Most of us take the simple act of walking for granted. It’s merely a way we get from place to place. But this simple action does a lot more for our bodies than just transporting them; did you know that only thirty minutes of walking every day has a significant effect on every system of your body?
By now we know that regular exercise is critical for good health.
Astonishingly, only one third of Americans spend the recommended amount of time exercising every week! Over 80% of adolescents and adults do not engage in regular physical activity that includes aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise. Walking achieves both. (1)
Research from different perspectives explains why something we don’t even think about does wonders for us.
Walking doesn’t have to be a grueling uphill climb to positively affect all parts of your body. What’s important is the pace and duration of the action of walking to reap its benefits.
1. Eye health
As we age, we become more susceptible to vision impairment resulting from macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other eye disorders. Moderate exercise such as walking promotes healthy eye pressure and retention of your field of vision, and significantly reduces the risk of developing cataracts. (2, 3, 4)
If you consider that in 2016 the National Eye Institute reported that almost thirty-seven million Americans aged forty and over (that’s 26% of the country’s population in that age group) experience vision impairment from cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration, there’s very good reason to walk every day to maintain eye health.
2. Heart health
The heart is a muscle and, like every other muscle, it strengthens when exercised, is strained with over-exertion, and atrophies when it is left lax. We have a tendency to physically slow down as we age but that doesn’t mean we should stop all activity.
A large long-term study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (with 137,303 subjects over fourteen years) found that in post-menopausal women, the incidence of heart failure was inversely related to individuals’ amount of physical activity, including walking. (5) A 2010 article published in Current Opinion in Cardiology went so far as to use as its title “Walking – the first steps in cardiovascular disease prevention”.
Not only is walking a simple preventative measure that almost everyone case take against heart disease but an increase in the amount of time spent walking can reverse adverse health biomarkers. Standing and walking rather than sitting improves insulin sensitivity and several other cardiometabolic risk factors. (6)
“Walking is eminently suited to PA [physical activity] prescription as it requires no special skills or facilities and is achievable by virtually all age groups with little risk of injury. It may more easily circumvent frequently cited barriers to exercise, such as ‘lack of time’ and the belief that one is ‘not the sporty type’, than other forms of activity; it has been found to promote better adherence than more intense exercise.” (7)
Additional circulatory benefits of walking include:
- Reduces risk of stroke
- Lowers cholesterol
- Moderates blood pressure
- Improves movement of blood and its oxygen throughout the body
- Stimulates the lymphatic system
- Strengthens major organs
3. Bone and joint strength
Nutrition plays an important part in the growth and maintenance of bones and connective tissue but it’s not the only factor. With use and age, the components of your body that allow you to move can deteriorate without proper care. Weight-bearing exercise (including walking) can help to maintain their composition and strength. (8)
- Bone density – numerous scientific studies of the effects of exercise on bone density have found a direct correlation with how much someone walks: women in the same age group who walk more than seven and a half hours a week have higher bone density than women who walk less than one mile a week. (9)
- Lower back – lower back pain is a common complaint. A brisk walk improves blood flow throughout your body, which helps move nutrition to muscles. If you suffer from back pain, any movement can hurt. Simple walking can loosen tight muscles and re-align your skeletal system to reduce stress on your lower back. Aerobic walking has been found as effective in relieving chronic back pain as specific muscle strength training. (10)
- Spine – your “back bone” supports your entire body; a weakened spine affects whole-body mobility. Walking regularly positively affects all parts of your spine: bone, muscle, blood flow, connective tissue, and nerves. Studies of people with chronic back pain have shown that walking significantly increases lumbar strength and flexibility and improves spine shape and body balance. (11, 12)
- Legs – the benefits of walking for the legs is obvious. Muscle strength, tone, and whole-body endurance are promoted with walking while increasing blood and lymph flow throughout your body.
- Stiffness – the Arthritis Foundation recommends walking to prevent and alleviate symptoms of arthritis by supporting the movement of synovial fluid and strengthening ligaments. (13) We hear about a goal of ten thousand steps a day for overall health, which can be difficult for people suffering with arthritis. Recent research suggests that six thousand steps a day is adequate for joint health.
- Reduced risk of fracture – the stronger the bones, the less likely they are to break. Walking increases bone mass density.
4. Mental health
- Depression – walking on a regular basis has been found to have a significant positive effect on people with depression. (14) Exercise in general and walking in particular can greatly improve symptoms of depression with just thirty-five minutes a day, six days a week engaged in this activity. In fact, as little as three hours a week of exercise works as well as antidepressants in reducing feelings of depression, especially when the exercise is taken outdoors. (15)
- Stress – life is stressful and there’s no getting around that. It’s the degree and frequency of stressors that can have detrimental long-term effects on mental health. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands to give your mind and body a boost to handle stressful situations; chronically elevated levels of cortisol causes a cascade of hormone activity that can lead to illness and disease. A walk in the natural environment rather than in human-made surroundings reduces the amount of cortisol circulating through your blood, causing changes in cerebral activity and reduced feelings of stress. (16)
5. Weight loss
Increasing physical activity helps you to lose weight—it’s a simple fact. Here’s how it works:
- Metabolism – this is the term for how the body’s cells generate and burn energy. A faster metabolic rate burns energy faster and for longer periods, continuing for hours after exercise—the more vigorous the exercise, the more energy your cells consume and the longer the effects last.
- Fat – overweight and obesity have become epidemic in the Western world. Your body breaks down simple sugars for energy first, then goes to fat stores to keep everything functioning. Walking causes an increase in overall metabolism, stimulating the burning of fat. A brisk four-mile walk can burn up to four hundred calories!
- Digestion – the breaking down of food into its complex components is a long and complicated process. What you eat matters tremendously; how well your body uses the nutrients you ingest is equally important. Walking helps to move food through the digestive system and can ease the feeling of bloat and relieve constipation. Furthermore, people who walk on a regular basis are at significantly reduced risk of developing cancers of the digestive system. (18)
- Builds muscle – walking on level ground tones and maintains muscle mass; walking uphill and downhill increases the involvement of gluteous, ankle, and hip muscles and joints. (19) Add to that the use of Nordic poles and muscles of the back and arms become more fully engaged, increasing the impact of walking on muscle health. (20)
- Regulates blood sugar – any aerobic exercise improves cells’ sensitivity to insulin and improves the metabolism of blood glucose. Research has shown that walking reduces insulin resistance. (21) Walking for at least thirty minutes every day can reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes by fifty percent with associated reductions of risk for cardiovascular disease and mortality. (22)
Our bodies are made to move. The simple act of walking—something we can’t wait to do as babies—helps to achieve and maintain health. Try increasing the amount you walk for recreation or as a way to get from place to place rather than driving. For variety, walk backward to improve leg endurance and aerobic capacity even faster by making the effort more conscious and involving additional muscle groups. (23)