Charles Pelitera, assistant professor of kinesiology and coordinator of health and wellness at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, agrees. “The average person walks at the same pace for the same amount of time every day. That’s helpful for your bones, but what’s even more helpful is to ‘shock’ the bones periodically during your walk,” he says.
The following are some safe and effective ways to do that. If you walk at least 5 times a week for about 30 minutes (the government-recommended target), plan to do a different challenge each day for 4 days; the fifth day can be your usual walk.
1. Pick up your pace.
High-impact exercises like rope jumping and racket sports are among the best for your bones, but you don’t have to adopt a pounding regimen to reap the bone-strengthening benefits: In the large-scale Nurses’ Health Study of more than 60,000 postmenopausal women, those who walked briskly at least 4 times a week had much lower risk of hip fractures than women who walked at a more leisurely pace. Brisk means brisk, however: After walking for 10 minutes or so at your usual speed, aim to do 3 to 5 2-minute intervals at a pace that would make it difficult to hold a conversation. Between intervals, walk at a slower pace for 1 to 2 minutes to catch your breath. After a couple of weeks, add a minute to the intervals; eventually, you’ll want to be doing 3 brisk 5-minute intervals during your walks. Fast-pace walking is a great alternative for people with back pain or joint issues that rule out higher-impact exercise, says Friel.
2. Walk backward and sideways.
Another great way to create new—but safe—stress for your bones is to change direction when you walk. In fact, a study published in the journal Osteoporosis International found that sidestepping or walking backward may actually work as well as high-impact exercise for increasing bone density. Pelitera recommends taking 30 seconds each to walk sideways, backward, on your heels, and on the balls of your feet; try repeating the pattern every 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Do 20 big jumps.
Research shows that a specific style of jumping can be a boon for bones in premenopausal women: One study found that women between the ages of 25 and 50 who jumped 20 consecutive times, twice daily, increased their hipbone density significantly after just 4 months. The catch? You have to jump, and then take 30 seconds of rest before jumping again. To try this on your next walk, set a timer on your phone or keep an eye on your watch and, after walking for 5 minutes, jump every 30 seconds for the next 10 minutes. For your jump, pause with your feet together, bend at the knees as you swing both arms back, then explode upward. After you finish 20 jumps, walk for another 10 minutes, then repeat.
4. Add stairs or a steep hill to your walk.
A great way to increase beneficial stress on your bones is to walk briskly up and down stairs or a steep hill, says Pelitera. If you have plenty of hills nearby, you’re in luck: Just make 2 or 3 climbs and descents part of your regular route. If not, look for a nearby high school stadium or big building with outdoor steps (or if you have access to a treadmill, follow this walking workout for maximum burn). Spending a couple of minutes ascending and descending will do wonders for your bone density, says Pelitera.