Warm weather is here, and you may be walking more to take advantage of being outside. Why not ramp up your routine with bursts of fast-paced walking? The technique, known as interval walking, “is a great way to get the most exercise bang for your buck,” says Dr. Aaron Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Interval walking is a form of interval training, which describes any form of exercise in which you purposely speed up or slow down at regular intervals throughout the session. The benefits of interval training in athletes and people in cardiac rehabilitation are well studied. Dr. Baggish says interval walking hasn’t been examined as much, but he believes the same benefits apply. “Something about strenuous exercise is good for the body. It improves endurance, reduces blood pressure, and helps with weight loss,” he explains.
Interval training may also burn more calories, and help you get fit faster. For example, a small observational study published last year in PLOS ONE suggested that three 20-second sprints during a 10-minute cycling workout produced benefits similar to a 45-minute cycling workout.
Before attempting interval walking, first make sure that your doctor approves, especially if you have heart disease or joint pain. You’ll also need a solid walking program in place. “A well-established routine would be at least two or three months of being able to walk 20 to 30 minutes a day without any limitations,” says Dr. Baggish. Ideally, you should walk at least five days a week.
Also important: walk with a partner, for safety and motivation, and bring a cellphone in case you need to call for help.
Remember to dedicate five minutes each to warm-up and cool-down as part of the walking routine. This can simply involve walking at a comfortable pace.
When you’re ready to add interval walking to your routine, start slowly. Introduce one or two segments of fast-paced walking into your 30-minute walk. Each segment should last a minute or two. Try that during each walking workout for a few weeks.
How much should you pick up the pace during an interval? “Walk as fast as you can, at a pace you can do briefly, but can’t do forever,” suggests Dr. Baggish. He adds that you don’t have to worry about trying to reach a particular heart rate, unless your doctor directs you to do so.
Gradually add more intervals into your routine, with an ultimate goal of walking 50% of the time at the higher intensity. There’s flexibility in how that can be done — one minute on, one minute off, or two minutes on, two minutes off. Play around with it, and see what’s best for your body.
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