There are so many health benefits of walking, it's hard to keep track of them all. While we think of running, cycling, and hiking as the top activities to get our heart pumping, going for a walk can help improve our health in many of the same ways.
Plus, walking is something we do every day. Whether it's a visit to the shops, up and down the stairs, or a weekend stroll, walking is something that many of us find relatively easy to squeeze into our daily lives.
You can do walking as a workout or take it easy and focus on building up your fitness with some LISS cardio, either way, you'll be able to get some of the benefits of this simple exercise. From the physical health benefits to how walking can help calm your mind, woman&home speaks to two doctors to outline all the amazing benefits of walking.
Benefits of walking
1. Helps fight off major diseases
One of the biggest benefits of walking is arguably what it can do for our long-term health. Studies by Kohnodai Hospital suggest that walking 30 minutes a day can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 50%, while research from the University of Ferrara shows that regular walking can reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure, which in turn cuts the risk of serious conditions like heart disease, heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes.
But for those who aren't up for hiking just yet, board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist Dr Vikash Sharma has some good news. “A research study by Brigham and Women's Hospital, conducted in 2019, aimed to see if an increased number of steps per day meant lower mortality rates among elderly women. This study concluded that women who averaged at least 4,400 steps a day had a significantly reduced mortality rate compared with women who only took 2,700 steps per day. Also, as the number of steps increased, the rate of mortality reduced up to 7,500 steps per day.” This means just getting your steps up to less than half the 10,000 recommended steps a day can have a hugely positive impact on your health.
2. Boosts bone strength
Keeping our bones healthy is essential for keeping us moving into older age, says Professor Craig Sale, professor of human physiology at Nottingham Trent University. "Bone is a living tissue, so it grows stronger with the force of our muscles pulling against it," he explains.
Any amount of walking will help with this as it's the impact of the foot on the ground that'll encourage your bones to strengthen but, if you can, walking at a quicker pace will help. “If you are looking to build up your bone density, you will need to increase the impact on joints and bones,” adds Dr Sharma, emphasizing the importance of investing in a pair of the best walking shoes for this reason. “This is to stimulate change and new bone cells to grow. So, walking faster or incorporating some higher-impact activities will help. Try circuit training activities like rope jumping, jump squats, lunges, box jumps, and drops that are appropriate for your current fitness level. This will yield better results for improving your bone health.”
3. Can help with weight loss
Not everyone wants or needs to lose weight, and no one should be pressured to do so. But if healthy, sustainable weight loss is something you're looking to achieve then you can increase the number of calories burned walking to help with this.
In the debate of walking vs running, running will burn calories more efficiently - but walking will still burn the same number over a longer period, with less impact on your bones and joints.
There's also research from the University of Exeter that suggests that a 15-minute walk in the mid-afternoon could prevent snacking. While perfectly normal considering the nose dive our blood sugar can take after lunch, snacking on high-calorie foods such as crisps and chocolate can become a mindless habit that leads to weight gain. But in this study, it was found that a short walk helped people to regulate their intake by half.
4. Eases symptoms of menopause
According to a study by the Brigham Women's and Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, women who walk regularly after menopause may lower their risk of breast cancer – even when doing no other form of exercise. It’s believed that walking for at least an hour a day cuts the risk by 14%, mainly because it regulates levels of hormones that can encourage breast tumors to grow.
Plus, walking could reduce the severity of some symptoms of menopause, particularly when it comes to those related to stress, anxiety, and depression. The study, by Temple University, found that 40 minutes of walking five times a week was the point at which the benefit kicked in. Plus, that didn’t have to be done all at once. Researchers also found that walking can help reduce stress in postmenopausal women, too.
5. Burns as much fat as running
Losing weight and losing fat are two different things but luckily, walking can help with both. One of the best benefits of walking is that you can burn fat without pushing yourself to the limits. Exercises like the 12-3-30 workout where you're walking on an incline, for example, can help.
“Walking does offer many of the same health benefits as running, without the risk of injury that running does,” says Dr Sharma. “Just make sure to do so progressively and systematically. At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that the best routine is going to be one that you can stick to and stay consistent with.”
The reason it works is that lower-intensity exercises, such as walking, actually force the body to burn more subcutaneous fat, which is fat under the skin that stores energy. Your body is more likely to burn these existing fat stores with this lower-intensity exercise than it is when you’re running at a higher tempo, research by multiple institutions - including the University of Odense most recently - explains, because it uses less glucose and glycogen (otherwise known as quick energy, which is from carbohydrates rather than fat). For more fat burn, try swinging your arms to increase your calorie expenditure. This doesn't mean that HIIT treadmill workouts, for instance, aren't also effective for burning fat though.
Depending on your weight, look at how many calories you could potentially burn with an hour of walking:
- 170 calories = walking at a leisurely 2mph pace.
- 250 calories = stepping it up to a moderate 3mph.
- 300 calories = hitting a brisk 4mph.
“If you’re climbing hills, walking at a faster pace or using intervals in your walking routine, you are sure to increase the number of calories you burn,” adds Dr Sharma.
6. Walking is a natural mood booster
Walking is good exercise buy you want to shake off a bad mood, lace up your trainers and set off on a walking meditation session. “Walking can most definitely improve your mood,” says Dr Sharma. “Studies have also shown that walking can reduce feelings of hostility and anger, and improve your sleep.”
Professor Sale adds, “Modern living often sees a lot of stresses in both the workplace and at home, which can have an impact on your mental health. Walking is crucial in helping you to overcome these pressures, by giving you fresh air and clearing your mind.”
When researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine asked people with depression to walk for 30 minutes three times a week for 16 weeks, they found it had similar mood-boosting effects to antidepressant medication.
However, the research on this is relatively limited, and walking - whether that's an intense walking workout or soft hiking - should not be a total replacement for adequate mental health assistance. Always speak to your doctor if you think you may be struggling with depression or other mental health issues.
7. Boosts brain power
There are so many benefits of walking for our mental health, but taking a walk - whether that's a stroll in the park or more intense exercise like Nordic walking - does great things for our brain too. Have you ever come back from a walk feeling refreshed? Like the cobwebs have been blown away? Research from Parthenope University of Naples shows this is because walking helps blood flow better into the brain, firing up our neurons, and promoting cell growth.
It also releases more endorphins into the body, which help us deal with stress better and even make us feel euphoric, meaning we're more likely to be able to concentrate better, complete tasks to a higher quality, and maintain focus for longer.
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Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.
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