The modern world may have us convinced that speed and instantaneousness are everything, but it’s when we slow down that we usually find the greatest rewards.
And walking, with its long list of boons – whether it’s simply an active and cheap way to get from A to B, being immersed in nature and the chance to get ‘away from it all’ – is prime proof of this.
Along with swimming, walking is a hero in the low-impact exercise stakes – meaning it can be a great option when injuries or health problems are an issue – and there’s tons of research highlighting its effectiveness, from helping ward off major diseases like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, to reducing depression.
A Yale University study published last month found walking helped seniors deemed at high risk of disability avoid problems such as impaired mobility and balance. The research, led by Dr Thomas Gill, followed more than 1,600 adults aged 70-89 on a three-and-a-half year exercise programme, and the findings have led to calls for walking to be ‘prescribed as medicine’.
It’s not just seniors who can benefit, though. And while a gentle stroll certainly has its place (sometimes getting a bit of fresh air or taking in the autumn leaves is enough of a goal for the day), don’t be fooled into thinking the humble walk can’t be a serious workout, either.
This means it’s important to remember, like any other form of exercise, walking can potentially put the body under strain too, so all the usual rules about suitable footwear, warming-up and not ignoring those niggling aches and pains apply.
“Suitable footwear is certainly an important consideration, but largely depends on the terrain you are covering,” says Phil Morel of Wimbledon Physiotherapy Clinic. “Remember, it’s not just your shoes that need to be fit for purpose. Strenuous walking will load the body heavily, particularly the lower back and lower limbs. Loading the body’s tissues will in the main lead to positive adaptation and we become fitter and stronger, but overloading our tissues can lead to injury and pain. Factors influencing overload may be walking speed, duration and frequency, as well as body weight, biomechanics and terrain. It’s important to build up gradually to strenuous work, which allows time for adaptation and protect against injury.”
“Our feet are underestimated. When you think about it, every step you take starts with your feet, as the ground reaction forces that go through your body when you walk start underfoot,” says James Naylor, national sales manager for orthopaedic footwear specialists SOLE UK, who produce a range of footbeds – including the SOLE Softec Response Footbeds which can be trimmed down to fit any shoe and custom-mould to your feet, to help equalise pressure distribution, avoid injuries and maximise comfort (they recently helped me through 26.2 miles for the Cancer Research UK Shine Night Walk!).
“Most people suffering from pain just accept these niggles, but if the pain’s bad enough, they’ll generally seek out a chiropractor or book a massage. Those can be helpful solutions, but having proper support in your footwear can help prevent many of these conditions from developing in the first place.”
Overuse injury, and “beginning a new activity without proper preparation”, Naylor adds, can contribute to common problems like plantar fasciitis (heel pain), heel spurs and shin splints.
Walking might start with the feet – but it doesn’t end there, and poor form, injuries or imbalances can affect the whole body, from ankles to knees, hips and backs.
Footbeds can also help improve posture, which often plays a key role in keeping you in good condition and pain-free from head to toe.
“In relation to walking, lower back, hip, knee, ankle and foot problems are what we see mostly in clinic. Sources of symptoms are varied and it’s important to remember that pain can be referred, for example from the lower back into the leg,” says Morel. Getting symptoms checked sooner rather than later might mean you avoid them spiralling into worse problems, as treatment can begin “to empower people in resolving or managing their symptoms”.
“It’s keeping people active with general exercise like walking that is, after all, the mainstay of helping prevent disease and pain,” adds Morel.
Mr Ved Goswami, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull, agrees it’s not wise to ignore niggles.
“Pain is the way your body tells you something is wrong. The problem is, too many people ignore the warnings and ‘battle through’ pain, either with the help of painkillers or by sheer grit! Either way, they’re not doing themselves any favours,” says Mr Goswami. “It may be that the pain can be managed, or a course with a physiotherapist could be all that’s needed, but the important thing is to get it checked out, first by your GP and then with a scan or X-ray. Putting up with pain just isn’t a sensible option.”
Of course, a reasonable degree of fatigue and muscle strain from exercise can be perfectly normal, and Mr Goswami notes that our joints do tend to get stiffer with age (“that’s a fact of life”), but common sense should rule if you’re experiencing prolonged or unusual symptoms, especially if they begin to affect your movement.
“Putting off getting treatment will only make matters worse and could have a detrimental effect on other joints. For example, if you’re limping because of pain in your knee, this usually means you’re putting pressure on other joints as you change the way you walk,” says Mr Goswami. “Limping changes your walking pattern and so forces other joints to operate in a way they’ve not been used to. This might be acceptable for a short-term injury, but if you do it over a long time, it will affect other parts of your body.”
This could be a factor in worsening wear-and-tear injuries, which may require surgery – though Mr Goswami notes this can be a positive thing. “A new hip or knee really can give you a new lease of life. Suddenly walking becomes not only an option, but actually an enjoyable option,” he explains. “These days, joint replacement surgery has a fantastic success rate and people really can get back to doing the things they loved. I know people in their 50s and 60s who had given up golf or tennis because of joint pain, who are now back in action following successful surgery.”