Walking delivers big health benefitsMonday, 14 December 2020
Walking is one of the most popular forms of exercise worldwide. It doesn’t require expensive equipment or special skills, and it delivers a wide range of health benefits.
Whether you choose to walk outdoors in nature, on a suburban street, a treadmill, or do a few laps around the block or your office building, walking is an easy way to stay active.
Walking increases your heart rate. This improves blood flow and can lower blood pressure. It helps to boost energy levels by releasing hormones like endorphins and delivers oxygen throughout the body.
Brisk walking is considered a moderate-intensity, low-impact workout that does not put excess strain on joints (hip, knee, ankles) that are susceptible to injury with higher-impact workouts.
People may think that walking is not as effective as higher-impact workouts like running. Yet studies of runners and walkers have found that when using an equal amount of energy, moderate-intensity walking offered similar benefits as higher-intensity running in reducing the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
The faster the walking pace, the greater the risk reduction observed.
Health benefits of walking
Walking is an exercise associated with improving blood pressure and body mass index as well as lowering the risk of diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Almost anyone can walk for exercise because walking speed, duration, and frequency can be adjusted to match your fitness level.
Physical activity affects various metabolic responses that control blood glucose. Exercise immediately uses glucose for energy and improves the body’s response to insulin. It can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes and improve insulin sensitivity in those with type 1 diabetes.
Exercise activates the muscles, which have receptors for insulin to promote the storage of glucose in muscle tissue both during and after exercise. Lowering the amount of glucose in the blood.
Longer walks, higher intensity brisk walking or walking up stairs are more effective than a casual stroll in controlling blood glucose levels. Interrupting long periods of sitting with 3-5 minutes of light walking every 30 minutes can also improve blood glucose control.
Spacing exercise sessions throughout the week, rather than exercising for longer on only 1-2 days a week, appears to benefit insulin sensitivity.
Exercising through walking also improves sleep. A recent walking study conducted with 490 healthy adults who added 30 minutes of walking to their daily routine reported improvements in sleep quality, sleep duration, and sleep latency (time to fall asleep).
Depression and anxiety
Walking appears to have a positive effect on mental health, with the most evidence for depression. Some research also shows benefit for anxiety, stress, and loneliness.
There may be positive effects on mental health related to the walking setting, such as in forests, parks, and other outdoor and natural environments. However, research in this area is still limited and few studies have compared different types of walking on mental health (e.g: walking to work versus dog walking, or walking by choice versus for necessity).
Do I really need to take 10,000 steps a day?
You’ve probably heard that 10,000 steps a day is a healthy goal. Some apps and pedometers have 10,000 steps earmarked, so that when you reach it, a congratulations screen dings or vibrates.
Its nots a simple goal to reach as many of us sit more than stand, thanks to driving cars, sitting at office desks, or reclining in chairs at home.
It may surprise you that the benchmark number of 10,000 is not actually based on science but was created as a marketing tactic in the 1960s by a company making pedometers.
Is there any science to support stepping it up?
Generally, research finds that more steps are better but even a lower amount can achieve health benefits. A study following 4,840 men and women 40 years of age and older for about 10 years found that those taking at least 8,000 steps daily had a 51% lower death rate from all causes compared with those taking 4,000 steps or fewer.
A large cohort of more than 16,000 older American women (mean age 72 years) from the Women’s Health Study followed for 4 years found that those taking 4,400 steps a day had a 41% lower death rate compared with those taking about 2,700 steps a day. Death rates continued to drop in relation to taking more steps up to 7,500 daily, but steps beyond that did not show additional benefit.
Although these studies confirm that taking more steps is good, the exact amount to see a health benefit will vary for individuals. Having the mindset to “move more and sit less throughout the day; doing some physical activity is better than none” is an appropriate goal for everyone.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming for 10,000 steps or even higher, except when it becomes so daunting that you lose motivation, or you feel discouraged that a lesser amount is not good enough. Rather than feeling chained to a specific step count, listen to your body, challenge it, and feel good about what it can accomplish.
Walking and Mindfulness
The fitness benefits of walking are pretty clear, but what you may not realize is that walking also offers psychological perks. These come from increasing our awareness of the sights and sounds like looking trees, flowers or clouds, or paying attention to people or events happening as we walk past.
Buddhist monks practice walking meditations, which concentrate on the movement or position of the arms or legs while walking, which leads to increased relaxation. Some studies have shown that this form of mindful walking can reduce blood pressure and depression.
One randomized controlled trial lasting 12 weeks observed adults with type 2 diabetes performing a Buddhist walking meditation (walking on a treadmill while concentrating on footsteps by stating “Budd” and “Dha” with each step) or a traditional walking regimen. Both groups walked at the same moderate intensity with a duration and frequency of 30 minutes 3 times a week. The walking meditation group resulted in lower fasting blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and cortisol levels than in participants doing a traditional walking regimen.
Other studies have found that walking in nature, such as in a forest or alongside a river, can decrease negative moods like depression, anxiety, anger, fatigue, and confusion.
Ready to start walking?
Now that you know how beneficial walking can be for your physical and mental health why not trying to add more steps to your exercise routine.
If you’re not used to walking start slow and build up over time. If you’re already a regular walker you can rest assured that each step you’re taking is supporting your health and wellbeing.
Check out our helpful factsheet for hints and tips.