Walking really is a winning exercise on every front, and new research shows that by simply walking faster, you can reap extra benefits. We’re not talking just a bigger calorie burn (350 compared with 250 per hour) and improved fitness. Faster walkers have lower rates of death than slower walkers from causes including heart disease and dementia, according to a review of the National Walkers' Health Study. If you reach a pace that’s almostrunning, you’ll burn more calories than running at that exact speed. A brisk walk also reduces the risk of heart disease more effectively than a run that burns the same number of calories. So lace up those sneakers—here’s everything you need to know, step by step.
Form That Helps You Go Faster
You can speed up easier if your body is properly aligned. Here's how to find your form.
1. Stand tall, with your shoulders back and a natural arch in your lower back. This helps prevent unnecessary (and tiring) stress on your upper body.
2. Bend your arms at 90 degrees, imagining your elbows are in a cast as your arms swing. The faster you swing them, the faster you'll go, because your legs naturally want to stay in sync with your arms. Just don't be a chicken-winger: If your elbows flap out, it could slow you down.
3. Contract your abs, but without hunching or bending at the waist—which would close up your diaphragm and make your breathing inefficient.
4. Roll off each foot and push off from your toes at the end of every stride, as if you're showing someone behind you the soles of your shoes. This technique keeps your foot on the ground a tad longer, ultimately making for shorter but stronger and faster steps.
Speed Skills 101
If you turbocharge your pace right off the bat, you'll just burn out. Instead, follow these steps to gradually step it up.
STEP 1: FIND YOUR RHYTHM
First, figure out your natural pace—not your window-shopping gait but your "I have to be somewhere" pace. Count your steps for 20 seconds and multiply by three. If you're hustling at least 120 steps per minute (40 steps in 20 seconds), that's about 3 mph, the minimum pace for what's considered fitness walking. (For a smartphone app that can help you with the calculations, see the chart on page 49.) If that's too fast, then your first goal should be to ramp up to that speed.
STEP 2: KICK IT UP A NOTCH
If 120 steps per minute is comfortable, your next goal should be 135 steps per minute (3.5 mph), which is considered weight-loss pace. For that, you need to take 45 steps in 20 seconds. At that rate, you burn roughly 350 calories per hour, 100 more than you would at 3 mph. How to do it? Take quicker, shorter strides rather than longer ones. If you lengthen your stride, reaching farther with your front foot, it's harder to roll your foot and push off with your toes—and that's key to maintaining a fast pace, because it's a more natural way to move.
STEP 3: ADD INTERVALS
Once you have a feel for the faster pace, walk in bursts of two to three minutes at as close to 135 steps per minute as you can manage. Then slow down to 120 steps a minute for two minutes. Repeat those intervals until you reach the desired distance for your walk (see "Mileage Matters," on the following page). Over time, work on lengthening your intervals until you can do your whole walk at 135 steps per minute. (For a playlist to help you once you reach that point, see page 49.)
STEP 4: REALLY PUSH IT
Cruising at 135? Now you're ready for 144 steps per minute (48 steps in 20 seconds), roughly the same pace that the National Walkers' Health Study found significantly reduced the risk of premature death. Repeat Step 3, with 135 steps per minute as your base pace and 144 steps a minute as your interval pace. For a very intense, calorie-blasting workout, step your way up to 150 steps per minute (about 4 mph).
Find Swifter Sneakers
Anyone who has ever limped in shoes that pinch knows they can hold you back—or injure you. Here's how to find the best pair for you.
1. Look for shoes that are:
Flexible. Your feet will fight stiff shoes as they roll through each step—which can lead to shin splints. Shoes should twist easily and bend at the ball of the foot, but not at the arch's middle. (An arch that's too flexible might leave you vulnerable to plantar fasciitis and heel spurs.)
Beveled at the heels. When you walk, the heel strikes first, so the material there shouldn't be too bulky to accommodate a smooth heel-to-toe roll. To test whether shoes have beveled heels, put them on a table and press the eraser end of a pencil into the cup of each heel; the toes of the shoes should lift off the ground.
Designed for walking, not running. Running shoes have high heels and flared soles that give runners stability and support but interfere with good walking form. They also usually cost more than walking shoes.
Not super light. You want enough cushion to absorb the shock of each step, especially if you're significantly overweight.
2. Try on at least three different brands. Ignore pricey models supposedly designed to eliminate pain or suit your feet's arch shape—there is no research to support such claims. Shoes should feel comfortable in the store and not require breaking in. Consider buying a pair that's a half size to a full size bigger, because feet can swell on long walks.
3. Pair your shoes with synthetic, moisture-wicking socks. Cotton socks stay wet, increasing your chance of blisters. Try Fila Sport Performance Microfiber No Show socks ($14 for 3 pairs; kohls.com) or C9 by Champion athletic ankle socks ($9 for 4 pairs;target.com).