When you begin a workout, every part of your needs to ease into it—certainly your muscles—but also your heart and your mind. A muscle after a day at work or a night’s sleep is like cold taffy: Bend it, and it cracks, splinters, or snaps. When it’s warm, it’s soft and pliable.
A warm-up prepares your muscles for the activity to come, letting them rehearse in slow motion the way they’ll move later. A warm-up for a walking workout can simply be walking slowly for about 5 minutes.
People sometimes talk about warm-up stretches. Actually, there’s no such thing. There’s a warm-up, and there are stretches. A warm-up should come first. Both are important when done at the right time, but the two in one breath contradict each other. The deepest of stretches—those aiming to improve flexibility and not just loosen muscles—come after your workout as part of the cool-down. I discuss these in the next section.
The warm-up itself should target your muscles, and that includes your heart, because it’s a muscle too and also needs warming up. Those first 5 minutes of easy walking coax it into working a little harder. You wouldn’t start your car’s engine after it has sat in the cold overnight, throw the pedal to the metal, and roar down the street. You know that you have to give the engine time to warm up, allowing the fluids and gears to move freely as you slowly pick up speed. The same goes for your body’s engine, the heart.
Then there’s your mind, an important element in workout success. When you crawl out of bed or away from your desk after eight hours (or more), you probably don’t feel like exercising vigorously or, for that matter, even moderately. Promise yourself at least 5 minutes. Give yourself permission to quit after 5 minutes if you don’t feel like going on. Most likely, those first few minutes will change your mind, convincing you that the workout will feel good, and you’ll keep going. That’s one benefit of a warm-up right there: motivation to keep going. The warm-up also lets you tune in to twinges or aches. If you still feel them after the warm-up, take a cue and skip this workout. If it’s not so bad after all, continue the workout but not so intensely. Listen to your body.
While you’re striding through the active warm-up—the easy movement that comes before the stretches—take the time to roll your shoulders forward and backward, lift them to your ears and pull them down, drop your chin to your chest, move your head from side to side, flex your hands and shake out your arms. Next, especially for more intense walks, take a few minutes for light stretches to loosen your muscles. For easier walks, stretches after the warm- up are optional. Remember, the deep stretching happens after your workout. Loosening muscles before activity can include some of the same stretches you’ll do later, but don’t push the stretch to the point of tension or mild discomfort that I describe in the next section. There should be no pain or discomfort when you loosen up before a walk.