Why is walking healthy?
Walking is an aerobic activity that uses the large skeletal muscles of the lower body, it has numerous benefits, with minimal adverse effects. Walking quicker than normal, regularly and over a sufficient distance may even help maintain your physical fitness.
What are the health benefits of walking?
Studies suggest walking, especially in nature, holds numerous health benefits, here are just some of them:
1. Good for your heart
Walking reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure and when done briskly enough improves cardiorespiratory fitness. Findings suggest this is even more relevant if you suffer from anxiety or depression.
2. Supports bone health
Walking is the most common weight-bearing activity that we all do every day, and as a result, regardless of our age, it increases bone strength. This means regular walking may slow the process of osteoporosis.
3. Strengthens muscles and joints
Including walking in our day to day lives strengthens the muscles of the legs, limb girdle and lower trunk which helps us maintain our balance and stability as we grow older. Walking also helps preserve the flexibility of our joints and improves our posture and how we carry ourselves.
4. Burns calories
The good news is that any amount of walking, and at any pace, uses energy and can therefore be used as an aid to weight loss. Walking first thing in the morning may also help control appetite for the remainder of the day.
5. Improves insulin control
Studies suggest walking after a meal helps to control blood sugar levels and reduces the accumulation of abdominal fat which is associated with metabolic disease including heart disease, diabetes and liver problems. This is because moving improves how our bodies respond to insulin.
6. May slow biological aging
Researchers at the University of Leicester have reported a causal link between walking pace and telomere length (the caps that protect our DNA and suggest how well we are aging). The report suggests that a lifetime of brisk walking may add as much as 16-20 years to our lifespan. It’s not just our pace either the more walking you do – the higher step count – the lower your chance of all-cause mortality.
7. Reduces anxiety and tension
The knock-on effects of walking go beyond the physical – they include psychological benefits and better social connections.
In those with mild to moderate depression, exercise can be an effective anti-depressant, whilst having a regular walking routine may build a sense of purpose and improve mood. Keeping to a moderate intensity seems to be an effective long-term strategy for maintaining mental health.
8. Supports vitamin d levels
Getting out in the open air, ideally for a walk, is one of the best ways to support vitamin d levels. This is because vitamin d is produced by the action of sunlight on the skin. Be aware however, if you have low levels of this vitamin you may experience muscle weakness, this in turn may compromise your stability and balance.
9. Improves immunity
Scientists have discovered that walking in a forest location beside a waterfall (higher ionised air) increases levels of an antibody called IgA. This antibody plays an important role in the mucosal lining of the mouth, nose and gut and helps strengthen our immunity and lung function.
10. Supports gut health
Exercise, including brisk walking, has a beneficial impact on the number and diversity of good bacteria in our gut. This has numerous positive effects for our health including supporting digestion, improving immune function and increasing our nutritional status.
Is walking suitable for me?
Walking is the most natural of activities; it’s free, available to do all year round and can be incorporated into our everyday lives both at home and work. It’s the only sustained aerobic exercise that is common to us all, unless that is, you have a serious disability or are very frail.
Do I need special walking equipment?
All you need are a comfortable pair of shoes or boots that are suitable for the terrain you will be covering, as well as appropriate clothing. A third of older people have at least one fall a year so maintaining stability and helping support balance and posture are key considerations, what you wear on your feet can help with this. So too can trekking poles, these are particularly useful for those with lower back or joint issues, obesity or Parkinson’s. They’re also useful if you’re walking with a heavy back-pack because the poles help reduce the strain on your lower body especially at the knee and ankle. Walking with poles gets the upper body involved and although the body is working harder, you’ll feel it less.
How do I start my walking practice?
Walking is a great starter exercise, its low impact and because we tend to self-regulate ourselves, in terms of intensity, duration and frequency, it’s associated with a relatively modest number of injuries. If you’ve been sedentary, inactive or are elderly walking is a great introduction to activity - start at a slow to regular pace for short time periods and work towards achieving 30 minutes or more of brisk (6.4km/hour) walking on most days.
Joining a walking group is a great way to stay motivated, make new friends and walk in new locations.
Are there any safety issues to consider when walking?
As with all exercise, walking does have its downsides. These depend on where you walk but include road safety, personal safety and air quality. Follow these tips for a safe and enjoyable walk:
• Let someone know your planned route
• Wear clothes that allow you to be clearly seen, especially at night
• Take a mobile phone with you
• Choose a route away from busy roads, where possible
• Walk on a designated pavement or footpath – if you do need to walk on a road, walk on the right-hand side facing the approaching traffic
• For more safety tips check out roadwise.co.uk
Is there an ideal time of day to walk?
The best time of day is whatever works for you, but if you do choose to walk first thing this has the added benefit of helping set your body clock for the day which means you’re likely to sleep better. Recent studies also suggest walking between 8 and 11am may further help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, especially if you’re female.
Walking is one of the easiest ways to get active, it’s free and may help you lose weight and feel better. Often overlooked as a form of exercise, when done at a suitable pace and over sufficient distance, walking can help improve stamina and cardiovascular fitness and may even help you live longer.
If you are new to exercise, have an underlying medical condition or existing injuries please consult a doctor before embarking on any new exercise programme.
Found this useful? Now read...
Not sure where to start? Below are some of our favourite walking resources, and for the perfect home coming check out our slow cooker recipes for a warm, comforting meal on your return. Be sure to browse our healthy snack recipes, to keep you energised.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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