With what seems like thousands of fitness opportunities constantly vying for your attention, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the most basic and effective of them. Walking – a movement that’s as natural as breathing – is one of the best ways to improve your overall health.
While you might find yourself asking, “What’s the trick? How can walking be so effective?” the honest answer is that it’s as simple as putting on your shoes and heading outside.
Top Benefits of Taking a Walk
1. Improved Cardiovascular Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in America for both men and women, taking roughly 600,000 lives each year. However, many of the risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and obesity, are preventable and treatable, and regular cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health.
When you engage in cardio exercise, your heart rate increases, pumping oxygenated blood and nutrients through your body, improving circulation and cardiovascular response. Post-exercise, your blood pressure decreases and you continue to see improved biomarkers for heart health for several hours. Walking is an easy way to enjoy these health benefits.
While the American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days of the week (a weekly total of 150 minutes), you don’t have to set aside 30 minutes all at once. The CDC suggests 10 minutes of walking, three times a day, to see improved cardiovascular response.
2. Enhanced Lower Body Bone Density
Bone density develops most quickly during childhood and adolescence, with peak bone mass reached sometime in the mid-20s or early 30s, depending on the person. At this point, osteoblasts slow the production of new bone cells, and bone-destroying osteoclasts continue at the same pace. What ends up occurring is that bone is broken down more quickly than it’s built up, resulting in its slow thinning. This thinning increases rapidly in women post-menopause, and seems to increase in men later in life.
When bones thin too much – a disease called osteoporosis – you become more susceptible to fractures. In young people, whose bones remodel and rebuild with ease, this might not be too concerning. However, if you are an older individual or have compromised bone density, fractures can significantly affect quality of life and impact your ability to perform the daily activities you need to remain independent.
The good news is that weight-bearing exercise, including walking, can help maintain and even build bone density, reducing the likelihood of osteopenia, osteoporosis, and fractures. The thing to keep in mind is that the bone-saving benefits only occur in the bones and muscles being forced to work against gravity to bear weight. For instance, walking can help maintain bone density of the legs, hips, and spine, but won’t improve bone density in the shoulders or arms. You would need to add other exercises, such as pushups, to your exercise routine to do so.
3. Easy Accessibility
One of the absolute best parts about walking is that it’s so easily accessible. You don’t need a gym membership or a fancy piece of home workout equipment. You don’t need expensive exercise clothing or accessories. All you need to walk is a good pair of shoes and a little self-motivation. You can walk inside or outside, around your office or around the park, and you can adjust your speed and intensity as you see fit.
And while there is no “trick” to walking (anyone can do it), it is important to pay attention to form. Keep your head up and look about 20 feet ahead of you. Make sure your upper body is relaxed – shrug your shoulders a few times to check that you’re not stiff. Tighten your core muscles – abs, hips, and lower back – to make sure your torso stays straight and tall. And just walk smoothly, rolling from heel to toe as you swing your arms freely.
4. Improved Mood and Decreased Stress
Exercise is a mood-booster, simple as that. When you exercise, your body releases feel-good endorphins that reduce feelings of pain and act as sedatives, helping you relax and generally feel better about life. In fact, according to a Harvard Health Publications report on exercise and depression, researchers found that walking at a fast pace for 35 minutes a day, five days a week, or 60 minutes a day, three days a week, significantly reduced symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
However, you don’t have to speed walk for 35 minutes to see results. Robert Thayer, Ph.D, a mood expert, found that brisk 10-minute walks can improve mood and energy, with results lasting up to two hours.
5. Weight Loss and Management
When it comes to losing or managing weight, calories come into play. And it’s not just the calories you consume through food that matter – it’s the calories you burn through activity, those you burn while digesting and assimilating food (thermic effect of food), and the ones you burn each day (basal metabolic rate) just to maintain basic bodily function.
Walking is an excellent and easy way to burn calories, as each mile walked burns roughly 100. By combining your exercise efforts with a healthy diet, you can more easily maintain your current weight, or work toward steady and consistent weight loss.
When it comes to walking, the question shouldn’t be “Why?” but “Why not?” Regardless of your starting point, you can be reasonably certain that a walking regimen is safe and effective. If you have a known cardiovascular, metabolic, or pulmonary condition, always consult with your doctor to get clearance before starting. However, it is most likely that your doctor will applaud and support your decision to add walking to your routine.
Are you a regular walker? Where and how do you fit walking into your schedule?