Simple, low-maintenance and effective -- walking instructor Jonathan Fitzgordon calls walking "as good as it gets" in terms of cardio fitness.
A regular, moderate walking regimen -- five 30-minute walks per week -- has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia, depression, and early death.
To get the most of our your walks, Fitzgordon advises the following:
- Lean your upper body slightly forward so you lead with your heart, not your hips.
- Push off with the ball of the foot on each step.
- Take short strides to avoid over-work in the legs.
- Walk on natural terrain -- dirt, grass or sand. It's easier on your joints .
- Include hills on your route, as different grades work different muscles and increase toning.
Rocker-bottomed, or negative-heel, shoes put the ankle through a greater than normal range of motion, making the supportive muscles in the lower leg work hard to stabilize you. A nice added bonus of changing the way your foot works can help focus your attention on each step -- which can mean a more mindful workout.
These shoes also require more of your muscles -- particularly in the lower leg and the glutes. They also create a slight change in the architecture of the body that leads to better alignment, which can translate to improved posture and less strain on the knees, hips, and back.
There is a limit to the extra benefits this category of shoes provides. "You'll see the greatest impact on toning when you first start wearing these shoes, as the body adapts to new movement fairly quickly," says Katy Bowman, biomechanist and founder of Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, California. To keep seeing results, Bowman suggests wearing the shoes in different terrains, such as sand or uneven paths -- as long as you're paying attention to your feet.
Wear your new shoes around the house for an hour a few times before taking them out on a walk to make sure they work for your body. "That way, if your muscles need time to adjust, you won't be stuck two miles from home with calf cramp," Bowman says.
Running burns off a bad mood almost as quickly as it burns calories (a 150-pound person will burns 238 calories in 30 minutes of jogging). It also strengthens bones -- a 2009 study suggests that running is even more of a boon to bone health than resistance training -- and can ward off aging-related disabilities and premature death.
To make running feel (almost) effortless, running coach and author of Chi Running Danny Dreyer suggests the following alignment tips:
- Align your posture in one even plane -- with ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles in a straight line.
- Tilt that straight line slightly forward by leaning forward slightly from the ankles.
- Lift up on the front of your pubic bone to engage your lower abs only and get your core involved in maintaining your postural alignment.
- Take shorter, quicker strides so that your front foot falls directly underneath your pelvis, not out in front of you. "The slower your cadence the more impact you have with the ground and the harder you legs work."
- When deciding how long to run, let your body -- not the distance or only the clock -- decide. "My rule of thumb is, 'Run until you feel fatigued, walk until you feel guilty.' It trains you to hear the information your body is giving you, and that's how you avoid injuries."
A 2010 study by Harvard researchers found that runners wearing minimal-style shoes experience significantly less impact than runners wearing traditional running shoes. "Barefoot running transforms the way you run. The shift in alignment feels great. It brings back the joy of running," explains barefoot running coach Jason Robillard.
The key to making the transition is to take shorter, faster steps -- Robillard recommends 180 steps per minute -- and to land on the ball of your foot instead of the heel. (To determine your cadence, count your steps for 20 seconds, then multiply by three.) Perhaps most importantly, start slowly. "More tendons, ligaments, supporting muscles and bones get pushed in to service. Your body has to go through an adaptation period that lasts one to three months," Robillard says. Take shorter, closer-to-home runs (half-mile or less) until your supporting players get in shape.
Hitting the trail -- whether on a jog or a hike -- has many benefits to offer beyond just cardio. A 2011 review of 11 studies found that exercising in natural environments offered a host of mental and emotional benefits that workout out indoors couldn't match -- participants reported a bigger reduction in tension, anger and depression and stronger feelings of energy and revitalization.
See Take a Hike: A Family-Friendly Guide to Getting Started for the information and inspiration you need to get started.