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Ways to Amp Up Your Walking to Lose Weight, Tone, De-Stress and More

A walking workout seems simple enough: Lace up your shoes, and put one foot in front of the other — easy.

While it can be that simple, achieving specific goals like losing weight, taming stress, training for a 10K or toning muscle require a more specialized approach to your walking workout. Here are some ways to tailor your training depending on which goals you’re hoping to achieve.

TO LOSE WEIGHT

Walking might even be better for weight loss than more vigorous activities like running, according to research published in the journal Risk Analysis. The study found that those who went for a brisk walk for at least 30 minutes five times a week had lower body mass indexes and smaller waists than those who participated in other fitness activities.

If your goal is to slim down, Malin Svensson, a Los Angeles-based walking expert and founder of Nordic Body, recommends walking a shorter distance at higher intensity. “Increasing the intensity burns more calories,” she says.

To torch additional calories, Svensson suggests incorporating intervals into your walk by walking as fast as possible for 60 seconds and returning to a normal pace for 30 seconds. Do this 10 times to make up the entire 30-minute walk.

TO TAME STRESS

When it comes to stress busters, nothing beats a long, leisurely stroll.

Start destressing with a warmup: Slow, gentle stretching not only helps avoid injuries, says Dr. James Rippe, a cardiologist and author of “The Complete Book of Fitness Walking.” “It’s a good time to get in tune with the fact that you’re about to do something good for your body and mind,” he says.

Aim for a pace of 3–4 miles per hour (15–20-minute miles) for at least 60 minutes. Instead of zoning out on the treadmill, get outside. In 2015 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that a 90-minute walk in nature had lower levels of repetitive negative thoughts.

At the end of the walk, Rippe suggests closing your eyes and asking, “How do I feel?” as a means of appreciating the impact of movement on mood.

TO TRAIN FOR A 10K

It should come as no surprise that training for a 10K requires a workout that prioritizes distance over speed.

For beginners, training for a 10K will take at least eight weeks. Start slow. The goal is to finish the course, not break a speed record. “Walk at a pace you enjoy,” advises Rippe.

Plan to walk at least five days per week. The amount of time you walk — and the distance you cover — will increase each week. Aim for 15 minutes the first week, adding five minutes per week on four walks. During the fifth weekly walk, aim to double your walking time. For example: On week three, go for four 25-minute walks and one 50-minute walk. In the week leading up to the race, plan one 10K walk as a final training walk.

“You get multiple benefits simultaneously: aerobic benefits, bone building benefits and psychological benefits,” Rippe says about long walks.

TO TONE MUSCLE

No amount of walking will give you rock-hard abs or chiseled biceps, but heading for the hills (instead of walking on flat ground) forces your legs, glutes and core to work harder. “Walking can help you build muscular endurance,” says Svensson.

The steeper the grade, the more muscle activation required, according to research published in the journal Gait and Posture. The research also found that faster walking speeds on uphill grades require the most thigh muscle activation.

Set the incline on the treadmill or find a hilly route for a walking workout that tones your muscles. Svensson also recommends walking with poles. “It increases your muscular endurance by engaging your upper body,” she explains. Research agrees. A study published in PLOS One found significant increases in muscle involvement among Nordic walkers.

The next time you head out for a walk, think about your goals and tailor your standard stroll to improve your walking results.

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Make This Daily Commitment to Ease Your Back Pain

Many of us suffer from an achy back at some point in our lives. And while we may aim to fix it with an hour of physical therapy, it’s really about the other 23 hours in the day.

I came to this realization after 20 years of searching near and far for the best exercises and therapies to alleviate my own back pain. Suddenly, I realized I had completely ignored the influence of how my entire day and typical daily habits affected my back. I came to recognize that the ability to change how my back felt was a minute-by-minute, daily awareness of my habits —  not necessarily a magic exercise I could do once a day.

These four tools will help you gain freedom of movement — and hopefully ease your aching back.

1. NOTICE YOUR POSTURE

Check out how you stand and sit — what’s your posture like? Then see if you can improve any of the aspects of your standing and sitting posture. Is your pelvis drifting forward when you stand? Bring it back over your heels. Is your head tilted in front of your shoulders? Gently bring it back to an aligned position. Just asking yourself “How am I sitting or standing? And can I find a more aligned and effortless position?” will bring great shifts.

2. BREATHE WITH YOUR ENTIRE RIB CAGE

Once you are more aligned, pay attention to how you’re breathing. First, relax your jaw, shoulders and torso, and allow breath to come in effortlessly. Then as you breathe, focus on a full expansion of your rib cage — breathe sideways into your ribs, back into your low back and give the shoulders and neck a break. As you exhale, allow yourself to fully exhale before you take your next breath.

3. MOVE YOUR SPINE

Movement will ensure that you get blood flow, clear metabolic waste and avoid unnecessary guarding strategies, which often create their own cycle of pain. The more you feel your spine, the better chance you have of being able to coordinate muscles when it’s time to lift, twist, chop, punch, run, skip or sprint.

Notice whether you are fearful of moving your spine and what your strategies are to keep it stiff. Find gentle movements — such as cat-cow stretches or slow curling and uncurling your spine while lying on your side — and explore them slowly. Only move into the zone of slight discomfort, staying with a sense of safety in your body, and watch how you can do more each time. Make sure you stay connected to your breathing as you explore slow flexion and extension of your spine, staying relaxed and peaceful. You can do this several times a day or as a warmup to your exercise routine.

4. SIT LESS

If your job or studies require you to sit for long hours, set a timer to remind yourself to get up every 60 minutes or so. This will help the deep muscles that attach to the spine stay supple and moving. It’s enough to walk for a couple of minutes, but if you have time to include an active break (such as stretching your calves, hamstrings, glutes and chest muscles), that would be the best complement to your break. When you sit down again, check that you are keeping your back straight in the most effortless and supported way, and make sure that your pelvis and feet provide good grounding and stability. Then return to your work tasks with your full energy and focus.

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Lack of Willpower Might Not Be to Blame When Diets Fail

Last month, you started the holiday season with resolve. You swore you’d steer clear of cookies and limit your cocktails to just one — two, tops. And you did, at first. But with each passing party, the call of the cookie tray and the open bar grew louder until, finally, you caved. By the time the new year rolled around, sweets — in the form of baked goods or sugary libations — had become part of your everyday diet. A few pounds later, you’re left wondering: How did I let this happen?

Turns out, weak willpower isn’t completely to blame. In a new paper published in Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers set out to see how the brain’s self-control and reward centers square off when they spot a food signal and how the pathway between those centers might affect your ability to abstain from temptation. To investigate this, they examined the white matter connections inside the minds of 36 women, ages 18–23, with a history of diet failures. They also measured their total body-fat percentages, which ranged between 16.6–38.2%.

THE STUDY

At the start of the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a seven-minute video about Canadian bighorn sheep while trying to ignore words on screen that aimed to distract them. The point of the sheep flick was to get people to let their guard down so their reactions were more natural. Once the ladies loosened up a bit, they were ready for the real examination to begin.

Each woman was hooked up to a functional MRI machine and asked to look at a series of 270 pictures. Two-thirds of the photos were images of people or nature. The other 90 were shots of appetizing food. For every photo that appeared, the women were asked to mark whether it showed something indoors or outdoors. Their answers, however, weren’t what interested researchers, who were really out to monitor the fMRI recordings of their brain activity.

The researchers were primarily concerned with two areas in the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex, which is considered the reward region, and the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with self-control and decision making. Images of tantalizing food elicited a greater response from the reward region than the pictures of nature or people. That much was expected. Try as we might to appreciate beautiful scenery, our brains are hardwired to see edible delights as more rewarding. That makes sense on an evolutionary level — a breathtaking sunset won’t keep you alive when you’re starving.

THE AHA! MOMENT

While this feedback was a no-brainer, literally, what intrigued scientists more was the subjects’ responses from the control region of the brain. The IFG also showed heightened activity.

“One interpretation is that dieters are super aware of food cues in every instance,” study author Pin-Hao Andy Chen, a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College, explained in an email. “They have to constantly regulate (inhibit and monitor) their desires to appetitive food cues in daily life.”

So essentially, in the brains of chronic dieters, food prompted two responses simultaneously. The reward part of their mind was saying “Ooh, good! Eat!” Meanwhile the control part was saying “Nooo! Don’t do it!” If that sounds exhausting — like the brain is arguing with itself — that’s because it is. And there’s a limit on how long the “don’t do it!” section can win. Self-regulation is a limited resource.

“When [dieters] keep doing this, they become more vulnerable to lose control because their regulation resource has been drained,” Chen says.

WHY WHITE MATTER MATTERS

During the analysis that followed the exam, researchers made another interesting discovery. The white matter pathway connecting the reward region (OFC) and control region (IFG) was weaker in people who had higher body-fat percentages. Weaker white matter makes the two sections less able to communicate with each other, which scientists say can also play a role in self-control failures.

“With an inefficient communication between the executive control and reward regions, individuals with reduced [white matter] integrity may have difficulty in overriding rewarding temptations, leading to a greater chance of becoming obese,” the paper states.

What’s clear in this study is that when the white matter link between reward and self-control was weaker, the person was fatter. What’s not clear is why this occurs. Chen speculates it’s possible that all of the dieting failures weakened the pathway. But it’s equally possible that the connection was weak from the get-go and could be causing those lapses in self-control. Chen confirms more studies are need before science will know the answer.

In the meantime, there is good news you can take with you to your next food-heavy party, like Super Bowl Sunday. Some emerging science shows you can improve your white matter through training. Other studies also show that you can develop greater self-control through practice. The takeaway might be that willpower, like any form of strength, must be developed incrementally.

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9 Unexpected Ways to Use Greek Yogurt

By now, you and everyone you know has probably eaten a fair share of trendy superfood Greek yogurt, likely in some pretty traditional ways. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The low-calorie, high-protein ingredient tastes great in classics like smoothies and parfaits, and there’s no denying that.

But those aren’t the only things it’s good for. There are many exciting ways to use this kitchen staple to up the healthy ante on all of your favorite meals—both sweet and savory! Use these nine tricks to give every recipe a bit of extra protein and a subtle Mediterranean flare.

1. SWAP IT INTO ALL THE RECIPES WHERE YOU WOULD NORMALLY USE SOUR CREAM

If you’re obsessed with that sour cream onion dip that’s always at parties (because, like, who isn’t?), but want a lower-calorie option, consider using Greek yogurt instead. In fact, anywhere you might use sour cream (on tacos and salads), you can easily cut down on calories by subbing it in for sour cream.

2. USE IT INSTEAD OF MAYO IN CHICKEN OR TUNA SALAD AND DEVILED EGGS

Abbey Sharp, dietitian and blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen, tells SELF that she likes to replace half the mayo in chicken or tuna salad to boost protein. You can even go as far as removing it entirely as Gimme Some Oven does in this lightened-up chicken salad sandwich recipe. Even try swapping it into deviled eggs if you feel like getting fancy.

3. MIX IT UP INTO A LOW-CAL RANCH DRESSING

Classic ranch typically combines about a cup of buttermilk and 1/4 cup mayonnaise. This recipe from Show Me The Yummy adds Greek yogurt while completely nixing the mayo and reducing the amount of buttermilk to just 1/3 cup. The whole recipe (which makes 1 1/2 cups) is only 206 calories total, while a 2-tablespoon serving of that classic ranch has about 140 calories.

4. MIX IT WITH OATS TO MAKE A MUESLI PARFAIT

Overnight oats are so yesterday…and not just because you made them yesterday. Muesli is the new cool oat-y kid on the block (at least Stateside; in Europe it’s a common breakfast option). What is muesli? you might be wondering. It’s a lot like granola—a combination of raw oats, dried fruits, and nuts—but, unlike granola, it’s entirely raw and best mixed up with some kind of dairy product. That’s where our buddy comes in: Add Greek yogurt to either homemade or store-bought muesli (you can find it at Whole Foods nationwide), mix it up, and dig in. You don’t even have to wait overnight!

5. MARINATE YOUR MEAT IN IT

Have you ever noticed that yogurt chicken is always super tender? There’s a reason for that: According to Epicurious, the active bacteria in yogurt helps break down the meat, making it a great natural meat tenderizer. Sharp likes to combine Greek yogurt, lemon juice, and dried herbs, then use that mixture to marinate either pork or chicken.

6. STIR IT INTO SOUPS

If you want a bit of creaminess (and a little extra protein) in your next soup, top it with a dollop of Greek yogurt. This trick works best in spicy chilis and hearty veggie stews, but you can try it on any recipe you like.

7. BLEND IT INTO GUAC AND HUMMUS (TRUST US)

These tricks are some of Sharp’s favorites. “I add [Greek yogurt] to my guacamole to boost the protein and and stretch the yummy avocado flavor,” she tells SELF. And you can do the same to hummus if you’re looking to eat more protein. Bonus: It gives both of these dips an alluring, tangy bite.

8. USE IT TO MAKE A SLIGHTLY HEALTHIER VERSION OF BOXED MAC AND CHEESE

Yes, there is a way to make mac and cheese healthier, and, of course, it involves Greek yogurt. If you’re making boxed mac and cheese (SELF loves these brands), swap the ’gurt in for melted butter. It’ll still give your pasta that moist, creamy texture, with fewer calories and a tangier flavor.

9. ADD IT TO PANCAKES AND MUFFINS

This is a great way to get more protein into breakfast treats that are otherwise low in important nutrients. We especially love the way Crème De La Crumb uses Greek yogurt in this pancake recipe, and how it’s used in these chocolate chip muffins from Well Plated.

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