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walking group

by Deva Parnell

A key marker in the aging process is the ability of the cardiovascular system to transport oxygen throughout the body. From the age of 40 years on, reduced heart muscle enzyme activity in sedentary people decreases this ability by 1-2% per year. Walking stimulates production of heart muscle enzymes and prevents deterioration of the cardiovascular system with age. Walking also creates improved muscle tone in the arteries and veins, allowing the heart to pump more blood with each stroke and also lowers body-fat levels.

Walking is a natural tranquilizer, releasing endorphins in the brain and spinal cord which lower anxiety levels, lift depression, minimize pain and leave you feeling calm, cheerful, relaxed and optimistic. Walking moves more oxygen into the brain, increasing memory and the ability to think constructively, shortening reaction time and creating a strong self-image. It reduces dependency on nicotine, alcohol and other drugs.

     Studies have shown that moderate exercise like walking and yoga boosts the immune system to lower the risk of infection and cancer while hard, prolonged exercise raises this risk. Regular walking also promotes strong, flexible muscles in the arms, legs, abdomen and back, keeping all major muscle groups balanced and aligned, improving posture and relieving lower back pain in many people.

     The overall consensus of osteoporosis studies is that a regular practice of weight bearing exercise like walking or standing yoga postures significantly increases bone density, even in postmenopausal women. Walking can also help improve or even prevent conditions such as glaucoma, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Setting Your Sights

     Start by exploring the objectives of your walking program. If walking could bring you any of the following goals, which would be most important at this stage of your life?

1. Weight Loss. This long-slow-distance mode is designed to flatten stomachs, shrink hips, tighten thighs, and reduce excessive fat.

2. Cardiovascular Conditioning. By training at higher intensity levels, you will strengthen the heart muscle, improve aerobic endurance, perform better in other aerobic activities, and recover more quickly from acts of physical exertion.

3. Long-Term Health. Done consistently, this program increases energy; reduces stress, fatigue, and your risk of heart disease; improves mood and self-esteem, and may add years to your life.

Weight Loss

     Walking off weight takes a combination of diet (fewer calories and less fat) and exercise. The key to success in the beginning is walking for distance rather than speed. Walking longer distances at a moderate pace is much more effective than trying to sprint your fastest mile or two, simply because you're more likely to do more walking--and do it more comfortably with fewer injuries or days off. In fact, consistency (exercising seven days a week) is equally important.

     To walk enough to lose weight, you need to discover your own optimum pace. That's the cruising pace that you can maintain for 45 minutes or longer without gasping, fatiguing, or developing muscle tightness or soreness. With consistency your fitness level will automatically improve, your pace will naturally increase and so will your fat-burning capacity. And if finding time is a problem, or if long walks fatigue your joints, do several shorter walks throughout the day. Three 15-minute walks can give you nearly the same benefit as one 45-minute walk.

Cardiovascular Conditioning

     To strengthen the heart muscle and improve the work capacity of the entire cardiovascular system, focus on intensity. These workouts can be shorter than weight-loss workouts, and you can get results from training every other day. Muscles that have been worked hard need rest --that's when the rebuilding is done.

     Warm-up by walking for 5 to 10 minutes at an easy pace. Then increase your pace, working the heart and lungs hard enough to produce a good sweat for 20 to 30 continuous minutes. Then decrease the pace for another 5 to 10 minutes as you cool down.

Long-Term Health

     The key here is consistent, life-long physical activity. Modest amounts of exercise like walking a mile a day will improve health significantly. You don't need to "train"--you simply need to walk. Intensity is not as important as duration and frequency. Furthermore, the type of exercise matters little. What's important is lifelong maintenance. Investing 20 minutes a day in walking is a great start for sedentary individuals. For those already leading an active life, continuing with 40 to 60 minutes of physical exercise a day is excellent.

Yogic Walking

1. Stay aware sensations in your body. What makes this form of walking "yogic" is the consciousness with which it is done.

2. Maintain Tadasana or "Mountain" alignment. A common fault is lumbar lordosis, or swayback, an arching of the lower back that results in one's rear end sticking out. This often leads to lower-back pain. The solution is to press up through the crown of your head, slightly contract your abdominal muscles and apply the "core lift" by contracting the muscles of the perineum located between the anus and genitals. This will bring your pelvis into healthy alignment and support the spinal column. If you have time for some supplemental exercise after your walk, do slow, controlled abdominal work and pelvic-floor exercises. Strong abs and pelvic muscles are keys to good posture and together act as the base for both arm and leg movement.

3. Let your arms bend. The faster you walk, the more you have to get your upper body involved. The arms are pendulums that swing as you walk, and a shorter pendulum swings faster than a long pendulum. Thus, keeping your elbows bent shortens the pendulum and allows the arms to swing more rapidly. And because the arms and legs move in synchrony, a faster arm swing means a quicker step.

4. Relax. Efficient walking requires that your movements be relaxed and fluid, and your body knows how to achieve that if you allow it to. No hunched shoulders or stiff arms, no slamming the heel into the ground reaching for an extra-long stride. Rather your upper body movements are relaxed, and the transfer of weight from one foot to the other is smooth.

5. Take quick steps, rather than long strides. Reaching for a longer stride slows you down and decreases the aerobic benefits of walking. Instead, concentrate on taking faster steps and the optimal step length will occur naturally.

6. Make contact with the ground: heel-ball-toes. This will help you move faster and increase the aerobic benefits. Keeping the back knee relaxed and partly bent, throw your foot forward from the hip and as your leg straightens, plant your heel squarely and decisively on the ground, allowing your foot to roll toward the ball and toes as you move forward.

7. Take care of your shins. The most common ailment of a beginning walker is sore shins. This is because the shin muscles pull the toes up when the heel strikes the ground. The faster you walk, the higher your toes are at the heel-strike. Have patience and gradually increase your speed over time to get underdeveloped muscles in shape. Wear walking shoes rather than thick-heeled running shoes, which exacerbate the problem.

8. Try some rhythmic breathing patterns. Breathe in rhythm with your steps, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. A good pattern is two short inhalations followed by a long exhalation (one step per each inhalation and two steps for the exhalation).

9. Walk at the appropriate rate for your body. Use these practical physiologist's rules to assure that heart rate is high enough (but not too high): Walk fast enough to break a light sweat and to increase your breath rate, but not so fast that you are out of breath or gasping. If you're having a conversation, you should have to pause regularly to breathe.

(heartbeats per 10 seconds)

AGE 20 25 30 35 40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75
65% MHR* 22 21 21 20 20 19 18 18 17 17 16 16
85% MHR* 28 28 27 26 26 25 24 23 23 22 21 21
*Maximum Heart Rate
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