your body by shrugging your shoulders to relax them. Get into physical balance. Centre your body weight over your leading foot with the movement coming from your centre, with the core muscles doing the heavy lifting, not your feet and legs. With each step, your arm must move forward or backward; never diagonally. Keep elbows close to your torso, stopping your forward hand at the centre point of your body. With each forward step, your hand must not go higher than your breastbone.

Now start to move forward with posture straight, core engaged, upper body balanced while taking the initial step forward first with your heel. Then roll the step from heel to toe. Pushing off the ground with your toes. Bring your back leg forward. Bringing your heel down again. All the while, keep a destination in mind. Moving forward is not just a physical aspect of walking but making life choices, whether to walk daily or have the right kind of food. Arm motion is crucial to walking right. Bend your elbows 90 degrees, partially close your hands without clenching.

The pandemic saw a huge boost in YouTube exercises at home. Walking at home videos threw up new stars while stepping up visibility and credibility of existing walking video gurus like Leslie Sansone. Get Healthy U TV’s Indoor Walking for Beginners workout, Fat Burning Fast Paced Walk by Lucy Wyndham, 10,000 Indoor Step Challenge by Joanna Soh are the top walking gurus of the digital world.
Holistic exercise
“I’ve lived in India for the past 16 years, and have never seen so many people having taken to walking as an essential activity,” asserts Vesna Pericevic Jacob, a Delhi-based holistic fitness guru. She is of the opinion that walking has been underestimated because it is too “normal” an activity. “Not any longer. The improvement in the environment due to the lockdown and the closure of gyms was a blessing. People have discovered the joys of walking, which is a holistic exercise,” says Jacob. Many don’t consider walking an exercise since we do it every day without thinking of it as being ‘good for health’. 

Many gym rats see it as a lazy form of exercise that is meant only for those who cannot jog and slog in a gym. Images in the media where walking is an exercise as opposed to somebody jogging or pumping iron or running on a treadmill are rare. But walking is a healthy exercise that is here to stay and putting more miles. Dr Amar Singhal, Delhi-based cardiologist, says he prescribes walking for all his patients. “The speeds may vary according to age and ability, but I make it a point to ask even healthy people to spend at least an hour walking, preferably brisk walking,” says Singhal.

He says he has been walking the talk by spending at least an hour every day using his feet. He advises not to rush into it. “Anyone leading a sedentary life can start with 2,000-2,500 steps daily and gradually increase the number in one to two months. Ideally you should be doing anywhere between 12,000 and 15,000 steps if you are a healthy individual,” advices Gagan Arora, internationally certified fitness coach and founder of Kosmic Fitness. Increasing the number of steps to 30,000-40,000 like many people have done in recent times will not alone increase the intensity of the exercise. “Generally it can be increased by raising the resistance or the speed.

Walking does seem to influence a person’s body composition. Walking 1,000 steps with a load can be more intense than clocking 30,000 steps,” says Kumar of Xtraliving. The walker’s objective should be to focus on the 10 general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.

wonder drug
A 2018 study by the University of Ferrara, Italy, indicated that the chances of faster walking patients with heart disease being hospitalised was less compared to those who didn’t move their legs. In this three-year study conducted among 1,078 heart patients, the subjects were asked to walk 1 km on a treadmill at slow, moderate and fast speeds. 182 of the slow walkers (51 percent) were hospitalised at least once, compared to 160 (44 percent) of the intermediate walkers, and 110 (31 percent) of the fast walkers. The study author Dr Carlotta Merlo explained, “Walking is the most popular type of exercise in adults. It is free, does not require special training, and can be done almost anywhere. Even short, but regular, walks have substantial health benefits.

Our study shows that the benefits are even greater when the pace of walking is increased.” Technology has entered the walking world in cutting edge ways with Virtual Reality (VR). Users wear VR headsets to walk in a simulated environment in real-time and apply the skills acquired to everyday life. VR-based gait retraining is used in patient rehabilitation through implicit learning, enhancing movement variety, and actively engaging the patient during training. Benefits of walking outstrip some of the more popular forms of exercising. For instance, a study by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, a few years ago found that walking could be more effective than running in some cases.

The study was conducted over six years involving participants in the age between 18 and 80. It was noticed that walking reduced the risk of heart disease by 9.3 percent, while running reduced it by 4.5 percent. Scientific studies have also shown that regular walks prevent the human brain from ageing fast and in some cases even reverse age-related memory loss and other brain-related issues. Regular walking, according to some studies, has a positive impact on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and retaining long-term memory.

“Walking is a great way to move one’s body and get some exercise. It increases NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), which is the energy expended for every task done while one is not sleeping, consuming food, or doing sports-like activities that help burn more calories every single day,” says Jitendra Chouksey, founder, FITTR, while calling walking a “wonder drug” for holistic health. FITTR is a fitness firm that provides online coaching to more than eight lakh members.

Speed walking scores over other forms in this way, according to Chouksey. “It is a good way to increase one’s step count and burn more calories in the same amount of time as regular walking. It increases heart rate, aids in weight loss, and improves endurance and muscle flexibility by strengthening leg and abdominal muscles. It has many of the same benefits as an intense workout,” he says. It is a workout in itself as long as you are achieving newer targets every day. You can go a notch higher by adding some weight as you brisk-walk. This could be done by donning a weighted vest, walking uphill in an upright posture, or raising the knees to hip level with each step.

How you push off your rear foot determines the power and speed of your walk. Overstriding, i.e. taking a longer front step will place more stress on the lower joints of your legs, robbing your walk of power. It’s the back foot you should keep on the ground a tad longer because it’s what pushes you off the ground. Increase speed by escalating the number of smaller steps. Arora, on the other hand, doesn’t suggest making changes to your walking style to increase intensity or with any other aim. “Walking is walking. Nothing has changed in the physiological sense.

It has become an exercise because people have stopped walking at all. We’re detrained so much that we consider walking 100 steps per minute hard,” laments Arora. Singhal says besides increasing longevity, walking boosts mental health, improves sleep and even lowers Alzheimer’s risk. “Endorphins are released in our body, giving us a sense of achievement or fulfillment,” he says. Among them is the mood enhancer oxytocin aka the “love hormone” which fights the Covid-blues.

Just walking is not enough to fulfill you, what fills your stomach is important. Keep a regular food diary, or on MyFitnessPal or Lose It apps. Analyse your recipes to make ingredient adjustments to boost nutrition and cut calories. Reduce eating out. Limit the amount of time spent eating. Limit potions of your favourite foods. Increase fruit, vegetables and water intake. Proper hydration prevents gas and bloating. Replace processed snack foods with vegetables  and fruit. 

It is not that only a brisk walk holds all the secrets to good health. Just spending some time out simply enjoying the sights and sounds walking around has its advantages, too. According to a 15-year study conducted by scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, even light exercise can lower the risk of death by 52-67 percent compared to sedentary individuals. “People who have just begun walking have to trust their journey,” counsels Chouksey.

If you have been leading a sedentary life but wish to take to your feet, fitness experts have the following advice—start slow and don’t set unrealistic goals for yourself. One of the easiest ways to track your day-to-day movement is to keep a step counter or wear a simple fitness tracker, enabling you to set daily or weekly targets. This will allow you to build the habit of regular physical activity every day. Harvard Men’s Health Watch points to the benefits of stairs. Football coaches and cardiologists both advise their charges to race up or walk up the stairs respectively to get in shape. Canadian researchers have found that stair-climbing was twice as taxing as brisk-walking on level ground, walking up a steep incline or lifting weights. Start by climbing a flight or two, adding more gradually.

Take the stairs whenever possible and if the flights are too many, take the lift only halfway up. Avoid the staircase after a heavy meal. The latest Harvard Alumni Study has found that men who average at least eight flights a day have a 33 percent lower mortality rate than sedentary men, which is better than the 22 percent lower death rate of men walking 1.3 miles a day. Heart health is not the only wellness aspect of walking. India is considered the world’s diabetes capital with as many as 70 million patients by 2025 and 80 million by 2030. This dismal prediction may not change, but diabetes-related ailments can be prevented from ballooning if the current walking trend becomes a habit.

Once you get into a routine of walking, it would be a great idea to change the pace and intensity. Raise your fitness goals at regular intervals. That would help your body avoid getting used to a familiar pattern. Age is not a bar on the pace, says Arora. At the same time, experts like him don’t encourage older runners from using treadmills because hard surfaces could lead to wear and tear of the knee joints. 

Meditative Steps
Jacob says walking is not just about physical health, but to be “one with one’s surroundings”. She calls it “mindful walking”. “When you meditate, there is a singularity of thought by dialling down the noise around you. Mindful walking is when you put that single thought in the moment. For instance, you can focus on your breath or the chirping of the birds while you walk and enjoy the experience,” she says.
There are studies to back the benefits of walking in natural settings. In 2003, Essex University, England, did research on walking amidst the natural environment and it concluded that regular walkers noted a reduction in stress levels and enhanced mood.

Thich Nhat Hanh, well-known Buddhist monk and peace activist and an advocate of ‘mindful walking’, says, “Walking meditation makes us whole again. Only when we are connected with our body are we truly alive. Healing is not possible without that connection. So walk and breathe in such a way that you can connect with your body deeply.” All one needs is the right pair of shoes, correct posture, water to stay hydrated, and regularity with the regime!

The Technique Prescription
Keep your chin parallel to the ground
Hold your head high
Look forward, not at the ground
Keep your back straight, not arched, forward or backward
Move your shoulders naturally
Swing your arms freely with a slight bend in your elbows
Gently tighten your stomach muscles
Walk smoothly, rolling your foot from heel to toe

Gagan Arora’s Checklist

If you are walking early in the morning or during late evening, wear bright clothing
Breathe through your nose
Wear light and breathable clothes so that you are not fatigued with your own body heat and sweat
If going for longer walks more than 30 minutes try carrying water/lemonade and sip it every 15-20 minutes
A little warm-up or a few stretches before walking can set the tone for the body to adapt better
Wear thin, flexible, wide toe footwear so that you can feel that your feet are working for you and establish a connection with ground
Try to walk barefoot for a few minutes on different surfaces if possible.
If you are going for a brisk walk, don’t miss out on 5-10 minutes of easy walk before building up the pace. Your mind and body need some time to prepare for an aggressive upcoming workout. 
If you have any medical condition, do consult your healthcare provider before starting any exercise regimen 
Wear a fitness tracker with heart rate/oxygen saturation etc to dig deep into the health matrix if required 
Cool down with some stretches after a long walk

Walking Fit

The 84-year-old keeps fit by doing regular walks and exercise. He has posted his brisk-walking and other exercise regimen on his social media handles.

Anil Kapoor 
Although he is 64 years old, Kapoor is one of the fittest celebrities. He can often be seen jogging and brisk-walking on the beaches in Mumbai.

Sonam Kapoor 
The actor has often been quoted saying that she likes to walk 45 minutes to an hour regularly to stay fit

Saif Ali Khan
Has been quoted in the media saying that he is not a great believer in gymming, but he likes to keep fit by resorting to long and brisk walks. In fact, he is often photographed on his morning and evening walks in Mumbai by the paparazzi.

Mandira Bedi
The fitness freak  likes doing different types of intense walking including ‘farmers” and ‘weighted’ walks.

Mandira Bedi
The fitness freak  likes doing different types of intense walking including ‘farmers” and ‘weighted’ walks.

Akshay Kumar 
Known for his martial art skills and fitness, Kumar likes cycling and walking to stay fit

Lara Dutta Bhupathi
Lara and her husband and tennis great Mahesh Bhupathi are often photographed in Mumbai and Bengaluru during their brisk morning and evening walks.

Kabir Bedi
One of the first Indian actors to break into Hollywood, Bedi has been often quoted as saying that one of the secrets of his health is brisk walking over long distances

The Japanese Experiment 

Although obesity is a problem in Japan, it is relatively less compared to other countries of the world. Besides healthy eating habits, walking is considered essential in Japan. It is inculcated in people at an early stage, thanks to the well-established “walking to school practice” that has been implemented by the government since 1953.

In Japan, a large number of schools are in urban areas and the local government agencies decide on the type of transport school-going children can use. More often than not, they decide that walking or cycling to school are the best options. In urban Japan, elementary and secondary school students often walk to school in groups from their homes unlike many other countries where they are accompanied by their parents or are driven in school buses or other forms of transport.

This may not seem strange in India as many children in villages and small towns still walk or cycle to school. However, the habit is probably helping Japan overcome the scourge of obesity among children and also drilling the practice of walking at an early age. According to a study done more than a decade ago, it was found that only 3.6 percent of Japanese had a body mass index (BMI) over 30, which is the international standard for obesity, whereas 32 percent of Americans had BMI over 30.

The same study also said that a total of 66.5 percent of Americans had a BMI of over 25, making them overweight, whereas only 24.7 percent of Japanese had BMI over 25. The study named ‘Why is the obesity rate so low in Japan and high in the US?’ came to the conclusion that one of the possible reasons for this was that Japanese walked a lot more than their American counterparts. Maybe it is a shining legacy of early initiation into walking.