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Retirement Living: How I’m Staying in Shape by Turning My Daily Stroll Into Hard Exercise

If I read one more time that walking is the best exercise, I’m going to take a few steps and scream.

This article is about how to make walking a better exercise.

True, walking is the most practicable exercise. You can pretty much do it anywhere anytime. That is no small thing.

The problem is that ordinary walking won’t push your heartbeat rate into the same zone as running or a fast bicycle ride or even a game of pickleball, one study found.

Why does intensity matter? Vigorous workouts are a more efficient way of getting fit, says cardiologist Matthew Nayor, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, who tested the fitness of more than 3,000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study. He found that a minute of moderate to vigorous exercise had the same benefit as two or three minutes of light exercise.

How do you know if the exercise is vigorous enough? If you can carry on a conversation easily, it is probably moderate exercise, Nayor says. “If the sentences get shorter, and it is harder to carry on a conversation, you’re headed toward vigorous exercise.”

There are simple tricks you can use to transform leisurely walks into intense exercise. That includes walking up hills, carrying a weighted backpack, or working a few sprints into your daily perambulation. Perhaps the best trick of all is to walk really fast.

I have done all these things since Aug. 14, the day I turned my bicycle too sharply onto a gravel road near my New Jersey home and was slammed down, breaking two bones in my right wrist and partially tearing a tendon. That hurt.

At the time, I was training roughly 12 hours a week in preparation for an October bike ride across Italy with high school friends.

I saw a hand surgeon the next day and he told me I probably wouldn’t need surgery but that I could forget about biking in Italy. He put my wrist in a splint and said I couldn’t drive a car, much less get on a bike for a good while.

That hurt even more. Not only was I forgoing the trip to Italy, but I had spent months getting in the best shape in years. Now I was going to lose it all.

I started walking the next day to avoid that fate. Am I in biking shape? No way. But I have kept relatively fit by going on a hard daily walk. I passed a previously scheduled heart stress test a couple of weeks after my bike crash, and my resting pulse rate—one way to measure how healthy your heart is-is about the same as when I was riding 12 hours a week.

Like any exercise regime, you should talk to your doctor before doing intense walking. This is particularly true if you’re older.

Here are the tactics I used to step up my daily walking routine. Anybody with a pair of walking shoes can use these.

Sprint Once in Awhile

Short bursts of intense workout woven into your daily walk will greatly improve its cardiovascular benefits.

“High-intensity interval training is basically doing an activity ‘as hard as you can’ for about 30 seconds, whether it be walking, running, cycling, swimming, then taking one to two minutes of recovery at a more easy pace,” explains Edward Laskowski, a doctor of sports medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester,

Walking in a hilly area is a natural sort of interval training. When you walk up the hill, that is the high intensity part. When you walk down, that is the recovery.

If you live in a flat area, try doing a few short sprints during your walk. Take your time to recover after each sprint. I prefer sprinting on grass, which I do at a local park.

Carry Weights

A weighted rucksack or vest can turn your stroll into a taxing workout. When I don’t feel like walking fast, I put on a 30-pound backpack and walk through a nearby forest with some hills. I’m exhausted by the time I get back to my house.

You can buy rucksacks with secured weight plates so things won’t bounce around. I’m a cheapskate, so I just took a weight set we had sitting around and used duct tape and cardboard to construct a stable weight that I could secure inside a backpack.

Pick Up Your Pace

This is the most tiring workout of all.

If you want to walk faster than 4 or perhaps 4.5 miles an hour, a brisk pace for most walkers, you have to bend your arms and swing them like a racewalker. Here’s a demonstration. The more you swing your arms like this, the faster you’ll step. Trained race walkers can walk at 9 or 10 miles an hour. You read that right. Here’s a video of Tom Bosworth of England walking a mile in 5 minutes and 31 seconds. It’s difficult to run a mile that fast.

The fastest I’ve managed recently isn’t quite 5 miles an hour—less than half the pace of Bosworth!—and a 4 mile walk at that pace left me completely thrashed. It was absolutely as hard as a run or a hard bike ride. My legs were almost quivering by the end because—I can’t believe I’m writing this—walking can be the best exercise if done right.

Write to Neal Templin at neal.templin@barrons.com

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