While clubs typically offer a wide variety of exercises and sports activities to attract a large segment of the population, the one exercise that is suitable for many people — aerobic walking — is largely taken for granted. In fact, club members interested in aerobic walking are generally left to their own judgment as to how far, how fast and how often to walk. This is most likely because few fitness instructors are aware that there is a proper technique that can convert brisk walking into a highly aerobic activity.

Aerobic walking is a specialized exercise that can attract several large population groups: the overweight, the medically compromised, the elderly and those with musculoskeletal disabilities. Many in these populations won’t consider any exercise except walking. And most of them view clubs as places where only “fitness freaks” hang out. The strength-training equipment, racquetball courts, group exercise classes with fast-moving routines, and treadmills with runners pounding out the miles can be intimidating for these populations.

Appeal of a walking program

Walking may have more advantages than any other type of fitness activity, and yet it is the most basic and universal exercise. Its attributes are many, including the following:

* it is safe and non-intimidating

* it requires no special athletic skills to begin a program

* all ages can participate

* it appeals to older and overweight populations

* it is recommended for medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease

* no special equipment is required

* it is suitable for both indoors and outdoors

* it is appropriate for both group classes and individual instruction

Despite this list of advantages, club managers generally feel that they can do little more than provide treadmills for members who select walking as their only exercise. The concept of instruction for walking is a foreign one.

Limits of ordinary walking

For all its advantages, brisk walking is missing a crucial element: It is only marginally aerobic. Walking, even quick walking, has speed limits. Fifteen minutes per mile (4 mph) is considered brisk; 13 minutes per mile is considered very fast; 12 minutes per mile (5 mph) appears to be the biomechanical limit of how fast a strong walker can go.

The aerobic benefits of walking are modest because of speed limitations and because the large muscle groups of the lower body are not used vigorously in the workout. Most of the power in walking comes from the calf muscles, aided only minimally by the muscles of the upper legs and lower trunk. A basic rule of physiology is that aerobic change is proportional to the total muscle mass used in the exercise. The greater the total muscle mass used, the more the aerobic change.

The aerobic benefits of walking are modest because of speed limitations and because the large muscle groups of the lower body are not used vigorously in the workout. Most of the power in walking comes from the calf muscles, aided only minimally by the muscles of the upper legs and lower trunk. A basic rule of physiology is that aerobic change is proportional to the total muscle mass used in the exercise. The greater the total muscle mass used, the more the aerobic change.

Walking derives most of its power from pushing off the ball of the foot — calf muscle work. To make walking into a high-level exercise, the technique must be changed to use other, larger muscle groups, in addition to the muscles of the calves. Concurrently, the stride exchange must be fluid to accommodate the faster stride rate that the additional power produces. With skillful technique, walking becomes a new exercise: aerobic walking. Using a greater total muscle mass and a faster pace, aerobic walking produces a greater change in body and brain chemistry. As a fitness exercise, it can be challenging for runners and other cardio-vascularly-fit athletes.

Starting a walking program

Since there is technique to be learned, there is opportunity for clubs. Clubs can offer walkers a way to turn their chosen exercise into a high-grade aerobic activity. For clubs with an indoor tack, the situation is ideal. In facilities without a track, treadmills will do nicely.

The first step in offering an instructional walking program is to schedule a lecture/demonstration for the general public. Provide ample, good publicity: mailings, fliers, advertisements, press releases, word of mouth, etc. Reach out to the public at large, not just club members and their friends. In the publicity pieces, use a catchy title such as “Aerobic Walking — Changing Your Chemistry” or “Aerobic Walking — Metabolic Magic.” In the copy for the lecture announcement, offer help for coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, chronic low back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome. One or more of those six illnesses probably apply to almost all Americans. People will come to a well-publicized presentation, especially if it is free. In the lecture, have your program director give full details of your program and leave room for questions. The lecturer must present the subject dynamically and show honest enthusiasm. In offering a series of instructed group classes, a starting date should be announced at the lecture/demonstration, and members of the audience should have a chance to sign up right there.

The program

Because technique is learned incrementally, a six- to eight-week program is appropriate. Endurance, too, takes a few weeks to build up. On both accounts, encourage program participants to be patient. Within eight weeks, everyone will gain stamina and develop a strong, smooth technique.

Format. Classes should be held once a week for six or more weeks. Class size may be up to 40 participants. All ages and all fitness levels can receive instruction in the same class, as each class member can walk at an individually appropriate pace, with the instructor walking successively with each participant in the group workout. In addition to giving individualized coaching, the instructor must maintain ideal form so that students can learn by observation, even when another student is receiving guidance. When treadmills are used, the instructor can go from one treadmill to the next, offering corrections and tips and adjusting pace. Periodically, the instructor can demonstrate a particular facet of the form for the entire class on one of the treadmills. The technique is complex, so the instructor should only correct one or two parts of a student’s form at a time. Week by week, the students will improve incrementally.

Aerobic thresholds. The three areas to incorporate into the class are frequency, distance and intensity.

* Frequency. The human body requires three or four workouts a week to change metabolically. During the program, have each student do an additional two or three workouts a week at the same distance and pace as that week’s instructed session.

* Distance. Distance can be measured in terms of time. The first week, about 20 minutes (with five minutes latitude) is right. Each week, increase the distance by five minutes until students are walking for 40 to 50 minutes. Even the unfit or frail can reach 45 minutes in eight weeks. Maintenance is 40 to 50 minutes per workout.

* Intensity. Start at a comfortable pace, which will be different for each member of the class. Increase the pace a little each week until it is rather brisk. Use the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion and have students aim for a rating of 7 or 8 the first week, reaching 14 when workouts are up to 45 minutes (Figure 1). In descriptive terms, 14 on the Borg Scale is stronger than “moderate” but not quite “hard.” Other means of measuring intensity are less convenient and/or less accurate. A miles-per-hour standard is different for every individual. Heart rate is difficult to measure accurately unless a monitor is worn, and the target zone as determined by age is inaccurate for many individuals. The Borg Scale is both accurate and easy to apply.


Technique for aerobic walking is scientific, but it is also an art. Learning technique takes place in two ways: by analyzing form and building it part by part (the body learns multifaceted physical skills only one feature at a time), and by watching the overall form and copying it as a whole. Both learning methods are valid and can be used to perfect aerobic walking technique.

The instructor should first demonstrate what ordinary brisk walking looks like: The heel always touches the ground first and the toe leaves last. Pushing off the ball of the foot at the last third of the stride provides power for the body’s forward motion. As stride exchange occurs, a normal slight bobbing motion occurs. The bobbing becomes exaggerated when a hiking type of walk is employed. In ordinary brisk walking, the hips are stabilized so that an imaginary line between the hips is maintained on a fixed horizontal plane. Even if you are going fast enough to call it speed walking, power comes mainly from the calf muscles at the moment of push off.

To increase the aerobic effect of walking, the walker must enlist the larger muscle groups, specifically hamstrings, gluteals and lower trunk muscles, in addition to the calf muscles. This technique also involves a light, smooth stride exchange. When everything comes together, aerobic walking can be as aerobic as running or cross country skiing.

Power. In aerobic walking, power starts at the beginning of the stride when the heel first contacts the ground. The heel should touch the ground gently, but there should be a conscious effort at that instant to accelerate by drawing the heel back against the resistance of the earth. As your body moves forward and the ground-contact leg is more vertical beneath the body’s center of gravity, the backward force is gradually increased (Figure 2). When the heel starts to lift during the last portion of the stride, the backward pressure continues with strong force until that foot is ready to come forward to prepare for a new stride. The muscle groups that provide power to move the leg back and the body forward are the hamstrings and gluteals.

So far, only half of the available power has been addressed. The other half comes from the muscles of the lower trunk. As the ground-contact leg exerts a horizontally backward force against the surface of the earth, the reciprocal (recovery) leg reaches forward from the hip for the new stride (Figure 3). By reaching forward, the imaginary hip-to-hip line forms a 45-degree angle and so increases stride length and power.

Fluid stride exchange. The power that is developed with aerobic walking technique should increase walking speed substantially, but unless stride rate is also increased, speed will still be limited. Stride turnover can be quickened by adopting a fluid stride exchange. It is the most difficult aspect of the technique to learn and perfect, but it is the key to breaking through biomechanical limitations.

Smoothness of stride is best learned by watching an instructor, copying the smooth technique and feeling the lightness and smoothness of stride progression. The technique makes for very quiet steps and gives the walker a sensation of barely touching the ground. The head and eyes should follow a straight line and not rise and fall with each step. Walking with the sun behind a person, the shadow of the top of the head should glide along, without moving up and down. By forcing the shadow to glide, walkers will be using a kind of biofeedback to achieve a smooth stride progression.

Analyzing technique for fluidity and learning by parts is also possible, though more difficult. When the recovery leg has come forward and is ready for the next stride, initial contact with the ground must be gentle. From that instant, acceleration gradually increases to a maximum as the entire foot is on the ground (Figure 2). That is difficult to do within the fraction of a second it takes for the foot to reach a position directly below the body’s center of gravity, but once the technique is well-learned, it becomes a conditioned reflex. Adjustment at the end of the stride will fine-tune fluidity further. Ending the stride a fraction of a second early, with no conscious toeing-off, will smooth out the transition between support and recovery phases.

Arm position and foot placement are two additional elements of technique that will help to smooth out form. The arms should be bent 90 degrees at the elbow throughout the workout (Figure 4). In this way, the arms can keep up with increased leg speed. Holding the arms fully extended, as is common in ordinary brisk walking, inhibits stride rate. The feet should be almost in line with each other so that the inside edge of each foot is on the same line (Figure 5). Walking with a wider stance contributes to a hiking motion and prevents a smooth, fast stride turnover.

Posture. Posture should be tall and straight but not stiff (Figure 6). A vertical line should pass through the head, the body’s center of gravity and the point of support on the ground. Walkers must neither lean forward nor back, and the advance of the body should be led equally from the chest and pelvis. The upper body should be relaxed while the lower body produces power.

Benefits of a walking program

The technique of aerobic walking confers many gains to participants, including the medical benefits noted earlier and musculoskeletal improvements. The lightness and smoothness of good technique is easy on the musculoskeletal system, creating less pressure on the knees, back and feet. The fluid form allows walkers to complete long-distance walks safely.

Another use of aerobic walking is as cross training for other sports, especially basketball, baseball, football, soccer and boxing. With aerobic walking, stamina is increased, even in highly fit athletes; run training is diminished; mid-body flexors, extensors and oblique muscles are strengthened; acceleration is improved and hamstrings become more resilient and resistant to injury.

In teaching aerobic walking classes, instructors can observe the many positive changes that occur in program participants. One benefit for clubs, members and potential members alike is the number of people who will change their anti-club attitudes and become converts to exercise.

Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion
Effort Numeric Value
Very, very light 6 to 7
Light 8 to 11
Moderate 12
— aerobic zone —
Moderate to hard 13 to 14
— aerobic zone —
Hard 15
Very hard 16 to 18
All-out effort 19 to 20
When exercising at 13 to 14 (moderate to hard), working muscles are using oxygen at proper aerobic levels — the so-called aerobic zone. The correlation between the subjective measure of perceived exertion and the objective standards of oxygen utilization is remarkably consistent.

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