Do you walk, but not run? This might be the app for you

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Last week, it was announced that the free hiking app AllTrails had won the 2023 Apple app of the year.

It may not be an obvious choice for several reasons – not least that if you compare it to the sheer number of running apps on the market, a hiking apps seems like the twitching, scroggin-carrying cousin.

Winner of the Apple app of the year: AllTrails.Credit: Luke Tscharke

Yet AllTrails, as CEO Ron Schneidermann tells it, has grown from a “small and scrappy” company with less than 10 employees in 2010 to a community of more than 60 million people around the world.

Today, a team of 120 helps users to navigate more than 420,000 curated trails (14,000 in Australia). There are interactive maps, elevation and difficulty levels, information on highlights, activities and whether it’s dog-friendly, kid-friendly or wheelchair-accessible.

Given walking is the most popular physical activity in Australia, it’s about time the walkers of the world were given a decent app of their own (though you can, of course, run these trails too).

“Lots of people are intimidated by the idea of getting on a trail and don’t know where to start,” Schneidermann says. “The biggest barriers to entry tends to be a lack of information and a lack of confidence, and we use technology to remove those barriers so that everyone can discover and connect with nature.”

Unlike many running apps, the appeal of AllTrails spans generations. When I first heard of, and began using, the app earlier this year, I was delighted to discover new trails near where I live. I mentioned this to my family, only to find out that my father and brother were already using the app to discover hikes to go on together.

Where many, though not all, runners I know consider it a largely solo pursuit, the social element is one of the great benefits of walking. Being out in natural environments, around others – even if that’s simply saying hello to people in the dog park – keeps us feeling connected and less lonely, as an international review led by the University of Wollongong’s Thomas Astell-Burt recently showed.

Exploring outdoors and being around other people are just some of the many benefits of walking.Credit: Luke Tscharke

In areas that are conducive to walking, it also offers a “constant opportunity” to be physically active as well as enjoy cleaner air and less traffic noise, adds Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney:

“Walking is unappreciated… researchers in the field do rate walking very highly, and we know that it is public health’s Best Buy.”

So what do we need to do to get the greatest return on investment for our walk?

For adults who do less than 4000 to 4500 steps a day, aiming to get to between 5500 and 6000 a day habitually would be a great health investment, says Stamatakis. “Especially if most of these extra steps are purposeful, that is, walking from point A to B instead of shuffling indoors, and some are done at a fast pace.”

Walk upwards of 11,000 steps a day (about 8 to 9 kilometres) and you halve the risk of dying in the next couple of years. And, if that’s not achievable regularly, by stepping up your pace you may enjoy similar benefits, according to recent research.

Increasing the pace is not the only way to get more bang for your buck. Walking uphill, carrying a backpack or heavy shopping bags, or stair climbing are all equally good.

“The point is to increase the effort to be very slightly uncomfortable. For example, get out of breath and feel an increase in the heart rate,” Stamatakis explains. “A mixture would be optimal, so that different walking sessions engage slightly different sets of muscles.”

And whenever you can, walk outside.

Physical activity undertaken outdoors in natural environments is more beneficial for a range of psychological outcomes compared with the same activity done in other environments, explains Astell-Burt, professor of population health.

“While this may seem like the bleeding obvious for many, the fact is that one in three Australian adults spend less than two hours per week in any natural environment,” he says.

The mental health benefits are likely to be because walking in green spaces helps to alleviate stress and promotes the renewal of cognitive capacities, like concentration and creative thinking.

So if an app like AllTrails – which has a paid subscription option featuring live weather, air quality, light pollution and pollen – or Gaia GPS, Map My Walk or FatMap – gets you out and about, then it’s surely a winner.

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