Hit your stride and lose inches

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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