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For many of us, walking doesn’t seem like anything special. It’s just something we do every day. But walking is actually one of the best forms of exercise out there.
Scores of studies show that this simple form of movement has a wealth of wide-ranging benefits, including better physical and mental health, increased mindfulness and enhanced communication skills.
“Walking is the most underrated, corrective, mind-body, fat-burning exercise available to humans,” said Dana Santas, a CNN fitness contributor, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and mind-body coach in professional sports. “I walk every single day.”
Here are several things everyone should know about this simple, yet beneficial, form of exercise. (Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.)
Walking improves your health
A walking regimen can help you lose weight; lower your blood pressure and cholesterol; and reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer; among other benefits.
“Walking for Health,” a special report issued by Harvard Medical School, says that walking can do more to combat disease and other health conditions than pretty much anything else. One example: Walking just two-and-a-half hours a week, or just under 22 minutes a day, might reduce your risk of heart disease by an impressive 30%.
It improves memory and cognitive capability
Numerous studies show that walking is a brain booster.
A study published in a 2010 issue of the journal Neurology found a link between walking and a greater amount of gray matter in the brain. For example, research from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville indicated walking lessened the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in elderly men.
It boosts your mood and lowers stress
Walking even a few minutes a day calms anxiety and enhances your mood. This is especially true if you’re walking outside in nature, a setting that numerous studies show is beneficial in myriad ways.
You can strengthen your muscles, bones and joints. Your leg and abdominal muscles get a workout when you walk, as do your arms if you’re pumping them or using trekking poles.
Your bones benefit, too, as walking is a weight-bearing exercise, which is great for building bone strength. And as you walk, your motion helps bring oxygen and nutrients into your joint cartilage, which has no direct blood supply.
Walking is energizing, yet also helps you sleep
A walking regimen helps boost your energy levels, but don’t worry if you suffer from insomnia. Women ages 50 to 75 who walked for an hour every morning were less likely to have insomnia than those who did not, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
It’s a safe, easy exercise for newbies
Some 17% to 50% of Americans are inactive, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with percentages varying by state and territory. For these people, walking is arguably the cardiorespiratory exercise best suited to them, said Evan Matthews, associate professor of exercise science and physical education at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.
“This is because it is likely a familiar movement, removing the learning curve that occurs with a new form of physical activity and the intimidation factor many feel when starting out,” he said. Walking is also safe with one of the lowest exercise injury rates, according to a report by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Matthews noted those without the stamina to finish a 30-minute walk can break it up into small chunks, something not easily doable if you need to exercise at a gym. “This could be a 10-minute walk to work, a 10-minute walk on your lunch break and a 10-minute walk home from work.”
Walking can be a vigorous workout
If you want to ramp up the intensity, try intervals, where you alternate a few minutes of easy strolling with intense bursts. You can also walk with hand or ankle weights, assuming they are not so heavy that they throw off your form, Santas said. Or strap on a loaded backpack. Another option: hill repeats, where you walk briskly up a hill, then easily back down, several times in a row.
You don’t need to take 10,000 steps a day
While many groups tout walking 10,000 steps a day, research supported by the National Institutes of Health and published in 2019 found that while older women who took 4,400 steps a day had a lower death rate than those taking just 2,700, the benefit of more daily steps leveling off around 7,500.
Build family bonds
Heading out for a stroll with your children could enhance your communication, reduce behavioral issues and even boost academic success. And don’t forget your spouse.
“One man told me walking saved his marriage,” Santas said.
The couple was on the brink of divorce when his wife began accompanying him on his daily walks.
“They started communicating in ways they hadn’t before, and it brought them back together.”
Develop community bonds
Studies show that when people frequently walk around their neighborhood, crime drops. Regular walks are also a great way to get to know your neighbors, and social bonds are important at any age.
Walking is free and can be done anywhere
There’s no need for a pricey gym membership. Just put on your shoes and head out the door. If the weather’s bad, look for a place such as a mall or school that offers community walking time. You can even walk around your house.
One final thought: While walking is a great form of exercise, new research shows we should move regularly throughout the day for optimal health. “Walking for five minutes every hour goes a long way,” Matthews said. “It doesn’t need to even be moderate intensity. Just move.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.