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Why walking is the best exercise you can get - and how to make the most of it

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Forget Thai kickboxing and anti-gravity yoga - one of the best types of exercise you can do comes completely for free and you can do it absolutely anywhere. Scientists have found the simple act of walking to have a ream of health benefits over the years, from reducing blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes risk to improving self-esteem.

"We're talking about a wider phenomenon here than just 'walk more, feel more energy,'" says Robert Thayer, psychology professor and author of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise.

"We're talking about 'walk more, be happier, have higher self-esteem, be more into your diet and the nutritiousness of your diet.'"

Walking can even increase creativity, as a study from Stanford university found earlier this year.

"We're not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo," said study co-author Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology. "But it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity."

All in all, walking is good news.

So how best to make the most of it? We hear from the experts on how you can make the most of walking in terms of exercise value, and also take a look at just a few of Britain's beautiful walks to get you in the zone.

As personal trainer Lucy Knight puts it:

"Walking is a refreshing alternative to complicated aerobic routines and overpriced gym memberships.

"It is free, enjoyable and already a part of everyday life. All you need to do is correct your technique, walk faster and for longer and you will lose weight."

Get a pedometer

A Fitbit Zip - one of the most popular pedometers around

According to the NHS, a person weighing 70kg (about 11 stone) can burn about 440 calories by walking 10,000 steps briskly (at 3.5mph). Clearly, the faster you walk, the more calories you burn and in order to lose weight through walking, you should aim to burn 600 more calories than you take in through food and drink every day.

The first step is to buy or download a pedometer (there are plenty of good apps out there), in order to find out how many steps you take during a normal day. Record your daily steps over a week and use the total weekly number to work out a daily average.

Then gradually build up this average to 10,000 steps a day. There are ways of gently introducing more steps into your daily routine - getting off at an earlier bus stop, for example, or taking the stairs instead of the escalators. You could also try taking a 20-minute walk round the block during your lunch hour.

Walk tall

To make the most of walking as exercise, you not only need to pay attention to how far and fast you walk, but the way in which you do it.

As the folks over at Walking Connection put it:

"The foundation of a good basic stride is posture. The spine should be elongated by standing straight - not in a rigid military position, merely straight, tall, and relaxed. You should be able to draw a straight line from your ear down to your shoulder, to your hip, knee and ankle.

"The head should be level, eyes looking forward, and the chin parallel to the ground. If the head is allowed to tilt forward, excess strain is put on the neck and shoulders and will lead to undue fatigue."

"Stand tall with your arms by your sides and pull your navel towards your spine so that your core muscles are working," says fitness instructor Knight.

"Focus your eyes five to six meters ahead and keep your shoulders relaxed. Bend your elbows at a 90 degree angle and cup your hands lightly, rather than clenching your fists."

Bend your arms

"If you keep your arms stiff and straight at your sides, they act like a long pendulum, slowing you down," explains marathon coach Wendy Bumgardner. "You can add power and speed by using you arms effectively and more naturally, by bending them and letting them swing naturally forward and back as you walk."

According to the website Walking Connection, "A walker’s shoulders should be relaxed, not drawn up towards the ears. "Arms should swing naturally with each step, and should be bent at the elbow at a 90 degree angle.

"This is important. Straight arms on long walks lead to problems with swelling, tingling, and numbness of the fingers or hands. Bending them will not only eliminate this problem, it will help you gain upper body strength and tone your deltoids, biceps and triceps."

In fact, you can increase these toning effect by adding in glove and wrist wrap weights, performing bicep curls as you walk.

Place your arms at your side turning your palms forward and your elbows in. Slowly lift your forearms, bringing your hands close to your shoulders and then extend them to your sides again. Repeat the biceps curls 15 to 20 times as you continue walking.

The LiveStrong.com website has the following advice on the perfect bicep curl: "Place your arms at your side turning your palms forward and your elbows in. Slowly lift your forearms, bringing your hands close to your shoulders and then extend them to your sides again. Repeat the biceps curls 15 to 20 times as you continue walking."

Buy a pair of MBT Shoes

The Afiya Slip-On Scuba Blue MBT trainers

Masai Barefoot Technology shoes, developed by Swiss engineer, Karul Muller, are specially designed to increase muscle activity, reduce lower back pain and improve posture and balance.

Based on the notion of "natural instability", they force your body to constantly adjust its balance, engaging neglected leg and buttock muscles. The idea is that your whole body has to work harder to maintain its balance. resulting in a greater calorie burn and muscle workout.

The website Fitness Walking Guide recommends that you "think of the MBTs as a piece of exercise equipment - a tool that can help enhance some of your workouts. You could use them while running errands or incorporate them into your fitness walking routine and use them as much or as little as you want provided they are comfortable and enjoyable to exercise in."

See more about MBT shoes and where to purchase them on the official website.

Try Nordic walking

Granted, this Scandinavian-born mode of walking looks a little silly in a non-ski context, but it definitely has its benefits.

"It may look a little odd to be walking on the Common with what look like ski poles but fitness walking with Nordic poles burns up to 30% more calories than walking without poles," says Suzy Kilgour, the founder of London-based company Walking Workouts. "They also give your upper body muscles a great workout too. No wonder that it is becoming an increasingly popular activity in the UK now."

Professor John Pocari, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, has studied the effects of walking poles and found they force people to pick up their pace and work harder without realizing it.

"Just the fact that you are using your arms through a greater range of motion than normal means you burn more calories," says Pocari. On average, people use 20 percent more calories when they use poles."

Participants in his studies increased their upper body strength by 40 percent and reduced impact on vulnerable hips, ankles and knees by 26 percent compared with running.

Five of Britain's best walking hot spots

A woman walking along a path next to a glorious bluebell field near Rydal in the Lake District

Photos: Rex Features

Here's where to flex your newly honed walking skills:

Hampstead Heath, London

One of London's best-loved green spaces, Hampstead Heath consists of around 790 acres of beautiful countryside, with gorgeous meadows, woodland, rich wildlife, three ponds, a Lido and an athletic's track.

cityoflondon.gov.uk

The South West Coast Path

Voted Britain’s best walking route by the readers of Walk magazine, this scenic stretch of coastline runs for 630 miles between Somerset's Minehead on the edge of Exmoor around to the shores of Poole Harbour in Dorset, with glorious views along the way.

southwestcoastpath.com

Snowdonia

From rugged mountain peaks to long sandy beaches and crystal clear lakes and rivers, Snowdonia in Wales is a veritable treasure trove of gorgeous walking routes. You can even opt to tackle Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales, if you're really up for a challenge.

npa.gov.uk

The Lake District

England's largest national park is home to more than 3,500 kilometres of walkways with stunning scenery along the way. From ambles around lakes to high ridge walks, with a bit of scrambling thrown in, there's something here for everyone.

lakedistrict.gov.uk

Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat

This 640 acre Royal Park adjacent to Holyrood Palace is a stone's throw away from Edinburgh city centre with glorious views of the city from Arthurs Seat, a dormant volcano that sits at its highest spot 251m above sea level.

visitscotland.com

Words: Anna Brech

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