Some things that do us the most good are so common, so every day, so down-right ordinary, that their importance fades into the background of our lives. Walking is one of those under-appreciated marvels. The most researched form of exercise, it’s one of the single best ways we can improve our current health and increase both our life-spans and our health-spans.
This humble form of activity provides extraordinary physical rewards:
- It strengthens the heart, lowers blood pressure, and reduces risks for heart disease.
- Walking is a weight-bearing exercise, meaning that your body has to work against gravity. This extra effort helps keep bones strong, strengthens lower-body muscles, and improves endurance. It also helps improve and preserve balance and coordination.
- Because walking is gentle and low-impact, it protects joints and can help relieve existing joint pain. It does this by keeping joints lubricated and strengthening the muscles that support them.
- Getting up and moving aids digestion and can help prevent constipation.
- Walking can reduce blood sugar. Muscles burn more energy when they’re working, and that energy comes from the glucose (sugar) that’s being carried in the bloodstream. Stick to a stroll after meals, and save the intense exercise for when you’re not full.
- All forms of physical activity, including walking, take energy. That energy can come from the calories in the food we’ve just eaten, or it can come from the energy we’ve stored as body fat (adipose tissue). We need body fat to be healthy, but having too much of this type of tissue increases a person’s chances of developing diabetes, stroke, cancer, and other problems. Getting plenty of activity, such as walking, can help keep the amount of adipose tissue within a healthy range.
Walking improves blood circulation throughout the body. In the brain, this improvement in circulation helps to:
- Provide an energy boost that can rival a cup of coffee.
- “Clear the cobwebs” and get creative juices flowing.
- Improve cognitive function and memory, and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline.
- Increase concentration, focus, and productivity.
Walking not only feels good physically, but by boosting endorphins (naturally occurring “feel-good” chemicals) it improves our emotional well-being:
- It provides a chance to reconnect our bodies and minds.
- It can reduce levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness, while boosting mood and self-esteem.
- Going for a walk with friends or family provides an opportunity to connect and deepen interpersonal relationships.
- Walking, especially in nature, provides an opportunity to disengage from technology-driven busyness and re-engage with yourself. It’s an opportunity to think about what matters to you and explore ways you can live into those values.
Ready to incorporate more walking into your life? Here are some tips to help get you started off on the right foot.
- Walk in areas designated for pedestrians. If the light is dim, wear a reflective vest.
- Wear comfortable, supportive shoes that provide good traction and layers that you can shed as needed. Walking boosts your metabolic fires, and you’ll warm up quickly.
- Stay hydrated and use sunscreen—even as the weather turns cooler.
- If improved fitness is the goal of your walking, and if you’re just starting down that path, talk with your health care provider first. You’ll need to incrementally increase the difficulty by either walking faster or up an incline. You can gauge the intensity level of your exertion by noticing how it feels to talk out loud. Do you have enough breath to sing? Then you’re working at a low intensity. Can you talk, but not sing? That’s a moderate intensity. Can’t hold a conversation? You’ve hit high intensity!
- Too much time spent being sedentary is a risk for heart disease. Spreading out your walking over the course of a day is an easy way to break up long stretches of sitting.
- However, what’s really important is just moving more, and if once a day is what you can do, that’s fine! Over the course of the week, shoot for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or some combination of the two. But keep in mind—every step helps. Do what you can, when you can.