Walking is one of the most accessible low-impact activities, offering many physical and mental pluses. It’s the closest thing we have to a “wonder drug,” according to Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is always a place to walk, whether on a treadmill during winter, on a trail with a hiking club, or exploring a new city on vacation. Here are some proven benefits of walking, plus tips for up-leveling your walks.
1. Walking improves cardiovascular health
Harvard found that walking for 2.5 hours a week — 21 minutes a day — can cut your risk of heart disease by 30%. LOUDER for the people in the back! Regular walking helps improve cardiovascular fitness, reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. “Fast walking is THE best cardiovascular and fat-burning exercise for everybody!” Alexia Degremont tells me. Alexis has a MSc in Nutrition, a BSc in Neuroscience, and is a Certified Personal Trainer, Yoga, and Pilates Instructor.
2. It boosts mood and energy
Physical activity like walking triggers the release of endorphins, which can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while promoting a positive mood and boosting energy levels. If you tend to get bored on walks or a treadmill, call a friend to catch up (as long as it’s not disruptive), listen to your favorite podcast or a new book, or even open a guided walking meditation on YouTube or other apps like Headspace and Calm.
3. It strengthens muscles and bones
Even though it’s second nature, walking engages various muscle groups in the lower body and core, helping to build and maintain muscle strength and bone density. And, compared to high-impact activities like running, walking is less likely to cause overuse injuries and hard-to-fix wear and tear on the knees and legs. Wear arm weights or a weighted vest to make your walk more challenging and heart-pumping.
4. It improves joint health
Movement is magic. Motion is lotion. Walking can help lubricate joints — especially the knees and hips, which are most susceptible to osteoarthritis. It can alleviate joint pain or stiffness and strengthen the muscles that support our joints. Not only does it relieve arthritis-related pain, but a study found that walking five to six miles a week can even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place.
5. It sharpens balance and coordination
Fall prevention is paramount as we age. Regular walking — especially outdoors where surfaces are uneven and unpredictable — enhances balance and coordination and makes us more confident as we move about our world.
6. It enhances cognitive function
Walking can help keep us mentally aware, too. Studies suggest that walking can help improve cognitive function and memory, potentially reducing the risk of cognitive decline as you age. Just getting the blood flowing throughout the body can make you feel as alert as that tempting second cup of coffee at your desk.
7. It kickstarts digestion and metabolism
Getting up and moving in the morning gets our organs moving and functioning properly. Walking can aid digestion by promoting intestinal movement, potentially reducing the risk of constipation and other digestive issues. It’s also been shown to boost metabolism even when you’re at rest, which means more calories burned throughout the day.
8. It helps you sleep better
Regular physical activity, including walking, can improve sleep quality and help you fall asleep faster. We recently discussed how to hack your sleep, and exercise is a surefire way to help maximize our Zs. The rhythmic motion of walking, particularly at a moderate pace, can lead to muscle relaxation, melt away physical and mental tension, and help prepare the body and mind for bed.
9. It connects us socially
Because of its physical and financial accessibility to almost every human cohort, walking is a way to infuse some social time into your fitness routine. Tackling two essential birds with one stone in this harried world we live in? There is NO shame. Walking or hiking with friends, family, or an organized group can nurture your soul as much as your body.
10. It reduces the risk of chronic diseases AND common sicknesses
People who walk get sick less, plain and simple. Harvard cites a study of more than 1,000 men and women that found those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least five days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was a shorter bout with milder symptoms. Moderate exercise is also associated with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancers, and osteoporosis.
11. It squashes stress
Walking (outside, especially!) can trigger the release of endorphins, our natural “feel-good” chemicals the brain produces. Endorphins improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety. “To my clients, walking is more than exercise,” Alexia adds. “It’s quality alone time. It’s a moving meditation.” Taking a brief walk after any stressful event, like a dreaded meeting or tough conversation, can reduce the overall production of cortisol and bring these levels back to baseline if you’re feeling locked in fight or flight.
12. It’s accessible and inexpensive
“Walking is accessible to most bodies, it’s low-impact, and you don’t even need to change clothes!” Alexia says. Walking requires no fancy equipment, expensive gym memberships, or doctor’s prescriptions. It’s accessible to a wide range of people, including those who are older, less physically fit, or recovering from an injury or surgery. Ask a doctor first, of course, but walking can be a great starting point for those who are new or returning to exercise.
Alexia will wrap us up with a few thoughts on the shift to lower-impact exercise the fitness world is seeing. “People are realizing that going hard all day every day just isn’t sustainable,” Alexia says. “And it’s super exciting to see that taking it slower and feeling amazing can actually provide incredible results. My client Olivia went from running and exercising intensely on and off to walking 45 minutes per day and she easily lost the weight she wanted to lose.” Exercising at our max capacity puts a lot of stress on our bodies. Slowing down and working out in a calmer manner can provide the same (if not better) generalized results in the long term.
3 TIPS FOR WALKING
1. Find the right shoes
Good-fitting walking/training shoes and insoles are musts in a gym or exercise setting. Local running stores like Fleet Feet can fit you for shoes and recommend styles based on your specific gait and weight distribution. Also, find some sneakers, flats, and travel shoes that are comfy enough for that short lunchtime walk or long city excursion.
2. Mix it up
If you want the calming, cortisol-squashing effects of walking, the outdoors is your best friend. No phone and no headphones can create true peace, or you could listen to your favorite podcast or book. If you want to spice up your walks, consider adding some arm weights like Bala Bands and increasing your distance and incline.
3. Set some goals
Giving yourself a goal of 5, 10, or 15,000 steps a day can be a great first step, but some people want to avoid continually checking or contending with wearables like Apple Watch or FitBit. You may find better consistency with a route in your neighborhood or a loop in a park or greenway that you can add to or even double as your endurance increases. Remember that enjoyment and consistency are as or more important than the type of exercise you choose.
Happy (walking) trails!
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