Walk before you run. Or, just walk. The benefits of walking are often overlooked or underestimated. “What is the meaning of life?” – It’s the question as old as humankind. I don’t know about the purpose, but I know what we have become designed for (physically, at least) – and that’s walking.
For millennia, we’ve been mostly walking, but lately, not so much. We need to accept the truth that sitting for too long even in the most comfortable chair is detrimental to our health. It’s a disease. Walking is the cure.
Everyone’s familiar with midlife crisis as a psychological issue when we start to evaluate our accomplishments. However, our physical condition can affect it a lot as well. Between 45 and 60+, we start to recognize that our body is on the downslope. It may be slow, but it’s there.
Did you know that your walking speed may give some clues about your overall health? Research has shown that slow walking often relates to physical and mental decline.
We can’t reverse the wheel of time. But, as we grow older, exercise becomes more important as one of the best tools to slow down the aging process.
Walking is an exceptional activity to support your health and prevent health issues and injuries. Add a few more exercises into the mix, and you will feel rejuvenated.
Benefits of Walking
A myriad of exercises provide tremendous benefits and improve your health. So, is exercising the solution to the sedentary lifestyle?
You may exercise a couple of times a week and you’ll feel the difference. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is particularly popular as it brings results while you don’t spend too much time. And don’t we all enjoy short and compressed versions of anything, these days?
These training regimens will help you, no doubt about it. But, if you workout twice or three times a week, and spend the rest of your time sitting, it won’t be enough.
That’s where walking comes in. It can provide a low-impact activity each and every day. Although, five days a week is also great to get started. It won’t tire your muscles too much. It’s also pretty much an injury risk-free activity. Most importantly, it comes with dozens of health benefits especially if walking outside in the countryside.
Let’s check out the most significant health benefits of walking.
Walking Burns Calories
A 30-minute walk burns around 150 calories. Okay, it’s not the most effective workout to burn calories. But, it’s almost effortless. And simple math reveals every week over 1000 calories are eaten away, all things, like diet, being equal.
You can easily incorporate it into your (busy) schedule. No need for fitness gear, no sweat, but it’s still a workout.
Brisker walks or uphill walks will help you burn more calories.
Strengthens the Heart
A sedentary lifestyle, along with obesity and tobacco is the biggest enemy of your heart. Walking, as well as any other aerobic exercise, makes your heart more efficient. A 15-minute brisk-walk is already enough to reduce risk and improve your cardiovascular health.
Improves Blood Circulation
Our heart is the pump that keeps our circulatory system running. Walking elevates the heart rate and more blood, nutrients, and oxygen run around your body. It helps blood vessels to stay flexible and reduces the risk of high blood pressure.
Your blood circulation improves and consequently, you are healthier, overall with less risk of blood clots.
Can Help Lower Blood Sugar
No magic here. Our muscles use glucose (sugar in our bloodstream) even for moderate activities such as walking. Therefore, regular walks are helpful to keep blood sugar levels at bay.
Walking, especially uphill, is also a highly recommended activity for people with diabetes.
Walking Tones and Strengthens Muscles
Walking can tone and strengthen your muscles, mostly your thighs, glutes, and calves. If you swing your arms, your upper body will have a workout too. You won’t get six-pack abs from walking, but even moderate activity is good for muscles.
Keep in mind that every year after around the age of 30 we lose 1% of muscle. So by the time we’re 60 that’s a lot of muscles that are gone and need to be maintained or regenerated.
Slow Down Bone Loss
Like our muscles, as we age, our bone density decreases and it does so by about 1% every year after puberty. It’s a natural process, but exercise can significantly slow it down or halt it’s progress.
Walking is on the list of helpful activities. For even more results, include more intensive training. Up the ante with jogging, dancing, stair-climbing, and resistance exercises.
Walking Keeps Your Joints Strong
Walking appears to be quite easy. Nevertheless, it supports and improves the health of your joints.
A majority of our joints have no direct blood supply. It’s a joint fluid that supplies nutrients and removes waste products from joints. Walking causes compression which allows a sort of “lubrication” and nutrient supply.
Flexible joints along with a good muscle structure helps with balance and coordination.
Improved Lung Function
Regular brisk-walks will increase your lung capacity. Furthermore, walking will strengthen your lungs. Whether you’re healthy or you have some lung condition, walking is a beneficial activity.
Brisk walking is best for those with lung problems.
Walking Is Good for Your Brain
While it may sound like a stretch, it’s not. Walking increases brain blood flow and supply of valuable hormones and proteins.
A simple exercise like walking briskly encourages cells in the brain to multiply. It also helps to increase the number of interconnections in the synaptic network by increasing the blood flow.
Walking slows down your mental decline and improves your ability to focus and solve problems.
Take a Walk to Improve Your Mood
Walking releases endorphins – the happiness hormone.
And a favorite of mine, neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin increase during exercise. These are “drugs” that are responsible for creating that happy place.
It’s not a magical cure, but it’s beyond any doubt that walking boosts energy levels and improves the mood. It alleviates stress and reduces anxiety.
You Will Sleep Better
You don’t sleep very well? Take a walk each day as walking relates to better sleep at night. It appears to be more true for women. You’ll probably fall asleep faster. But, more importantly, the quality of sleep will improve.
If you’re inactive you’ll see positive effects almost immediately after a regular routine of walking. Well, you won’t “see” it, but you get the point.
Walking Can Boost Your Immune System
It’s not a vaccine, but it helps. Seriously, regular walking increases the activation of several types of immune cells. As a result, you’re more likely to avoid upper respiratory infections, colds, and flu and other unmentionable corona-based horrors.
Regular Walks Can Extend Your Life
It’s another strong claim, but it’s backed by science and research into walking, generally moving and longevity. It works even better for those who do it regularly and often and do it briskly.
There was a fascinating study of an Amish community that had all the metrics that point to societal health and well-being. They were fitted with step counters and on average the men did 18000 and the women did 14000 steps a day.
On their rest days they still averaged 10000. That study along with earlier research on a group of Japanese men and women gave us the 10K standard steps per day that we hear so much about now.
Simply, walking reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes, and increases life expectancy.
The Science of Walking
Admit it: all these benefits sound almost too good to be true. How can such a simple activity offer so much?
The answer lies in evolution. I’ve already said that we are designed to walk on two legs. Every creature thrives when it does what it’s made for. Actually, it’s the same with machines and tools. They may be used for versatile tasks but they excel when used for their primary task.
Evolutionary Advantages of Walking on Two Legs
Most land animals walk and run on four legs. But, bipedalism is not uncommon either. Think of ostriches and kangaroos. It’s still a mystery why and when exactly our ancestors stood up and gave up life on all fours. However, there are many clues as to what we got out of it.
Dominant theories presume that the change of scenery from forest to savanna, due to climate change, gave impetus to our ancestors to stand upright.
In vast grasslands, it allowed them to spot predators or prey from a distance. Furthermore, it allowed our ancestors to cover vast distances and to excel at endurance running. Those early humans who were best at standing upright, long-distance walking, and running were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.
The key change, though, had nothing to do with these obvious evolutionary advantages. Walking on two legs freed our front limbs allowing them to become incredibly dexterous hands.
With the key opposing thumb, we’ve started using them to manipulate different objects and transform stuff into tools.
Most scientists believe that this may have been the key step that propelled our brain to grow.
So, it’s very likely that we are what we are because we started walking on two legs.
Why We Think When We Walk
Well, we don’t necessarily think when we walk. But, there’s some curious connection between our mind and feet.
Somehow, walking improves our thinking ability as well as creativity. If you’re not sure about it, ask Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Friedrich Nitsche, William Wordsworth, and the list goes on and on.
Okay, maybe you can’t ask them, but all of these great minds were obsessive walkers and got some of their best ideas while walking or standing up.
The thinking-walking link is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but we do know a couple of facts and mechanisms.
Walking improves brain blood flow, staves off the aging of brain tissue, and even stimulates the growth of new neurons.
Our brain gets more oxygen, but it doesn’t have to think about walking. It’s a simple activity that doesn’t require our attention. So our mind can wander away helping us to find solutions and creative ideas.
The rhythm of the walk also helps. Just as the rhythm of the music can affect our mood, walking rhythm affects our thoughts. It’s the harmony between the two that stimulates creative processes.
How to Start Regular Walking Routine
Walking is an easy activity, but it’s never easy to get started. We are prone to inertia – if we are at rest, we’ll try to stay at rest until some force gets us moving.
For starters check out our list of benefits provided by regular walking. And then, there are a few tips and tricks to help you get there sooner and easier.
- Take a walk on your lunch break.
- Park your car a few blocks away from your office.
- Use stairs instead of elevators.
- Try to include nature and parks. It’s much more enjoyable if you walk through the forest instead of a concrete jungle.
- Invite your friends or family members to walk with you. It’s two-in-one: you’ll spend more time with people you love or like while getting an exercise.
- Keep it interesting. Set some goals like step-number, or visit different parts of the area. Just start walking and you’ll come up with ideas of your own.
For longer walks, especially the material next to your skin should be comfortable and be able to wick away sweat keeping you dry and even temperature. Consider wearing thin layers of wicking shirts.
Shoes and apparel can make all the difference between a pleasant and dreadful walking experience. Even more important if you decide to go hiking over indeterminate terrain.
Apps & Devices to Help You Out
We live in a high-tech world. Some of us can’t imagine any activity without modern apps and devices. Even if you’re not one of them, you can still use tech to help you track your progress or listen to music when you walk.
Tracking your metrics is important as it motivates you to keep going and improve your scores.
There are dozens of apps and devices that will help you track the number of steps, distance covered, time and average speed, elevation, heart rate, and so on.
You’ll be happy to see the improvements or you’ll know if you’re not walking long or fast enough.
Practical Walking – How to Walk If You Have Physical Problems
Walking is an innate skill, but it can be impaired by some health conditions or unhealthy and inactive lifestyle.
How to Walk with Bad Knees
If you have an injury, arthritis, or other knee issues, walking will not make it worse. On the contrary, it will help the healing process as long as you don’t overdo it.
Avoid climbing stairs until your knees get better. Also, avoid carrying additional weight and try to walk normally. Keep your head up and step from heel to toe.
How to Walk with Sore Hips
Walking can be quite painful if you have sore hip(s). Always consult your doctor if you are sufferinging. If you’re allowed to walk there are a couple of general guidelines.
Shorten your step length. A shorter stride will decrease the load at the front of the hip and reduce the transmitted force from the impact.
Avoid uphill and downhill walks. Some hip tendon issues can be aggravated if you head for the hills. Keep it easy and choose flatlands.
Listen to your steps. Some people tend to strike the ground harder with their heels. Obviously, it exerts more force that transmits to your hips. So, keep walking normally, but try to make it quieter.
How to Walk with Sore Feet
Dozens of conditions such as plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma, calluses, and metatarsalgia can turn walking into a not very enjoyable experience.
There’s not much you can do about it in terms of walking technique. However, proper shoes and regular foot care are crucial to allow you to walk pain-free.
Walking canes and sticks used to be tools to help injured or disabled people. Today, they are a regular part of walking and hiking equipment.
Although they aren’t necessary on the flat they still relieve the pressure on your feet and body by up to 18%.
They are even more beneficial going uphill or downhill.
With walking poles, you have to use your arms and you burn more calories. Ascents, and especially descents, put extra pressure on your knees and hips. Walking poles distribute some of that load and decrease the stress on your joints. Finally, trekking poles provide more stability and balance.
Truth be told, some people find them cumbersome and they cost money. Eventually, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of using walking sticks.
Stretching After Walk
Don’t forget the golden rule of any workout – stretch afterward. Flexibility is as important as strength and that’s why we need to stretch regularly especially as we get on in years.
But there are several more benefits of stretching after walking or, indeed, any physical activity like…
- Improves posture
- Reduces bodily aches & stresses
- Calms the mind
- Reduces injury
- Better performance
The best time for stretching is when your muscles are still warm and pliable. A 5-minute after-walk stretch is enough to maintain your flexibility, range of motion and avoid injury.
How to Improve the Benefits of Walking
As we’ve seen walking helps us to be healthier in oh so many ways. But, the best part is that you can pretty easily get an upgrade.
Walking in a Group
All the advantages of walking for our health can be increased by walking as a group, studies have shown. So join a walking group or get together with friends and form one.
In Canada it is the Canadian Volkssport Federation (CVF) found at their website here.
Walking in the UK is rambling and the Ramblers Association has a long and interesting history going back to the early 1930s.
Up the Pace
It’s the simplest and the most effective way to get more out of walking. Brisk walking elevates your heart rate more. It’s a little bit more demanding but it comes with increased benefits.
At first try increasing your speed for a few minutes and then tone it back. Interval of very brisk and normal speed can be very effective.
If you can afford it aim for longer walks. The more you walk, the less time you’ll spend sitting doing nothing. It’s easy to do it, you just need extra time.
Plan the route ahead and do it the same day with friends. Maybe treat yourself after to a well-deserved lunch.
Head for the Hills
It’s another way to put more effort and ripe more benefits. Uphill and downhill walking activates different muscle groups. Your heart and lungs will work harder and the more muscles you involve, the better.
Hiking over uneven terrain can be great fun and there are some great hiking routes all over the country. Check some of the best.
Enter an Event
Walking events are gaining popularity. Well, at least they were until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Walking events are great to break the routine, test yourself, and promote healthy routines. Some of them are charity events, so it’s nice to help the cause as well.
And because of restrictive organized outings, there are even virtual events you can do. Check some out here.
Go on a Walking Holiday
Active vacation is a great way to recharge your batteries. Especially if your work is desk-bound. The combination of adventure and healthy activity can become an unforgettable experience.
Whether you choose to hike a part of the Appalachian Trail or any other hiking trail, there’ll be plenty of nature to see. You’ll walk more than ever releasing copious amounts of endorphins returning totally refreshed.
Often Asked Questions About Walking
Q: Can you get in shape by walking?
A: Yes you can. It depends on what you consider to be a good shape, though. 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is enough to boost your fitness, reduce body fat, and improve muscle strength and endurance. Pace up or make your walks longer if you want to maximize the results or lose weight.
Q: Is walking enough to help your health and cognitive abilities?
A: Regular walking is enough to boost your health, decrease illness risks, and improve your cognitive abilities. But these benefits can be neutralized with other unhealthy habits. Think of it just as one of many tools to help our health.
Q: How long should I walk daily to lose weight?
A: You can walk forever, you’ll never lose weight unless you combine it with a healthy moderate diet. Assuming you are eating healthy, 250 minutes a week should do the trick. You can shorten that period by walking faster or going uphill/downhill.
Q: Should I necessarily brisk walk?
A: No. Normal walking is enough to reap numerous health benefits. Brisk walking allows you to get the same outcomes while shortening walking sessions.
Q: What is a good walking program for an over fifty-year-old interested in both weight control and cardiovascular benefits?
A: There’s no bad walking program as long as you walk at least 150 minutes a week. Depending on your fitness and tempo, 150 to 200 minutes a week should be the right amount to control your weight.
As a general rule of thumb, any amount of walking is better than none. And the more you walk, the better.
Q: Is walking better than running?
A: Both activities lead to a healthier heart, stronger bones, and lower body weight. Which one is better depends on your goals. If you ask me, the best exercise is the one you’ll keep practicing.
Less stress on your joints, fewer injuries, less tiring, more accessible, you can start right away no matter your fitness level, less sweaty, more social, you can think when walking.
Running advantages: You’ll burn much more calories per minute of exercising, improved strength and endurance, running allows high-intensity interval training effective in reducing visceral fat.
At the end of the day, running is better if you want to burn more calories while walking is safer, low-impact activity. They offer very similar health benefits, only walking takes more time each day.
Q: Is 10,000 steps a perfect daily goal?
A: It may come as a surprise, but no. 10,000 steps a day is not a science-based figure. It originates from a successful marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer, Manpo-kei launched in the 1960s. In Japanese, it literally means 10,000-step meter.
So, what’s a perfect daily goal? There’s no such thing. You will reap some benefits starting with 5,000 steps a day. And the more you walk the better it gets.
Q: Is uphill walking more beneficial than walking on flat land?
A: Yes and no. Both uphill and downhill walking is more demanding so you’ll build strength and endurance faster. Also, you’ll activate more different muscle groups.
But if you walk long enough on flat land you’ll probably match all benefits of uphill walking.
Q: What about downhill walking?
A: Walking downhill is an eccentric exercise. It’s a muscle-lengthening exercise similar to lowering weight against resistance. Most benefits are similar to flat or uphill walking, but downhill walking is almost as twice as efficient in removing blood sugar and improving glucose tolerance.
On the downside, it puts a lot more pressure on your knees and hips.
Q: Can treadmill substitute outdoor walking?
A: It depends. Treadmills can emulate almost all physical aspects of walking, or jogging for that matter. It’s basically the same joint movement, same calorie-burning, and same fitness benefits. And you can walk on a treadmill regardless of weather and season.
However, walking in the great outdoors is more efficient in reducing stress and boosting your energy. Also, outdoor walking activates stabilizing muscles as you face steps, sloping sidewalks, and different inclinations in various directions.
We live in a hectic and complicated world. We work hard and struggle to gain all kinds of commodities and conveniences. But the greatest riches are often at our hands even if we don’t notice them. Like love. Or walking.
This simple and easy activity, which helped us become the most sophisticated creatures on Earth, still comes with tremendous benefits.
Regular walking, especially out in the Great Outdoors, improves almost every aspect of our health and well-being. And yet, we walk less and less with each new generation.
So, it’s easy to make the decision. Get back to yourself, get back to your origins, get back to nature and walk, walk, walk…