Guide to the Benefits of Walking

Walking is the most natural form of physical activity that we humans partake in. Despite this, there is a common misconception that walking doesn’t count as proper exercise. This is perhaps ironic, as the amount of walking being done on a regular basis has fallen drastically in recent history.

This article will provide a complete guide to the many benefits regular walking can have for your health and wellbeing. We’ll begin with a brief recount of the role walking has traditionally played in our lives.

A Brief History of Walking

The findings of archaeologists and anthropologists have revealed the typical daily physical activity patterns of our ancestors up until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In addition to the expected necessities of gathering food, building shelter and ensuring safety, there was plenty of recreational activity as part of religious and social life.

While the acquiring of sustenance typically followed 1 to 2-day cycles of strenuous exertion followed by 1-2 days of rest and celebration, these ‘rest’ days still contained ample energy expenditure. Individuals would routinely make 6 to 20-mile round trips to neighbouring settlements to visit relatives or trade with other communities. In addition, dancing and cultural games added to regular physical activity levels.

More recently, our modern lifestyles have led to the decline of the distances we walk on a regular basis. Driving to work, taking the lift, sitting at a desk, and all the conveniences of technology, for all their benefits, have led to drastic decreases in physical activity.

Around two thirds of adults don’t meet their respective national physical activity guidelines, and annual walking distances decreasing by hundreds of miles over the last several decades is a large contributor to this phenomenon.

These numbers translate globally to more than 1.4 billion adults not getting enough exercise, putting them at risk of developing or worsening the many non-communicable diseases linked to inactivity. One of the most common conditions contributing to disease burden is heart disease. Research shows that if 10% of adults began walking regularly, up to $5.6 billion could be saved annually in costs related to heart disease alone.

Physical activity is one of the four most important health behaviours related to such preventable diseases – the others being diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Walking, specifically, started to be promoted in the early 1990s as a shift began in the focus from vigorous exercise to more moderate activities for maintaining health.

It’s clear that these concerning trends in morbidity and premature mortality from our current way of life need to be addressed. Walking is one such intervention that has great potential to get us back on track. Let’s take a look at how walking can improve every aspect of our health.

The Many Health Benefits of Walking

Regular physical activity has benefits for physical, social, and mental health. It reduces the risk of the most prevalent diseases in the developed world, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. There are also indirect effects on these diseases by the reduction in their precursors, such as obesity and hypertension.

In regard to our musculoskeletal systems, walking increases flexibility and joint stability. It improves the endurance of the trunk musculature, which can help your posture. The muscles of the legs and lower limb girdle are strengthened, and muscle endurance is garnered and maintained. The dynamic, rhythmic nature of walking make it ideal to build and keep your balance, and as a weight-bearing activity, it also preserves bone density.

With cardiovascular diseases, walking can help lower risk by lowering cholesterol levels and increasing ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL). Walking acutely and chronically lowers blood pressure, and decreases intermittent claudication symptoms in the blood vessels of the lower limb. The risk of stroke, congestive heart failure, and many other cardiorespiratory conditions is greatly decreased with regular walking.

The rising prevalence of diabetes has led to many interventions being trialled in this demographic. Interestingly, one such program introduced 150 minutes a week of brisk walking to pre-diabetic patients. Walking decreased their risk of advancing from glucose intolerance to being diagnosed with type II diabetes by more than 50%.

One of the biggest health epidemics of our time is obesity. Here, walking is able to increase daily caloric expenditure, helping to attain – and maintain – a healthy body weight. Weight control can be achieved with smaller bouts of activity, providing intensity achieves the appropriate heart rate level. Achieving a healthy body weight has dozens of indirect benefits, from better sleep, to relief of chronic pain such as lower back pain, even alleviation of gastrointestinal issues.

Moving from physical to mental health, walking improves many outcomes for anxiety, stress, and depression – the greatest impacts of mental illness in the developed world. Walking has been shown to clear the head from distracting or negative thoughts, helps direct one’s attention, and provides a sense of cognitive quiet and restoration. Walking, particularly outside and in a natural environment, reduces the pressures of life and has a revitalising effect. Walking is even used in some parts of the world as a form of meditation.

Walking is the optimal activity for reaching the recommended exercise targets. There is no barrier to entry for walking for most people, regardless of age or athletic ability. Walking requires no special skills, equipment, or financial costs. It is easily self-regulated, safe, and has a low long-term risk of injury. Studies have shown that overall, every hour of regular, moderate to vigorous walking may increase life expectancy by up to two hours. That’s a good return on investment!

Next we’ll examine walking prevalence across the different stages of our lives.

Walking Across the Lifespan

Walking levels are decreasing throughout all age groups in our society. Long term studies of children walking to school found that the proportion dropped from 1985 to 2006 by 15%. This seems to be correlated with the increase in percentage of children travelling by car by 19% during the same time period.

This lack of basic activities like walking to and from school contributes to the lack of physical activity kids are getting. This needs to be addressed, as the prevalence of childhood obesity is sitting at 18.5% – that’s over 13 million children and adolescents in the United States. Childhood obesity is known to often be carried into adulthood, increasing the individual’s risk of the associated lifestyle diseases.

For adults, walking may still be part of occupational and domestic routines for some. That being said, while the average middle-aged adult should be able to walk 1 mile comfortably at 4 miles per hour – according to the research – many people are insufficiently fit to achieve this.

The best remedy for this is walking itself. As the most natural and common form of activity, it is easily introduced and regulated into one’s routine. And unlike many more intense forms of exercise walking has little decline until relatively late in life.

This is one reason we see the preference for walking actually increase with age. There are many benefits for older adults who walk regularly. The first is that medical expenditure is significantly lower for those who are physically active. This is especially true among the older population, who experience a higher likelihood of chronic disease.

Walking is also beneficial for older adults by helping to prevent falls. An analysis of multiple studies showed that older adults who walked at least to the minimum recommended standards had a 44% reduction in fall injuries. This is not only due to the increased physical capacity afforded by walking. Another study found that the same level activity decreased the risk of cognitive impairment by 34%.

Yet another benefit of walking for mature individuals is the low injury risk. Data on exercise-related injuries displayed the greatest risk for vigorous activities and sports, whereas greater amounts of walking were not associated with any greater risk of injury. The low impact, intuitive nature of walking makes it the perfect physical activity across all age groups.

We discussed the changing world and its impact on walking in society. Next we’ll discuss how where we live affects the ease with which we can include more walking in our daily routines.

Walking and the Environment

The concentration of the population in ever more compacted urban areas has created its own challenges for incorporating more physical activity into one’s lifestyle. But the act of walking itself has the potential not only to directly improve our own health, but to combat some of the negative effects of society on the environment.

For example, promoting active transportation such as walking to work reduces the number of cars on the road. This can improve population wellbeing by reducing air pollution – lowering rates of asthma and cancer; reducing incidence of automobile collisions, and increasing exposure to outdoor spaces and social interaction.

Wherever possible, one should strive to walk in, or through, nature. ‘Green exercise’ is a new name for an old phenomenon, namely walking through forests and across fields to get around. An increasing number of studies are reporting that walking in such natural environments, including city parks and gardens, enhances mood, reduces stress, and restores psychological health.

The current literature also provides evidence for another phenomenon. It has been uncovered that walking with peers improves many behaviours and benefits around walking. These include motivation, self-efficacy, and physical capacity, all of which were enjoyed in greater amounts for those who walked with others, rather than alone. The American Heart Association conducted a study showing that having walking partners increases compliance to a walking program by an extra 76%.

The more people rediscover their natural ability to get around, the more that policy will support walking friendly urban design and public infrastructure. For those who wish to have a positive impact on the world, walking may be one of the easiest – and best – ways to achieve it.

With the history, benefits, and impacts of walking covered, the final section of this article will cover exactly how to revive the role of walking in your own lifestyle.

Exercise Prescription for Walking

The recommendations from both the Center for Disease Control and the American College of Sports Medicine outline the parameters of walking to receive the maximal health benefits. These include walking for at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes per week.

This amount of walking is typically broken up into 30 to 60-minute bouts on at least 5 days of the week. The minimum amount to be done at one time to achieve the health benefits mentioned is at least 10 minutes. For example, on a given day you could complete 1 x 30-minute walk, or 3 x 10 minute walks.

The recommendations outline the necessary intensity for these walks as being moderate to vigorous, giving the example of brisk walking at around 3 to 4 miles per hour for most adults. Another way to measure intensity is by heart rate. Moderate physical activity is defined as being 55-70% of one’s maximum heart rate.

This can be quickly calculated by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 40-year-old individual would have an approximate maximum heart rate of 180; moderate walking would involve maintaining a heart rate of 99-126 beats per minute.

It has become popular recently to aim for 10,000 steps a day as a means of measuring sufficient activity. In fact, investigators suggest that a step range of 7,000 to 9,000 per day is closer to the amount of activity in the 150 – 300 minutes in the national guidelines. An interesting side note – the average number of daily steps worldwide is under 5,000.

Some ways to include more walking in your schedule include walking to work, walking the kids to school, walking the dog, walking during your lunch break, walking while on the phone, or catching up with friends while walking. There are of course hundreds of ways to walk more; it is about finding what’s best for your situation.

We hope this article has helped you learn something new about the wonderful effects walking can have on your health, and has encouraged you to get walking!

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