Jeanette Madock signed up for an eight-day walking tour of the south of Ireland last summer, hoping to see some new places, meet some nice people, and get some exercise. She got so much more.
“I was dramatically reminded by the outdoor beauty and scenery that there is always a massive world out there outside of our daily lives,” says Madock, 65, of Oak Park, Ill.
She thought she’d be one of the oldest people on the trip, which entailed five to seven miles of walking and hiking each day. “What I didn’t expect was a huge influx of inspiration from my fellow hikers, five of whom were in their 70s, and one fierce inspiration of a woman of 80. The message was clear to me: This is how I want to travel — and this is how I want to age.”
If walking were a drug, it would be flying off the shelves. Hot-wire your health! Boost your brain power! Improve sleep! Extend your life! The purported benefits are so great that we’d all be clamoring to get our hands on some perambulation.
Yet most of us don’t see walking as an inspiring feat. It’s so ordinary, so quotidian.
Walking doesn’t make you “swole,” nor does it deliver the endorphin rush of a run. It’s not especially efficient exercise compared with, say, riding a bike or swimming laps.
For many people, though, walking is a sustainable and beneficial way to get moving. Research shows it improves heart and lung function, enhances metabolism, and builds bone density. It keeps the brain healthy and maintains everyday strength and mobility.
Going for a walk can boost mood and support better sleep. It can be a form of transportation as well as an avenue to explore new places, to bond with friends, and even to meditate.
As with many forms of exercise, walking has its limits — specifically, it is not available to every body. But if walking is accessible to you, we encourage you to consider the following reasons for taking regular walks.
1) Walking keeps your body balanced.
We spend much of our lives these days seated. Our sedentary, forward-leaning daily routines contribute to muscle and joint restrictions, including in the hip flexors, chest, and upper back.
Over time, these areas of limited mobility create musculoskeletal imbalances: This can ultimately reduce your mobility and increase your risk of injury.
Walking is the antidote.
“Biomechanically, walking is the reverse of sitting at a computer, leaning forward over children, hovering over our phones in a rounded, slumping position,” explains Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT, a physical therapist at Full Circle Wellness in Newbury, Mass.
“When walking is done at its finest, it allows the spine and arms to extend and rotate, and the hips to extend; it activates muscles on the back of the body,” she adds. “It is really a whole-body activity.”
McManus recommends desk workers get up and walk for five minutes at least every hour. “There is evidence that supports this for health — and even for better efficiency of focus and concentration. Another great option is a standing workstation that you can spend part of your day at, and even better, treadmill workstations for set periods of time, based on your fitness level, to break up your sitting,” she says.
Any time you can go for a longer, dedicated walk — before, during, or after your workday — you’ll reap benefits, so aim for whatever you can do most consistently.
2) Walking supports mental health.
Our brains are barraged by the world around us, which can make us distracted, agitated, even anxious.
“Walking is a reset,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Udler, LCSW-C, of Positive Strides Therapy in Potomac, Md. “It’s a chance to take a break and let your thoughts simmer down and settle so you’re able to see things more clearly. Walking is a preventive measure that helps restore your nervous system to a calmer state.”
Udler even uses walking in her therapy: She meets clients for walk-and-talk sessions, which she says offer them the calming benefits of a walk while encouraging them to let down their guard and speak more openly than they might in a traditional office setting.
One reason walking is so powerful is that it involves bilateral stimulation, or rhythmic movement on alternating sides of the body, she explains. “When you walk, you’re integrating emotion and logic by activating both sides of your body.”
“Walking is a reset. It’s a chance to take a break and let your thoughts simmer down and settle so you’re able to see things more clearly.”
Even walking on a treadmill can offer mental-health benefits, though studies have found that going for a stroll in nature is especially effective. A 2015 study found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to those who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression.
Another study, published in 2019, indicates that walking (or sitting) in nature can significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Research shows that breathing fresh air and seeing green space while walking is calming, energizing, and a mood lifter,” says Udler. “If you’re suffering from ruminating thoughts, walking takes you out of your head and into the world. Having moments that interrupt your usual thought pattern allows you to remember that you’re part of the bigger picture.”
Carlos Reynes, MD, a functional-medicine specialist in Oak Park, Ill., believes so strongly in the value of walking that he commutes the two miles to and from his office each day on foot. “The morning walk gets my blood circulating, and it helps my mind get into the zone so that by the time I get to my office, I’m ready to work. Walking home allows me to get over the stress of work and transition so that I’m ready to be home.”
3) Walking strengthens your heart and lungs.
Walking isn’t the most intense form of aerobic exercise, yet it still checks all the boxes for promoting cardiovascular health. In fact, a 2013 study of 49,005 participants published in an American Heart Association journal reported that equivalent doses of walking and running led to “largely equivalent” risk reductions for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.
“By walking, a person is deliberately increasing their heart rate and engaging their cardiovascular system in a meaningful and purposeful way,” says Eli Friedman, MD, medical director of sports cardiology at Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.
To increase the cardiovascular challenge, increase your pace, walk up and down hills, or set your treadmill at an incline, advises Jason Stella, NASM, PES, CES, Life Time national education manager.
To increase the cardiovascular challenge, increase your pace, walk up and down hills, or set your treadmill at an incline,
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a brisk walking pace for most people is 3 miles per hour. But what matters more is how hard you’re working: For exercise to be considered moderate intensity, the CDC says your heart rate should be between 64 and 76 percent of your maximum heart rate.
If you don’t have a heart-rate monitor, aim for a pace that feels quicker than normal or more challenging for you. On a rate of perceived exertion scale (1 corresponding to very easy and 10 to very difficult), aim for a 3 or 4. At this effort level, you’ll still be able to engage in conversation but your breathing will be slightly labored, making it more difficult than chatting over a cup of tea.
“If you feel good, it’s working. This can be followed more closely by watching trends for heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood-sugar readings over time,” says Friedman.
“Simply getting up and moving the body with purpose will have health benefits. Yes, the more someone does, the better. But we should not let that be a barrier to beginning. Ultimately, we want to try to get to 150 minutes of walking or more per week.”
4) Walking boosts your metabolism.
Metabolism is the body’s ability to take in fuel and process it to support life. To optimize your metabolism, aim for basic healthy habits, explains Life Time master trainer and dietitian Samantha McKinney, RDN, LD: Get good nutrition, ample sleep, and exercise. The easiest way to support your metabolism is to up your NEAT.
NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis, is all the movement you do as part of your everyday life — everything from household chores and playing with your kids to basic things like eating and sleeping.
NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis, is all the movement you do as part of your everyday life.
One of the simplest ways to increase your NEAT is by walking. Whether it’s walking the dog, walking with your kids to the playground, parking farther away from the office or grocery store, or taking the stairs, increasing the number of total steps — even at short distances and a lower intensity — can increase your NEAT.
Walking can also support your metabolism by helping to regulate your appetite. One 2015 study shows it can control cravings for sugary snacks among those who regularly consume them. And research has shown that walking does not cause a significant increase in your appetite.
These benefits might be especially welcome news for folks who want to reduce body fat. But even if you are not seeking body-composition changes, a healthy metabolism supports your body’s ability to survive and thrive.
5) Walking aids digestion.
When we’re sedentary, our digestion and motility can become sluggish. Walking encourages peristalsis — the constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles that push the contents forward.
In Italy, an evening walk — la passeggiata — for better digestion is a cultural tradition. And it doesn’t “involve pedometers or spandex; these walks are purely for pleasure,” explains endocrinologist David Ludwig, MD, PhD.
A light walk after lunch or dinner — even as little as two to five minutes — significantly moderated blood-sugar levels in participants with or without type 2 diabetes.
This walk can also help lower insulin levels, he adds. A 2013 study in Diabetes Care found that three 15-minute walks daily helped older people at risk for impaired glucose tolerance increase their ability to regulate blood sugar for the following 24 hours.
And a 2022 meta-analysis of seven studies in Sports Medicine discovered that a light walk after lunch or dinner — even as little as two to five minutes — significantly moderated blood-sugar levels in participants with or without type 2 diabetes.
6) Walking enhances healthy aging.
Walking is directly linked to increased longevity, and it’s a common method of exercise for the longest-living people. “If you look at the longevity of people who consistently incorporate walking into their routines, even without strength training, it’s a lot better than those who don’t walk,” says Stella.
In fact, Reynes contracts with a company for genetic testing to make recommendations for his patients and says exercise influences how we age at the genetic level.
“Walking should be ‘prescribed’ by every doctor for the primary and secondary prevention of dementia and cardiovascular disease,” Reynes says. He notes that a 2011 study from SAGE Journals points out that “Studies on people with moderate dementia have described numerous positive effects of physical exercise and walking programs: improvement in walking endurance, better urinary continence, enhanced communication, reduced depression, and an increase in activities of daily living.”
The brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein is called a “brain fertilizer” because it helps your brain make neural connections. Low levels of BDNF have been associated with depression, anxiety, poor memory, and brain degeneration.
“We now know people can be strong or weak at making these connections,” explains Reynes. “We also know that exercise increases BDNF, and walking actually works better to create this chemical than some supplements out there.”
Research remains inconclusive on just how fast and how much you need to walk for your brain to benefit, but some studies have shown that pace and quantity influence aging. A 2019 Mayo Clinic study of 474,919 participants found a brisker walking pace to be associated with longer life expectancy.
A 2022 meta-analysis of 15 studies involving nearly 50,000 people on four continents found that taking more steps per day helps lower the risk of premature death. For adults 60 and older, however, this risk levels off at about 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day, meaning that more than that provides no additional benefit for longevity.
For adults younger than 60, the risk of premature death stabilized at about 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day. This study found no association of premature death with walking speed, however.
Reynes stresses that the most important thing is to make walking a consistent habit. “A lot of people get caught up in the idea of getting 10,000 steps and think, I can’t make it happen, so they give up. But even 4,000 steps a day has benefits. I tell people that whether they walk, lift weights, or do other exercises, the answer is always improving on your abilities — that’s what makes us optimal human beings.
“Once people start doing anything consistently, they’ll start feeling better and are going to want to do more of it.”
On Your Feet
While it’s true that walking is a low-impact activity compared with running, it’s still a force-producing, repetitive movement. “Most people don’t think about the ground-reaction force of walking. When you walk, the amount of force through your body is one and a half to two times your body weight per step,” explains Jason Stella, NASM, PES, CES, Life Time national education manager.
Footwear matters. “I like a running shoe for walking because it’s meant to take on three to five times your body weight. It gives you a nice cushion to minimize the force through your body,” he says.
“I like a running shoe for walking because it’s meant to take on three to five times your body weight. It gives you a nice cushion to minimize the force through your body.”
For someone who may overpronate, physical therapist Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT, recommends a motion-control shoe. If you have more-rigid feet and high arches, she suggests a softer, more flexible shoe. You also want to make sure you can spread your toes and wiggle them in the toe box.
She encourages walkers to shop in the running-shoe section of the store, where the most-cushioned shoes can be found. Your local running store can help you determine the most appropriate shoe for your foot.
What about barefoot or minimalist shoes? McManus says there is a place for them. “If you’re intrigued by the idea of making your feet stronger, I recommend a gradual progression to zero-drop shoes with a wide toe box,” she says. “They allow you to use your intrinsic foot muscles and get the support from within. There just needs to be a slower, strategic shift to wearing these shoes. Most athletic shoes have a 5- to 7-millimeter heel drop, so switching to zero drop can open you up to overuse injuries if you jump into them too quickly.”
If you’re interested in moving to barefoot or minimalist shoes, McManus recommends working with a healthcare provider who understands foot mechanics. “One step you can make right away is spending more time barefoot, as long as this is comfortable for you,” she says.
Walk This Way
Though it’s a natural movement, walking is not a simple one. It’s a full-body action that integrates hundreds of muscles and movement at the hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, arms, and torso. All these moving parts make for variation in gait patterns and differences in how you feel during and after a walk. Try these tips for making the most of your walking — and for staying injury-free.
“Before you go for a walk, you’re looking to prepare your body for what you’re about to do,” says physical therapist Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT. She recommends doing some type of dynamic mobility exercise for both the upper and lower body. Marching in place, leg and arm swings, butt kicks, and squats are all great options, or you can start your walk at a slower pace and gradually increase the tempo as your body gets used to the movement.
Jason Stella, NASM, PES, CES, Life Time national education manager, recommends using a lacrosse or massage ball to roll out the arches of your feet. “This helps mobilize the fascia, so your foot is ready to absorb the force of every step.”
Walk with an upright posture. “Imagine a string pulling from the top center of your head, straight up toward the sky, making you as tall as possible, while you maintain your gaze straight ahead,” says McManus.
Let your arms swing to open your chest. “Think of your sternum as a headlight that gets movement from side to side. This allows you rotation and extension through your midback and thoracic spine,” she explains.
Instead of focusing on reaching one foot out in front of the other, which can lead to overstriding, she suggests you focus on hip extension of your push-off leg. “Imagine you are on a moving walkway, as if you are pushing the belt away behind you as you walk.”
Visualize pushing off through the center of the bottom of your big toe. This keeps your foot in a neutral position and activates the gluteus maximus and the posterior chain muscles of your leg.
“After you walk, you have the benefit of being able to get the most out of sustained-hold stretching, now that your muscles are warm,” says McManus. Focus on static stretches for your calves, hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings, holding each for 30 seconds or more (or try these stretches to help your hip mobility).
This article originally appeared as “Born to Walk” in the April 2023 issue of Experience Life.
This Post Has One Comment
I couldn’t have read this at a better time. While working on knee replacement recovery (which is one of the hardest things I have ever done) I am appreciating the upcoming ability to walk without pain. Let’s take a walk this summer.