Walking. For most of us, it’s easy to do and hey, we do it every day but doing enough of it may be an entirely different question. Chances are, if you’re a traditional, car-driving, office-working person, you’re probably not walking nearly as much as your body would like you to.
For most of human history, walking was the main form of transportation. Sure, horses and boats worked well too, but much of the time, our hunter-gatherer forebearers covered considerable ground on foot. By some estimates, daily 8-mile walkabouts to gather food and water was pretty much the norm. Fast forward a few thousand years and most of us clock less than a third of that, so safe to say there’s room for improvement.
There are a number of ways to ensure a higher daily step-count than the 5,000 steps most adults are getting and earn the well-being boost that can literally change your life. Here are just a few of walking’s health-enhancing effects – and how to get your fill:
Walking has minimal barriers to entry.
With walking, it’s tough to come up with excuses not to –you can literally do it anywhere, any time. You don’t need a special facility, no lessons to take, no trainers to hire, no monthly fees. Equipment isn’t an issue either. All that’s needed is a good, supportive pair of shoes or sneakers and a place to do it, be it a sidewalk, a patch of grass or your even your living room. You can do it year-round, indoors or out, so nothing holding you back there either. What’s also great about walking is that your risk of injury is quite low, particularly important for those just starting out or returning to exercise after a long hiatus.
Walking helps ward off life-altering diseases.
Walking regularly helps strengthen immunity and protects against heart disease, diabetes, dementia and certain types of cancer – four of the major, life-altering problems we all wish to avoid. It’s great for immunity-boosting. According to one study, regular, 5-day-a-week walkers had 43% fewer sick days than those who walked once a week or less. That’s especially helpful as we enter the flu and cold season. What’s more, a new study of 78,500 Brits found that a brisk 30-minute daily walk was linked to reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, dementia and death.
So, what’s giving brisk walkers the leg up? Current thinking is, it’s walkings’ ability to help strengthen the heart while reducing stroke risk; to boost circulation and naturally lower LDL cholesterol levels, while raising HDL levels; and its ability help keep high blood sugar and high blood pressure in check.
Walking helps keep circulation circulating.
Our bodies crave movement, and when we don’t give it to them, that’s when stiffness and creakiness really start to settle in, and host of physical problems begin. Our bodies were never meant to keep sitting—in fact, some people believe that our bodies were never meant to sit in chairs at all. Chairs are a relatively recent invention in human history, never mind desks and the jobs that must be done at them.
A growing body of research suggests that if you sit for longer than an hour at a time, you run the risk of heart disease, poor circulation, and joint pain. Sitting can cause your blood to pool in your legs, so that it doesn’t properly reach your heart. Even as little as one hour of sitting can impair blood flow by as much as 50 percent.
However, studies show that you can reverse much of the potential damage to leg arteries by taking a five-minute walking break every hour or so. Even just a brisk walk around the block or in the halls of your office building—or a quick trip to the restroom and back—can help get your blood flowing again. And with better circulation comes good stuff like better functioning of all your organs, including your brain – which is especially helpful when engaging tasks needing more mental effort.
Walking keeps you limber – and slows your aging roll.
Though we don’t have to work quite as hard as our hunting and gathering ancestors keep ourselves fed and watered, walking is still essential to help keep the body healthy, strong and youthful. When you start walking, you start to kick circulation into high gear – good news for all your organs and systems. That essential movement also helps boost production of the fluids that lubricate the joints, which helps reduce risk of injury, thanks to the movement-triggered release of chemicals that expand your blood vessels. That expansion means more blood and oxygen gets relayed to your muscles and tendons which relieves tightness and helps make them more supple and injury-resistant. Walking may also help protect your joints and slow or even prevent the development of arthritis, according to Harvard researchers. And don’t forget, that as a weight-bearing exercise, walking is also great for strengthening bones and fighting off osteoporosis.
Walking helps curb weight gain – and sweets cravings.
No matter where you are on the scale, for those who struggle with the scale, or, are experiencing the effects of ‘middle age spread,’ walking is an effective way to loosen weight-gain’s grip. With a regular walking routine, research shows that it also curbs weight gain at a genetic level. According to a Harvard study of 12,000 people, researchers found that those who took a daily, 1-hour brisk walk reduced the effects of their obesity-promoting genes by 50% – definitely a percentage worth taking advantage of! And for those with an Achilles heel made of chocolate, walking can help here too. An older but intriguing study from the University of Exeter found that 15-minute walk can cut snacking on chocolate by half. So, the next time a chocolate craving creeps up, get up from your desk and do a lap ‘round the office (or the block) instead of strolling to the fridge.
Walking helps your brain kick arse.
Got brain cells you’d like to keep healthy? Turns out, walking’s got your back here too. Researchers at New Mexico Highlands University found that the foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and can increase the supply of blood to the brain. That increased supply can help with keeping memory sharper, tame brain fog, support healthier executive function and help speed mental processing time, so, while it may not be a cure-all per se, walking is one activity that’s a brain-benefit bonanza.
Creativity and collaboration flow better too when the body is in motion—cross-body movements like walking actually stimulate exchange of information between the hemispheres of the brain. In fact, a Stanford University study found creativity levels in walkers were consistently and significantly higher than sitters, with walkers averaging a 60% increase in creative output when walking. And, not to name drop but, legend has it that Apple genius Steve Jobs took many of his meetings while walking.
Walking is a drug-free mood elevator.
In addition to its link with encouraging creativity, walking also has the power to shift mood – and help you sleep better at night, no pharmaceuticals necessary. More walks, preferably at brisk pace, help stimulate the release of endorphins, those feel-good, mood-boosting brain chemicals, which also means reduced stress and anxiety. Don’t stress though if you can’t get your walk in all in one shot. Multiple, short, brisk walks to get your 30-minute dose are just as effective.
Think outside the car.
Hitting the gym, lifting weights, taking a cycle or hitting the pool – all are terrific ways to treat your body to the movement it thrives on, and you should make the effort several times a week. However, that doesn’t mean you can just go all couch potato on non-gym days. Instead, keep the health-benefit-fires burning by working in more walking in between them. Just getting back into a physical culture after a long hiatus, don’t beat yourself up? Just put your sneakers back on and get moving – every step you take counts. Here are a few ways to work in more foot-powered moments every day:
1) Hit the street: Street parking? Leave the car a few blocks from you ultimate destination, be it your house, the market, the mall, the commuter train station parking lot. Or better yet, walk to the train station in the morning, then back home at night to close the day with a decompressing walk home.
2) Shorten your ride: Traveling by bus or rail in the morning? Try getting off a stop or two before your usual stop to force yourself to walk a few extra blocks. Do the same in reverse at day’s end.
3) Hit the stairs: At the office, or, if you’re an apartment dweller in a building with elevators, bypass them and walk the stairs either part way or all the way up. Check first with the building management that it’s OK, and to confirm that the stairwell doors open onto your floor.
4) Surprise your colleagues: Instead of Slacking questions to colleagues on the other side of the office, go live! Walk over to their cube for an impromptu drop-in. You’ll get a little exercise and likely a quicker response too.
5) Get off your duff: Set a timer on your phone or desktop to remind you to ‘do a lap’ around the office every hour, or, if you’re cooped up in a home office, take a quick walk around the block or building to re-energize your body and clear your head.
6) Shift your conversations: Do phone calls have to take place while seated? Nope. Grab a headset, a pen and pad of paper so you make calls on the move. And who said that meetings must take place while tethered to a desk?
7) Load up on liquids: As in water, herbal teas, or black or green tea — not only to stay hydrated but also to encourage more frequent walks to the loo.
8) Make lunch work for you: To save time on the lunchtime deli and cafeteria lines, brown-bag it and use the time saved to take a short walk outside or do quick errands on foot. Stuck in a shop-free office park complex? Then take a quick walk around the parking lot.
9) Ritualize a short, post-dinner walk: After dinner, grab your two and four-legged family members and take a quick walk around the neighborhood. Doing so will help aid healthy digestion, give you the chance to enjoy some fresh air and enable everyone to enjoy a little screen-free quality time. What’s more, you’ll be lowering your blood sugar and diabetes risk.
10) Pass on electric scooters, bikes, skateboards, etc.: And finally, if you need one more reason to walk, think of it as a way to help preserve the health of your children by inspiring them to move too – without relying on a motorized device. Doing so will set a good example for the kids and instill in them the idea of walking as a means of relaxation, meditation and transportation that doesn’t require a battery, a car seat or time spent in traffic.
Bottom line: walking improves everything you’ve got: your metabolism and your microbiome, your sleep, and all your body rhythms, your immunity, your stress response, and the overall balance in your life. It’s also going to help you get a better handle on stress, anxiety and tension, so get out there – and walk your way to better health.