We all know that regular exercise important for a healthy body and mind. As a society, we spend millions of dollars each year on gym memberships, fitness classes and exercise equipment for our homes. The fact that we make these investments in our health is a great thing, however one of the most beneficial physical activities requires nothing more than a good pair of shoes. I am talking about taking a good, old fashioned walk. There is growing evidence that walking is not only one of the most accessible forms of exercise, but also one of the most beneficial for improving physical and mental vitality.
For years we have heard about the physical benefits of regular walking. We know that walking burns calories, improves cardiovascular health, increases flexibility and general mobility and is great for when you just need to get out and clear your head. Still, there is a misconception floating around that you need to participate in more vigorous forms of exercise to reap real rewards. While there’s no need to abandon your aerobic or weight lifting routine, adding a regular walk into your fitness regimen can strengthen and heal you in ways that other forms of exercise can’t.
One of the most important studies regarding the health benefits of walking was conducted in 2013 by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In their study they looked at tens of thousands of individuals who were either avid walkers or runners. What they discovered was that walking proved to be just as effective, and in some cases even more effective, than running for reducing the risk of certain health conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. What this shows us is that exercise does not need to be vigorous in order to be effective. This means that the millions of people who suffer from physical limitations that might prevent them from engaging in more strenuous forms of exercise can benefit tremendously from a regular walking routine. Some of the physical benefits of walking include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight and body fat ratio
- Increased metabolism
- Improved circulation
- Reduced the risk of varicose veins
- Improved balance and coordination
- Strengthening of muscles
- Strengthening of bones, especially for the prevention of osteoporosis
- Improved digestive function
- Reduced overall inflammation
- Decreased bad cholesterol levels
- Reduced risk of chronic health conditions such as heart disease and hypertension
And walking can deliver all these benefits without the use of chemicals or pharmaceuticals!
The list of the physical health benefits of walking is quite impressive, indeed. However, what you might find even more intriguing is the growing evidence that regular walking is good for your emotional balance and mental clarity. Many of us head outside for a stroll when we are feeling stressed or mentally cluttered, and there is good reason for this. Some of the most forward thinkers and creative minds of the past couple hundred years have been famous for taking walks in order to gain insight and boost creativity. Do the names Beethoven, Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg mean anything to you? These forward-thinking individuals are known for being avid walkers. They found that walking could clear the mind and inspire innovation, and there are recent studies that back them up.
One such study was conducted by California State University professor, Robert Thayer. He and his students looked at a mixed gender population of participants for twenty days. Each participant wore a pedometer and then was asked to answer questions each day regarding energy levels, mood, happiness, self esteem and depression. The answers to their questions were compared against the number of steps that each individual had taken that day. What was discovered was that the amount of steps taken was directly proportional to overall happiness, energy levels and life satisfaction. The more steps people took, the more likely they were to report positive feelings. While these results are from only one study, there have been many others that all conclude similar results. Regular walking can improve your emotional balance and mental vitality in a number of ways, including:
- Stress Reduction: Walking increases your levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that controls the brain’s response to stress. This natural release of norepinephrine will help cope with stressful emotions and situations in a more constructive and healthy way.
- Endorphins: Walking releases endorphins which are the chemicals responsible for that grin that just naturally lights up your face. These happy hormones have been proven to be just as effective as pharmaceuticals in treating some forms of depression and anxiety.
- Staying Mentally Sharp: Walking helps to increase the chemicals in the brain that help prevent the degeneration of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of your brain that is vital for learning, memory and critical thought processes.
- Neurogenesis: This is the term that is used to describe the creation of new brain cells. New brain cells are important to brain performance and health. Walking, and other forms of exercise have been shown to promote neurogenesis in both human and animal studies.
- Self Satisfaction: People that walk on a regular basis report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives and their life choices. This holds true even in times of increased stress or change. Additionally, walkers exhibit higher levels of self confidence and self esteem.
- Creativity: Walking gets the creative juices flowing. Studies show that creativity peaks for two hours after walking for at least thirty minutes.
- Productivity: Research shows that the people who make time for a regular walk no matter how busy their schedule are able to achieve more and meet more of their daily goals. Exercise, including walking, improves energy levels and gives you the mental clarity that you need to properly organize and complete all of your daily tasks.
- Better Sleep: Walking promotes better sleep habits, and not just because you are tired from exercising. Taking a walk, especially in the early evening, increases your core body temperature. A few hours later when your temperature returns to its baseline level, it signals to your brain that it is time to sleep. Add this to the fact that people who walk tend to worry less, stress less and experience less anxiety and you have the perfect antidote for those sleepless nights.
So, is a leisurely stroll around the block just as effective as a more vigorous hike in the woods? The answer is both yes and no. Any amount of walking will benefit you, however there is a direct correlation between the number of steps taken and the degree of benefits experienced. In other words, the more you walk the better you feel on all levels. Additionally, if you are able to increase your heart rate by picking up the pace, you receive more of the benefits associated with cardiovascular exercise. In essence, never pass on an opportunity for a walk, no matter how short or slow paced, but also aim to fit in slightly longer and brisker walks when you are able. The American Heart Association recommends at least one hundred and fifty minutes of moderate activity every week. The easiest way to fit this in is to aim for at least five walking sessions every week, with each session being at least thirty minutes in duration. That said, every little bit of time that you spend walking all adds up to meet your final goal, so do what you can when you are able.
The idea of adopting a regular walking routine sounds pretty simple. After all, it is “just” walking, isn’t it? While walking is one of the simplest and low maintenance forms of exercise out there, it can still be challenging to adopt a regular walking routine. It turns out that the very aspects of walking that make it so accessible are the very same aspects that get in the way of building a solid routine. There is no monetary commitment required, but that also means that you are not monetarily motivated to get up and go to the gym or a class. It can be done anywhere, but that also means that you might be more likely to put it off by thinking you can just do it later. What you need in order to fully experience the benefits of walking is a commitment, a schedule, a little motivation and a willingness to be flexible. Try these following suggestions for building a healthy walking routine.
- Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. You will want to do this for both a financial incentive to keep you moving and also to have the proper physical support that you need while walking. A good walking shoe will have strong arch support, shock absorption, firm heels and flexible soles. Also take into consideration the environmental conditions that you will be walking in. You do not want to let a little rain or cold become an excuse to not go out and walk. If you are able, it’s a good idea to get a shoe recommendation from your doctor or knowledgeable staff fat an athletic shoe store. Don’t let the wrong choice in footwear cause you pain, discomfort or injury.
- If you are going to be walking after dark invest in reflective gear. You can buy clothing that is reflective, but sometimes that can be a little cost prohibitive. If reflective walking clothes are out of your budget, you can add pieces of reflective tape to your shirt, shoes and hat.
- Think about your path, and always walk new areas in the daylight. An impromptu stroll is always fun, but try to plan your routes ahead of time whenever possible. Think about things such as how far you want to walk round trip, traffic and the natural terrain. If you are a little unbalanced or uncoordinated, you should avoid paths that include rocks, tree roots, steep inclines, etc. If you are thinking of trying a new path, walk it at a leisurely pace during the daylight hours, preferably with a walking buddy. Access the terrain, the difficulty and the general feeling of safety that you get.
- Think about walking indoors. Shopping centers, malls and gyms are all great places to get in a walking workout in a well lit, well maintained and level environment.
- Bring a buddy or join a group. There is something to be said for accountability. Having a walking buddy helps to keep you accountable. It also helps to keep you entertained and motivated.
- Remember that walking really is exercise and you should treat your body to a warm up and cool down session just as you would with any other physical activity. If your muscles are tight, or you are otherwise prone to injury, it is a good idea to do a little stretching beforehand as well.
- Posture is important. Walk with your back straight, shoulders relaxed, head facing straight ahead rather than down and your stomach muscles pulled in slightly. To minimize impact and the potential for injury, always roll you foot from heel to toe with each step.
- Make a commitment and a realistic schedule. Promise yourself that three days a week you will spend twenty minutes of your lunch break walking, or commit to a nightly walk after dinner. Try parking further away, walk instead of drive whenever possible and take the long way whenever you are on foot. Those extra steps will add up.
- Set goal and keep track of them. Use a fitness app, join a support group, grab a buddy with similar goals or keep track in a journal.
- Mix it up. It is easy to skip a scheduled walk when you are feeling bored and uninspired. This is the perfect time to discover new places.
Regular walking is one of the simplest ways to protect your health. Most people, even those with some physical limitations, can benefit from and enjoy a nice walk. Walking is physically beneficial, but it can also be a healing and even beautiful experience. There is so much of the world around us that we miss while engaged in our hectic days. Walking forces us to slow down and notice the world that surrounds us. The benefits are many, and they are waiting for you as soon as you get your shoes on, so get up and get moving!