Years ago, I came across a list of health conditions walking can help manage and/or prevent. Impressed, I sent the article to my aging parents in hopes they’d be inspired to start moving and take back their health, so to speak. The list covered it all, everything from managing cholesterol and maintaining a healthy weight to reducing the risk of cancer and premature death.
And while walking suffers from the stigma that it’s only for those who can’t do “harder” workouts, it’s actually the No. 1 recommended movement for every body—no matter your age or ability. As it turns out, walking regularly strengthens our bones, boosts our immunity, improves our posture and lifts our mood. It can even help sharpen memory and tame a sweet tooth.
I now tell everyone with an able-body, from pregnant moms to stressed-out CEOs, that if they only have time do to one thing for their health, happiness and overall well-being, prioritize walking. Feeling down or tired all the time? Try walking. Want to sleep better, lose weight and ease chronic pain? Start walking. Don’t have the time or money to go to the gym? Walking’s free, easy, convenient and accessible!
Even if it’s for 10 minutes a day, your body needs to move, and research shows that walking at a brisk pace is not only an effective form of exercise but is also considerably kinder on the joints than running or high-intensity movement (which is good news for those of us with more weight or mileage on our bones).
The verdict is this: Simply walking greatly improves your physical health as well as your mental health and emotional well-being, leading to greater longevity. Walking regularly can add several years to a person’s life, regardless of age or weight.
Walk for a healthy heart
One of the most underrated physical activities, walking regularly at a moderate pace can do wonders for your cardiovascular health. Multiple studies have found that walking improves circulation, blood pressure and cholesterol, lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
One long-term study conducted at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston discovered that women who walked two or more hours a week were 30 percent less likely to have a stroke compared to women who didn’t walk. A more recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that walking as a person’s only form of exercise can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality by 20 percent for those 65 and older.
In fact, the National Walkers’ Health Study found that walking briskly yielded the same health benefits (a reduced risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes) as running when the same amount of energy is expended, which means you just have to walk a little bit longer and more often than runners. The findings are congruent with the American Heart Association’s recommendation of at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate exercise, such as walking briskly, for able-bodied adults, versus 20 minutes a day, three days a week of intense exercise, such as running.
Walk for stronger bones
A safe, suitable weight-bearing exercise, walking can help stop the loss of bone mass and prevent osteoporosis on par with running and jumping. According to American Bone Health, walking may even “slow age-related decline in bone density and influence factors (such as bone microarchitecture) that preserve bone strength.” Plus, walking helps improve balance and body awareness and build lower-body strength.
One Nurses’ Health Study found that walking 30 minutes a day reduced the risk of hip fracture by 40 percent in postmenopausal women. And while analysis of several walking studies determined that walking had no noticeable effects on bone density at the lumbar spine, researchers did confirm significantly positive effects on hipbone density in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women who adhered to a walking program for more than six months.
Walk for a happier self
Feeling down, anxious or depressed? Studies show that going for a walk can immediately boost your mood and help reduce stress levels. In fact, psychologist have found that a 10-minute walk is just as effective as a 45-minute workout for lowering the symptoms of anxiety and uplifting your mental/emotional state.
One study discovered that 12 minutes of walking increased self-confidence, attentiveness, joviality and vigor, compared to the same time spent sitting. And another study found that walking in nature, specifically, greatly reduced rumination (repetitive thoughts focused on negative experiences and/or aspects of self), helping combat negative emotions and the risk of depression.
What’s more, walking improves memory by strengthening the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in forming new memories as well as memory storage (converting short-term memories into long-term memories to be stored elsewhere in the brain). Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that women (ages 65 and older) who walked more had less age-related memory decline. Meanwhile, a study published in the Annals of Neurology found that participants ages 55 to 88 who walked the recommended 30 minutes a day, five days a week significantly lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Walk to ease chronic pain
When you suffer with chronic pain, it’s incredibly difficult to stay physically active. The last thing you want to do is work out. However, movement and exercise are necessary to maintain functional mobility, ability and a more optimistic outlook (which is central to overcoming chronic pain conditions). And the endorphins released are, in fact, pain-inhibiting hormones, lessening the experience of chronic pain.
Safe for most folks, and low impact enough to lower pain, walking is the most recommended way to stay physically active for people with chronic conditions, such as fibromyalgia and arthritis. Research shows that walking most days of the week may help improve pain and reduce symptoms in the short term and long-run. Furthermore, several studies indicate that walking 5 to 6 miles a week may even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place.
Walking programs are also prescribed, and proved effective, for people managing chronic low- back pain. And a 2016 review and meta-analysis of research studies found that walking regularly (coupled with education) can help prevent low-back pain from reoccurring.
Ready, set, start walking!
Health experts agree that the first and most important step you can take for your health is to start walking at any pace, for any amount of time and chances are you’ll begin to feel better.
Once you’ve received the go-ahead from your doctor, begin walking five minutes a day, building up to 30 minutes a day multiple times a week on a safe path, road or track. Vary your terrain and your route to keep it interesting for your body and for your mind. And if you’re too busy, know that walking 15 minutes twice a day works great, too!
In general, a brisker pace and longer stride will yield greater benefits, but do what you can. The most important thing is to regularly move your body.
Photo credit: Ryoji Iwata, Unsplash