Making strides for better health
By Linda Childers
If you’re hoping to lose weight or improve your health, don’t be surprised if your doctor says forget CrossFit or even jogging—instead, lace up your tennis shoes and go for a walk.
Sure, we’ve all heard about the myriad benefits that come from being physically active, but it’s not easy to follow through. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only half of all adults get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of chronic diseases.
To address this, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy launched a campaign last September to highlight the health benefits of walking, which for many is the easiest way of incorporating exercise into their daily regimen. Fortuitously, it is far and away one of the most efficient and comprehensive forms of exercise for health.
“We know that an average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity—such as brisk walking—can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Dr. Murthy says.
The best part is that walking is a universal physical activity that nearly everyone can do, says Karen Newcomer, MD, of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Running or going to a gym to work out can be intimidating for some people,” Dr. Newcomer says. “But regular brisk walking offers numerous health benefits.”
Perhaps no other physical activity has more far-reaching health benefits. Walking briskly can lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes as much as running, according to an April 2013 study conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Life Sciences Division in Berkeley, California. All three conditions are risk factors for heart disease and stroke, and the American Heart Association notes that walking for 30 minutes a day can significantly lower these risks.
“Walking is a low-impact exercise, which means it’s also easier on the knees, hips, and heels than high-impact exercises such as running and aerobics,” Dr. Newcomer says.
Walking can also have a dramatic impact on your mood. A 2015 study conducted at Stanford University found that people who walked in a natural setting such as a park, as opposed to a high-traffic urban setting, showed fewer symptoms of depression. Walking outdoors can also give you a critical boost of vitamin D. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, one billion people worldwide have a vitamin D deficiency. Most people can make enough vitamin D from being out in the sun for approximately 20 minutes a day, with their forearms, hands, or lower legs uncovered and without sunscreen from March to October, especially from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Regular walks can also help build and maintain bone density and decrease risk of fractures. In the legendary Nurses’ Health Study that followed women for several decades, researchers found that postmenopausal women who walked for at least four hours a week were 40 percent less likely to suffer hip fractures than those who walked less.
Surprisingly, walking has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that walking six miles each week strengthened the brain’s memory circuits.
Walking also provides a host of social benefits. A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who engaged in outdoor walking groups saw significant improvements in blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat, and lung function and were significantly less depressed.
“Taking a friend with you can be a great motivator and help keep you on a consistent schedule,” says Rufus Dorsey, a personal trainer in Los Angeles and a volunteer with the American Diabetes Association. “Instead of meeting a family member or friend for lunch, invite them to join you on a walk. When you’re walking and catching up with a friend, it doesn’t feel like a workout.”
Make sure you have the right gear
Although you don’t need a lot of gear to maintain a walking routine, a few basic items can help you get a good (and safe) workout.
Dr. Newcomer says the most important item is a pair of comfortable walking shoes. “Most running stores can measure your foot and recommend a good walking shoe,” she says. “If you’re flat-footed, you want a shoe with more arch support. Otherwise you’re better off with a cushioned shoe. Remember to invest in new walking shoes every year or so.”
Dr. Newcomer recommends bringing along water to stay hydrated, a reflective vest if you’re walking at night, and a pedometer or fitness tracker if you want to measure your progress. More serious walkers may want to invest in a heart rate monitor that measures exertion.
Plan on performing warm-up stretches before your walk and cool-down stretches afterward. This will keep your muscles loose, ease soreness, and help prevent injury.
Get motivated with apps and devices
A variety of fitness trackers and smartphone apps are available to help you reach your goals.
“For people who are just starting out, a pedometer is a great motivator in tracking steps,” Dorsey says. “I also recommend the free smartphone app My FitnessPal to help people keep track of the foods they eat, the activities they do, and the number of calories burned.”
Tracking steps is a great way to meet, even exceed, your walking goals. A 2007 study from Stanford University found that people who set daily walking goals and used a pedometer walked about 2,000 steps—or one mile—more a day.
For those who want more options than a basic pedometer offers, Dorsey recommends fitness trackers with features such as heart-rate monitoring and alerts that remind you to get up and walk around.
“There is no one-size-fits-all fitness device,” Dorsey says. “The right activity tracker for you is based on your individual needs and the amount you’re looking to pay.”
Taking walking to the next level
Many fitness devices advocate taking 10,000 steps per day, a rough equivalent to the surgeon general’s recommendation to accumulate 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that adults should engage in 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, such as brisk walking.
If bad weather, neighborhood safety, traffic, or a lack of accessible restrooms prevents you from walking outdoors and meeting your daily goals, consider mall walking. Call your local mall to find out if it has a formal mall-walking program, or if it can open the doors early for walkers.
If the weather is inclement and you can’t get out, there are work-arounds. Lisa Lillien, creator of the Hungry Girl website and a series of books, including Hungry Girl Clean and Hungry: Easy All-Natural Recipes for Healthy Eating in the Real World, says she relies on house walking to help her meet her goal of 10,000 steps a day.
“I found that when I was low on steps in the afternoon, I’d just stroll around the house to get the number up, and now I’m averaging 20,000 steps a day,” Lillien says. “And the best part is you don’t even need a house—an apartment or hotel room will do. Just walk in place while watching TV or talking on the phone.”
If you’re new to walking, Dr. Newcomer recommends starting with 5,000 steps a day and gradually increasing to 10,000.
“Aim for 30 minutes of walking or other physical activity most days of the week,” she says. “If you don’t have 30 minutes to devote to a walk, try breaking it up into 10- or 15-minute increments, until daily walks become a habit.” DW
Linda Childers has written for More, Redbook, and Ladies’ Home Journal.