'Walking Is a Superfood'—An Interview with Katy Bowman

Walking is a fitness superfood! Biomechanist Katy Bowman joined me to talk about how to walk effectively and maximize the impact this simple, everyday activity has on your strength, stability, overall fitness, and health.

Brock Armstrong
14-minute read
Episode #507

The Nutritious Movement website says:

Around the globe, people are waking up to how many of our ailments and illnesses can be attributed to our deeply sedentary habits. People have been told to move more and move better to resolve their pain or decrease their risk for certain ailments, but they’re not sure where to start.

And that is where people like my guest, biomechanist and author Katy Bowman, come in. Katy is an internationally recognized biomechanist, author, and science communicator with both the skill and passion for reintroducing movement into people’s everyday lives. With her bestselling books, an award-winning podcast, and her online classes, she reaches hundreds of thousands of people every month. She has been featured on TV shows like NBC’s TODAY show and in publications such as Prevention and Good Housekeeping.

Katy has recently teamed up with Jill Miller, fascia expert and the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide, to create a comprehensive “whole body” program that breaks down the act of walking into its components. By tackling each one, separately, their aim is to help improve your gait, gain distance and make every step count for whole-body health and longevity.

The program is aptly called Walking Well: A Stepwise Approach to an Everyday Movement. I just completed the entire 14-segment, six-hour course, and I can say firsthand that Walking Well is for everybody ... and every body. Luckily, during this time of social distancing, I was able to work on my walk in the comfort of my own home and move through the course at my own pace.

"Nutritious" movement

Before I get into the interview, Katy, who recently celebrated her 44th birthday by walking 440 miles (no, not all at once), has been quoted as saying “Walking is a superfood.” I asked Katy what she means by that.

Walking is a superfood.

Katy: I think of walking as a superfood because it really does utilize most of the parts of your body. It's not only a lower body phenomenon—it's a whole-body phenomenon; it's a weight-bearing phenomenon. When you're carrying the weight of your body—and that's when you're “carrying” nothing—humans are heavy, so you're carrying your weight. While you're propelling yourself from point A to point B, you're utilizing so many of the lever systems of the body, that it is really an effective way of getting lots of movement into a short period of time.

And it's also a really great movement for getting other things done, besides just the movement.

  • You can connect with other people on foot
  • You can run errands on foot
  • You can get a lot of the other tasks in your life done on foot

So it allows you to sort of layer more movement into your life so you don't have to step away from your life as much. It allows you to not only have a period of time in which you're exercising, it's a period of time in which you can be checking the exercise box, but also checking the box on your friendships, relationships, work, other to-do list things. 

[Walking isn't just] a period of time in which you can be checking the exercise box; it's also checking the box on your friendships, relationships, work, other to-do list things.

It's also nutritious! I think of movement in the same way that I think about food, as nutritious, because it's nutrient-dense, meaning it moves lots of parts of your body. So it's just a nutrient-dense approach all around.

Walking Well

The Walking Well program is divided into six sections that each focus on a key topic. So I thought it would be fun to go through each of the six sections and get Katy to explain each one’s importance and then give us a simple exercise that we can do at home, right now. And you may actually want to stand up and do these exercises while you listen.

1. Waking up the Feet

Why it’s important

A lot of our anatomy is located from the ankle down. 25% of the number of bones and muscles and ligaments in your body are from the ankle down. So that implies that there's a lot of movement potential there. So not only is it extremely complex in terms of shape and movement potential, but it's also maybe one of the least moved parts in our body.

It's really important for people to understand that the feet are foundational. They're literally foundational, but then they're also metaphorically foundational to this process of walking.

We've all sort of wrapped our feet in shoes very early on. So we've got this relationship between the potential for a ton of movement and the cultural habit of getting even less movement than our other parts in this area that is supposed to be dynamic. And then we also ask that this very weak and under-moved part of our body carry our bodyweight from point A to point B. So it's really important for people to understand that the feet are foundational. They're literally foundational, but then they're also metaphorically foundational to this process of walking.

The exercise

So I'm going to use your hands to teach you this exercise. Look down at your hands and make a fist as tightly as you can, and then I want you to open your hands and do the opposite of a fist - where your fingers are not only open, but they're spread and extended. You're really stretching the fingers away from you. And we're going to do that exact same thing with your feet now.

It helps if you don't have shoes on, but you can absolutely still do it in shoes. You're going to curl your toes. You're going to make foot fists, if you will, or you're going to think of squeezing them or gripping them or curling them as much as possible. This is where the barefoot comes in because your shoes can actually prevent you from using all the muscles in your feet.

Then, after holding that for about 10 or 12 seconds, you're going to do the opposite. You're going to stretch and release and spread the toes away from each other (and it really does help if you do this with your hands at the same time). So do the opposite spread, lift the toes away from the floor, just like your fingers would sort of bend backwards. That's called extension. We'll do one more time, foot fists, squeeze, and then go ahead and not only release but go and stretch vigorously in the opposite direction.

2. Strong and supple Ankles

Why it’s important:

Well, this one is not necessarily in the way that you think. Obviously, you definitely want ankles that are stable underneath you for all the obvious reasons like you've got better balance and whatnot. But your ankles, because of the way the muscles attach in the legs, quickly lose range of motion when you sit a lot.

I don't know if any of you out there reading this sit a lot, but our culture sits a lot and because the knees are bent, you end up getting very tight calves, which end up reducing the range of motions that the ankle can move through when walking, running, or cycling. But more important than that loss of range of motion is that the pumping action of your foot, as it's moving through its full range of motion at the ankle, I think of it as an extension of your cardiovascular system.

The pumping action of your foot, as it's moving through its full range of motion at the ankle, [is like] an extension of your cardiovascular system.

So we think of the heart as pushing the blood around your body, but it's really the muscular contraction that is a very large part of how the blood is propelled. And so the lower legs are the part farthest away from your heart which makes that pumping action a very important part of how your cardiovascular system functions. So if that regular pumping action at the ankle is limited, simply through how little you've used your ankles to the full range of motion, I think of it as a contributing factor to an overworked heart. It's like the pumping action is missing and so we're asking other body parts to sort of step in.

When I take a walk, I think 'All right, heart, I'm going to give you a leg up,' so to speak, and 'I'm going to let my ankles moving do some of the work to get the blood back up to ya.'

The exercise

So I'm going to have you start standing. And I want everyone to do a few calf raises. And if you don't know what a calf raise is, it's when you're standing and you sort of lift the ankles away from the ground and feel the weight kind of move towards the front of the foot. You're rising up onto your toes and then you're dropping your heels down. So this is a very common exercise performed at gyms all over the world.

But if you were standing in front of a mirror, or if you bent over to watch your ankles as you were doing this, you might notice that as you were raising up onto your toes, that your ankles were not traveling straight up and straight down, you might notice that they travel up, but also sort of fall away from each other. So your ankles widen away from each other, or maybe you have one that likes to drop out to the right, or maybe you have one that drops in. Maybe you notice that your ankles sort of rotate as you come up and come down.

I call this exercise “calf elevators” because an elevator travels straight up and straight down and there's no rotation to it. It doesn't travel sideways in either direction. That's what I want your ankles to start doing on a calf raise. And you can do that a few times if you're at a standing workstation or when you're standing in line. So even if you can't take a walk, you can get some of that pumping action. And if you really mind the position of your ankle joints, you'll also be working towards a more stable and balanced step.

3. The supportive stance leg and 4. The swing-leg spectrum

Why these are important

In a biomechanics laboratory, we like to figure out what every part is doing during a stride. And you're always walking two legs at a time and there's a handoff. So in a cycle of gait, you have one leg that is the supportive or stance leg—that's the one that's holding you up as the other leg now has to swing through to where it lands, and then it becomes the stance leg. So both legs will need to be good stance legs and good swing legs. 

And you know, people will say "I have a bad knee" or "I have a bad back." And we try not to have you write off whole parts of your body as "not good." Chances are that they're doing excellent things in some phases of your gait, but they're not doing all that they could be doing in others.

Chances are that [parts of your body are] doing excellent things in some phases of your gait, but they're not doing all they could be doing in others.

So, we like to break it down enough so that someone could assess themselves to say "Oh, yes, I can see that what I've been calling my bad leg is not really a bad leg. It's a great stance leg. It's just that it doesn't have as much mobility when it's time for it to swing." We like to break them up so that everyone can have a more nuanced understanding of which parts of their body need attention.

The supportive stance leg

We'll start with the stance leg. I like to say walking is really a series of standing on one leg, but you're switching off between the other leg. So being able to stand on one leg and balance is really helpful.

I'm going to make this one pretty simple. I just want you to stand on your right leg without holding on to anything and also without bending the knee of your standing leg. Then I want you to do one more thing—in addition to standing upright on your right leg, I want you to back your hips up so that your weight on that single leg is on the rear of the foot, more on the heel and less in the middle and the front of the foot.

Then, if you want to toggle a little bit between the front and the back of your foot, you can definitely do that. You can let your pelvis sort of fall towards the front of the foot and feel more weight on the front of your foot and then you'll back your hips up and you'll stand on that one leg, really pressing the heel bone down. So it's kind of blending "standing on one leg" with "learning how to control where you wear your weight on your foot.”

The swing-leg spectrum

This is a quick exercise to see if your hips are able to open all the way. I want you to stand on your right leg and you're going to grab your left leg behind you, like a runner's stretch, or a runner's quad stretch. If you can't hold your leg back behind you, you can use a strap.

If you can get into that position, congratulations! But now I'm going to start adding a few more things.

And instead of holding your leg at the foot, it would be better if you could hold it at the bottom of the shin. So your foot is sort of draping over the hand that's holding you. If you can get into that position, congratulations! But now I'm going to start adding a few more things.

The first is to check out your knees. If you are standing in front of a mirror, it helps. But if you're just listening, you can bend over and watch. You want your knees to be together. So instead of that bent leg sort of flailing out to the side or moving in front of you, you want to pull it back and in so that the knees are side-by-side.

And then the second piece is when we've got that kind of permanent hip crease from sitting, what it does is when you bring your leg back, it also brings your pelvis back. So what I want you to do is this: While holding your foot and keeping your knees together, you're going to tuck your pubic bone forward to try to give yourself a little bit more length in the lower back. And when you do that, you end up finding this one quadricep muscle called your rectus femoris (a long muscle that goes from your pelvis to your shin). This is the movement that helps you find and stretch that. And we'll do the same thing on the other side.

5. Strong on the stairs

Why it’s important

Hills and stairs—they're a part of our daily life. And when these become challenging, especially when the knees and hips can't tolerate going uphill or downhill or upstairs or downstairs, it really limits where we can go and what we can do.

The exercise

Whether it's going up or down the stairs, a very simple exercise that you can try, even if you don't have stairs (even if you have steps just up into your back porch) is to slow your uphill down and just step with your right foot up onto the steps.

You're going to look down at your knee and I want you to slowly step up until you're standing all the way on your right leg with your left foot in the air. And then step down. And you're going to keep stepping up and stepping down, but that's not the most important part. The most important part is that as you're looking down at the knee, as you step up and down, you don't let the knee drop in towards your midline or out away from your midline.

So just like the calf elevators—where we really didn't want our ankles wobbling right to left as your ankle joints moved up—as your pelvis moves up the stairs, you don't want your knees sort of dropping in and out. That ends up using much more of the sides of the knees than what's required. And what you'll find is you have to use quite a bit of hip musculature, whether it's on the outside of the hip or closer to the inside of the groin to hold your knee there, which is great because it means that you're using more of your legs on the stairs. You can repeat that same thing on the other side.

6. Stable core and shoulders

Why it's important

We do think of walking as a lower-body phenomenon, not a whole-body phenomenon, but it is absolutely just as much about your upper body as it is your lower body.

We do think of walking as a lower-body phenomenon, not a whole-body phenomenon. But it is absolutely just as much about your upper body as it is your lower body.

The exercise

Stand with your arms by your side and just start swinging your arms front to back so that they're swinging in parallel lines. You want to try not to cross them in front of you—they really move straight forward and straight back—ideally, just like your legs do when you're walking. And then after you've loosened up your shoulders, you're going to swing your arms opposite to each other so you've got one going forward and one going back and you want to create motion. But you also want to have sort of a looseness, like you want your arms to really be swinging. And if you remember, if you haven't been on a swing-set in a while, the definition of swinging is really that after you bring something up, when it drops, it relaxes, it moves like a pendulum back.

So you don't have to just be tensing and raising your arm in front of you and raising it behind you. There's a looseness to your shoulders that we want because when the arms are moving during walking, they're coordinated with your legs naturally—you don't have to think about it. And it's not only the arms, it's the trunk. You've got muscles in your trunk that are also coordinating this.

When you don't have that looseness or suppleness in your waist and shoulders, then those other muscles have to lock down your torso. So it makes walking uncomfortable.

When there's a lot of stiffness in the torso, and a lot of stiffness in the shoulder, you can actually be demanding more tension and contraction in your lower back and in your hips and your psoas (which are these long muscles that run from just below your rib cage, down your spine to the front of the thigh). When you don't have that looseness or suppleness in your waist and shoulders, then those other muscles sort of have to lock down your torso. So it makes walking uncomfortable.

Practice that arm swing motion and focus not so much on the motion but on the relaxation, the flow of the arms and legs, and sort of stripping out the tension there. And then let your arms shake out your hands. And then when you go for a walk, the arms can kick in and do what they do naturally.

BONUS: How to make walking more challenging

I get this question a lot. When you're talking about improving your fitness through other modes of exercise, like cycling or running, you can always go faster or longer. And you could obviously play with those variables with walking as well. But there's not that much speed to walking before it becomes running, so you're sort of limited on speed. And because walking takes so long, we often don't have hours in which we can go for more volume.

If you had to work with the same speed or the same volume (or the time that you have allotted to walking) some of the things that you can do is look for more difficult terrain.

If you're always walking the same loop, see if there's something close to you or available to you that offers more hills, more complex texture, or what I just call “lumps and bumps.” If everything is very smooth and hard, it's going to be hard for your body to develop its ability to move more parts while walking. So you want to walk on the grass just to the side of your regular sidewalk walk, or if you have the opportunity to go to a park, see if you can adds some hills and some things that require balance to step over, varying up your step a little bit so that you are digging into some of the complexity of walking that isn't triggered or teased out when every surface that you walk on is flat, level and smooth.

You can play with carrying something while walking. It could be simply carrying a backpack or grocery bag full of weight.

You can also play with carrying something while walking. It could be simply loading a backpack full of weight or it can be a grocery bag. You could think about adding walking into your grocery store trip, or to a farmer's market. It doesn't even have to be within walking distance from where you live either, you can just park shy a mile of those places and walk in and out carrying that load. And you will experience what I'm talking about, which is an increased oxygen demand and strength and muscle use, when you start adding a load to the exact same mileage and speed that you were doing before.

Enjoy your superfood

I'd like to thank Katy Bowman for this deep explanation and I hope you now agree that walking truly is a superfood. If you want to try out the Walking Well program, you can go directly to tuneupfitness.com or you can read, listen, watch and learn from Katy at her website nutritiousmovement.com

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.