Movement is essential for optimal health. The human body is designed to move. For most of evolutionary history, our ancestors were in constant motion—sprinting, climbing, jumping, or carrying heavy objects. On average, they walked 6 miles and ran one-half to one mile a day1.
The 19th century Industrial Revolution, however, marked the beginning of our transformation into a progressively sedentary culture. Now, in our commuting, cubicle and computer-driven world, excessive sitting is the new smoking. The average American is sedentary—sitting for 9 to 10 hours—for two-thirds of the day (during waking hours)2. Unfortunately, even a 30- to 60-minute workout does not offset the adverse health consequences of excessive sitting, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, weight gain/obesity and other chronic health conditions3. Studies suggest that vigorous exercise alone isn’t enough to prevent changes in bone metabolism caused by too much sitting4.
The easiest way to get more movement is by walking more.
The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other confers remarkable health benefits, from modestly reducing body fat (yep, you heard me right!), improving brain health and boosting immunity, to reducing stress, improving mood and getting things “moving” if you experience constipation.
The greatest advantage of walking is its low barrier to entry. There is no need for a gym membership, special clothes, shoes, or “gear”. You can do it anytime, anywhere—on a treadmill, at the mall, at the airport, at a supermarket, or up and down the stairwell at your office building. And you don’t have to be “in shape” to walk. Virtually, anyone can walk. Best of all, it is sustainable movement—even when you can’t make it to the gym, you’re traveling or you feel tired—you can always walk. Start with a 30-minute daily walk, and, over time, work your way up to 1 to 2 hours of walking—or at least 10,000 steps daily—accumulated throughout the day. How far is “10,000 steps”? That depends on your stride and patterns of movement. For me, walking “10,000 steps” means that I’ve walked 4 to 4-1/2 miles. Personally, I aim for 13,000 to 15,000 steps by end-day.
The top 11 benefits of walking are:
1. It reduces stress—and helps lower the stress hormone cortisol.
Rather than “feeding” your blues or anxiety with cookies or ice cream, give yourself a time-out and go for a walk. Studies suggest that even a 10-minute walk can help relieve anxiety and depression. Walking at a slow, leisurely pace (not power walking!)—the way you might walk while sightseeing on vacation—is one type of “exercise” that can help lower your levels of cortisol (the fight-or-flight stress hormone). You can also walk at a leisurely (slow!) pace for hours if you choose—without increasing appetite or causing metabolic stress to the body.
2. It modestly reduces body fat.
Done consistently, walking can help shed body fat, including deep belly fat, also known as “visceral” fat. Regular walking—start with 30 minutes daily and work up to 1 to 2 hours walking accumulated throughout the day—can help improve your body’s response to insulin, enabling you to lose belly fat.
3. It improves brain health.
Walking every day can help strengthen your brain and improve memory. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that aerobic exercise is effective at reversing loss of volume in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in processing and organizing information, memory and concentration, in older adults.
4. It boosts immunity.
Incorporating a 30-45 minute walk into your daily routine increases your body’s killer T cells and other immune system cells, making it easier to sail through cold and flu season without a sniffle.
5. It lowers blood pressure.
Your risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure (a reading of 140 over 90 or higher), increases as you age. A Korean study found that participants’ blood pressure reading—both top and bottom numbers—dropped several points after a brisk 40-minute walk, or taking four 10-minute walks at a brisk pace (3 to 4 miles per hour) throughout the day.
6. It lowers post-meal blood sugar levels.
After eating, consistently large spikes in blood sugar (especially following a big or heavy meal) can increase cardiovascular risk as well as diabetes. A short 15-minute post-meal walk can help significantly lower blood sugar levels, especially beneficial for overweight or diabetic adults.
7. It helps you sleep better.
A daily morning walk, which boosts the effect of natural sleep hormones, like melatonin, can help you sleep better at night. Post-menopausal women (ages 50-75), who started their day with a brisk 30-minute, walk slept better, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center study found.
8. It helps improve mood.
Brisk walking releases feel-good endorphins: the more steps you take, the better your mood, according to a California State University study.
9. It helps stimulate peristalsis and improves constipation.
Feeling stuck? A post-meal walk can literally help get things moving! Walking stimulates and activates your internal organs and speeds up the rate at which food moves through your stomach. The happy result is peristalsis, the contraction and relaxation of the muscles of the digestive tract that leads to a bowel movement.
10. It gives you a chance to “clear your head”.
A change of scenery and space makes walking an ideal “time-out”. Think of walking as an active form of meditation that enables you to be present in the moment.
11. It helps reduce risk of age-related health conditions
Participants who walked at least 1 to 3 miles a day reduced their chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by about 50%, according to a study published in Respirology5. (COPD refers to progressive lung diseases, like emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that are common among smokers and ex-smokers.) Researchers also found that daily walking for 1 to 2 hours could reduce the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60 by as much as one-third—regardless of walking pace6. Studies have also linked regular walking to improved heart health: a Harvard study found that, among male health professionals, walking just 30 minutes a day was linked to an 18% lower risk of heart disease.
1, 4 Your Personal Paleo Code by Chris Kresser, 2013
2 BMJ, January 21, 2015
3 British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2009; 43:81-83
5 Respirology, February 2, 2014
6 Stroke, November 14, 2013