Tweak your walking routine for muscle and bone health

If walking is your main form of exercise, listen up. Walking alone doesn't offer much protection from fractures and bone loss as you age.

But don't trade in your walking shoes just yet. With a few tweaks to your regular walking routine, you can set yourself up for an aerobic workout that improves your muscle and bone health — no special equipment needed.

Muscle and bone: Use it or lose it

Starting at around age 30, muscle strength and bone mineral density naturally begin to diminish. Untempered, these changes increase your risk of falls, fractures and conditions like osteoporosis. Regular exercise has been shown to slow or stop muscle and bone loss. And the right kind of exercise can even trigger the body to build new muscle and bone.

Different physical activities benefit your muscles and bones in different ways:

Aerobic activities work large muscle groups, increase your heart rate and help your body in countless ways. But for an aerobic activity to benefit your bones, it needs to be weight bearing. This means you are on your feet, moving your body against gravity. Dancing and walking are weight-bearing activities, but cycling and swimming are not. The higher the impact (think jogging and jumping rope), the bigger the benefit for your bones.

Muscle-strengthening activities include lifting weights, using resistance bands and doing body-weight exercises like pushups, lunges and squats. These activities use resistance to make your muscles work harder than they usually do — which makes them stronger. Bonus: Muscle-strengthening exercises offer some bone-building benefits, too.

Turn your walk into a muscle-strengthening and bone-building aerobic exercise

Most people who walk for exercise tend to walk at the same pace for approximately the same amount of time. That's helpful for maintaining bone density. But to signal your body to build new muscle and bone cells, you'll need to switch up your routine to increase the "load" on your body.

After you warm up, try these strategies:

  • Pick up the pace. Brisk walking and jogging are more beneficial for bone health than walking at a slow or moderate pace. To ease yourself into moving faster, start by picking up the pace or jogging for short bits of time during your walk. You might walk for two or three minutes at your normal pace, and then walk briskly for one minute. Repeat until your walking time is up.
  • Hit the hills or stairs. Stair- and hill-walking challenge your body to carry your weight in new ways, which further benefits your muscles and bones. Add some stairs or hills to your route, and feel free to switch up the pace. Try walking briskly up an incline, and then slow it down and really focus on using your muscles to control your descent, or vice versa.
  • Add body-weight exercises or jumps. Come across an intersection or park along your walking route? Stop and do a set of squats, lunges or pushups. If high-impact activities are okay for your body, consider incorporating sets of squat jumps, jump lunges or static jumps (to mimic jumping rope, but without the rope).

Experts recommend that older adults follow an exercise program that includes weight-bearing aerobic activity, muscle-strengthening activities and balance training, like tai chi, yoga or Pilates. Especially if you have osteoporosis or are at risk of the condition. With a few tweaks to your walking routine, you are on your way to increasing your chance of keeping fractures and bone loss at bay.

Last Updated Oct 8, 2019

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