Walking is one of those things you often take for granted. For most, it’s an easy mode of transportation for commuting, shopping, getting the paper, sightseeing, or visiting neighbors. During the pandemic, walking has become more than just a way to get from point A to point B, for some it is a brief escape from home or working from home, for others walking has replaced a trip to the gym, and some walk to clear their heads and reflect. A short, brisk walk can wakes you up and get you going even better than a cup of coffee.
Walking may help you live longer. According to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the more steps study participants over age 40 took, the lower their mortality risk from all causes. Data was collected from people aged 40 or older who wore an accelerometer for a week and combined with information on deaths for about 10 years. Researchers looked at the risk of death for a people taking fewer than 4,000, up to 8,000, or 12,000 or more steps a day. People who took 8,000 steps a day had a 50% lower risk of dying from any cause than those who took fewer than 4,000. Those who took 12,000 steps a day had a 65% lower risk of dying than those who took only 4,000. These benefits were consistent across age, sex, and race groups. Walking faster did not appear to have any effect on risk of mortality – just number of steps.
A recent study that compared the effects (changes in blood pressure, blood sugar, body fat) of high intensity interval training (HIIT) three times per week (every other day) to longer, moderate workouts five times per week (brisk walking, jogging, cycling). The small study included only sedentary, overweight, adult men. The upshot is that frequent, almost daily moderate exercise may be preferable for improving blood pressure and blood sugar control.
A real plus for walking (150 minutes per week) is that it does as much for your mind as your body! Exercise stimulates the brain to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule essential for repairing brain cells and creating connections between them. According to an article on the Harvard Health website, there are studies that suggest that physically active people may have higher levels of BDNF and that they may be at a lower risk for dementia. Being “physically active” includes at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, and the beneficial effects are greater the longer you maintain your regimen.
The Lancet – Psychiatry reports that in a cross-sectional study that examined effects of exercise on self-reported mental health, physical exercise was significantly and meaningfully associated with mental health. An article in The American Journal of Psychiatry concludes that regular exercise was associated with reduced incidence of future depression – and that the protective effect occurred at low levels of exercise, without regard to intensity.
Walking in nature can improve your mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol levels can increase appetite and cravings – ultimately leading to weight gain.
Walking is one of the least costly ways to get exercise. Sometimes walking can be incorporated into your usual schedule, if the weather and location permit it: park some distance from your destination so that you walk farther in each direction or walk to the store instead of driving. Walking is a fairly safe exercise -- you don’t pound the pavement the way you do when running, you’re less likely to twist a knee or fall than if you were playing basketball or ice hockey. Pick a safe place to walk – not directly on a main road without a sidewalk or on an unmarked trail. A number of cities and towns are working to give priority to pedestrians and cyclists (as well as public transit). This should provide more and safer places to walk in their communities. If you go for a hike where there aren’t many people (trails where there is not much foot traffic, or in the cold when no one else is around), be sure to tell someone when you leave, where you’re going, and when you expect to return.
You don’t need special equipment to walk: a comfortable pair of sturdy shoes or boots, outerwear to keep you warm and dry, reflective clothing (for dusk or nighttime walks), comfortable clothes, a hat, and sunscreen. A cell phone is useful (as long as you get a signal). At night, a flashlight or headlamp is useful. Some people prefer to use a walking stick. A pedometer can keep track of how far you walk or how many steps you take.
Walking can be combined (or traded off) with other activities like lifting weights, cycling, jogging, swimming, and doing resistance exercises (lunges, squats) – all things that improve your well-being. Resistance training appears to have positive effects on cognition in older adults. Nordic walking, in which you use walking poles similar to those used for cross-country skiing, provides an upper body workout. Carrying small weights on your walk once or twice a week can also change the walk into a more full-body exercise.
Some people like to listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts when they walk – if you do this, make sure you can also hear traffic or other potential hazards. For others, the beauty of walking is disconnecting and getting out into nature – hearing the wind and the birds; smelling whatever prevails (pine needles, saltwater marsh, fireplace smoke); seeing the plants and trees in the changing seasons, watching birds, identifying animal tracks; breathing the fresh air and feeling the sun on your face. Others like to walk with friends or family.
If you can’t get out for a walk (e.g., iced in, injured, or working), the 4K Relaxation Channel allows you to enjoy the visual and audio sensations of walking: 4K virtual forest walk – 5 hours walking in the woods, Grand Ridge Trail, Issaquah, WA.
Please talk with your health care provider about any complementary health approaches you use and before you make big changes in your usual exercise routine or your diet.
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 Reynolds, G. (2021). The benefits of moderate exercise. The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/well/move/the-benefits-of-moderate-exercise.html; original article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
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