Hit your stride and lose inches
Had you told me last January that five months of ‘‘just’’ walking would not only change the way I feel about daily exercise, but also trim and tone my body noticeably, I would have smiled in polite disbelief. I was still recovering from a complete hysterectomy, and was as weak as a kitten.
Had you then said that it would also transform my core fitness so overwhelmingly that I would go from struggling to walk up a hill, to storming through 20km barely breaking sweat, I would simply have laughed. So would friends and family – the idea was inconceivable.
Yet, after four days of an intense walking camp in Spain, I found myself striding up a hot, steep hillside, at speed, grinning away and chatting to my new pal Vicky who, like me, was feeling heady from the sheer joy of what we were achieving.
This is what six months of Walkactive – an exercise programme designed by sports scientist Joanna Hall – has done for me. Beginning with a tentative lesson last June in my kitchen, I ‘‘graduated’’ in the technique in October (just four months later) at a four-day camp at La Manga, in Spain.
Today I’m devoted. Walkactive has changed my level of fitness, my body shape – and my attitude to exercise, I hope, for good.
The premise behind it is simple: it’s about perfecting posture while you move. Joanna explains: ‘‘We all walk, but we don’t walk the right way to see shape change, posture improvement, weight loss or shave inches off our waistlines.’’
However, the theory behind the programme is much more complex. Joanna, who has an MSc in sports science from Loughborough University, and was a sports medicine intern at Virginia Mason Sports Medicine Clinic, Seattle, spent several years analysing how we hold and use our bodies during exercise. She concluded that for the most part, we do only what’s necessary to get from A to B. So even if we do a lot of it – a daily walk with the dog for example – we’re not getting much benefit either on a cardiovascular level or a figure-improving one.
Joanna decided to turn that around: why couldn’t we gain maximum benefit for our bodies – both in health and inch loss – whenever we walked and for however long?
And so she developed the Walkactive technique: adjustments to parts of the body which open the ankle joint and stretch out your stride, making you use your gluteus (butt) muscles for propulsion while lengthening your torso and straightening your back.
These are the basics I learnt last summer, and applying them certainly changed my posture dramatically. I found I could walk more comfortably and further. Joanna, whose own greyhoundlike body is the best advertisement a sports scientist could dream of, advised me not to worry about spending hours on fitness or overreaching myself by attempting long distances.
Instead she asked for a little and often regime to encourage my muscles to memorise the new walking style, and to change my attitude into a more active mode (keener to walk to the shops, for example). She suggested I use a pedometer to measure my progress.
So far so good. But when I admitted I was ready to shift up a gear, she suggested I join one of her training camps – which run throughout the year, at locations in the UK, Europe, Dubai and Australia – to hone the technique and learn to walk at pace and for longer stretches.
The La Manga Club, the famous luxury Spanish golf resort and spa beloved by British football teams for winter training, offers a Walkactive course led by Joanna twice a year, lasting four days (you can also learn the technique on one-day UK workshops or by joining monthly online courses).
The week in October when I joined Joanna was for a small intensive group, which included Roy and Irene, a Home Counties couple who had won their place in a Daily Telegraph competition; Tony, a London company director; and Vicky, a zesty Cornish businesswoman. The week before, Joanna had trained 20 women whose ages ranged from 19 to over 60.
Our group gelled on the first night, especially when we admitted we were all feeling quite nervous. The timetable looked formidable: pre-dawn 5km walks by torchlight to see the sun rise, yoga by the pool before breakfast, then “drill” sessions for two hours to perfect basic technique and acquire the skills Joanna calls “the accelerators”. These are the physical tweaks that help you move faster — leading off with your middle toe, lifting the torso out of the hips, swinging arms in a loose but angled position. Adding these three moves to your walk lengthens your stride and increases your speed naturally.
But what alarmed all of us most were the ‘‘time trials’’ booked for the start and end of the week — 7km sessions against the clock. Not only did the concept seem terrifying, but improving in only a few days seemed a big ask. Likewise, when Julie, a member of Joanna’s new team, took down our measurements, we all wondered if we could lose any inches in four days. (Joanna does give nutritional advice as part of the programme – but it’s pleasingly unfussy: smaller portions, wiser choices, and crucially no carbs after 5pm.)
There was one more key part of