“Walking is a man’s best medicine.” So said Hippocrates more than 2400 years ago and it is just as true today, as the health benefits of walking have been proven repeatedly by modern scientific studies. Any physical activity is a boon to overall heath and walking comes with a host of benefits. Staying strong and healthy is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, with the added benefits that you can do it anywhere, at anytime and need no special equipment.
Health benefits of walking.
The human body is designed for activity. Active muscles take up glucose from the blood stream much more efficiently than inactive muscles. Walking can have a major positive impact on various health conditions and disease risk, as proven by a magnitude of studies.
Cardiovascular health: Studies showed that those people who walked enough to meet the guidelines from health authorities had a 30% lower risk of cardiovascular events, such as stroke or heart attack, compared to people who did not walk regularly. Another study amongst postmenopausal women of all races indicated that moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week also showed a risk reduction of about 30% for cardiovascular events. This was borne out in other studies where regular physical activity reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 30 to 50 percent amongst both men and women. High blood pressure is a prime risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Walking regularly has been observed to result in reductions in blood pressure, in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Diabetes: Inactivity can promote type 2 diabetes. Physical activity that makes the muscles in the body work harder improves the ability of muscles to absorb glucose (blood sugar), while putting less stress on the insulin-making pancreatic cells in the body. Brisk walking for 30 minutes per day can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 30%. Studies found that for those already at risk, shorter walks throughout the day are more effective than a single longer walk. Moderate exercise coupled with changes to the diet reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes in people with impaired glucose tolerance. One study found that taking a 15-minute walk after every meal provided better blood sugar regulation than a single 45-minute walk. If you already have diabetes, walking at least 2km per day may cut the risk of heart disease in half.
Reducing falls and fractures: Falling and breaking a bone, especially a hip, can be a serious problem for older people and staying active can keep muscles strong and flexible to help avoid a fall. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking also helps to strengthen bones, which helps to be less likely to break a bone during a spill.
Boosting your mood: Taking a walk acts as an immediate mood booster and is a viable remedy to assist with depression. A study amongst people whose depression was tough to treat and resistant to medication, found that a combination of medication and walking produced positive results. They started walking 30 to 45 minutes a day for five days a week and after 12 weeks 26% no longer had symptoms while a further 21% showed improvement.
Joint pain: Research has shown that walking can help to reduce pain in people with osteoarthritis, a condition where the hips and knees are usually affected, as walking lubricates joints and strengthens the surrounding muscles.
Longevity: Several studies, that together involved 650 000 people, have found that 30 minutes of walking five days a week can increase life expectancy by three-and-a-half years. Even walking for 15 minutes per day resulted in an increase of almost two years in life expectancy.
Taming a sweet tooth: Walking for 15 minutes can reduce the craving for chocolate and can also reduce the amount of chocolate you eat in stressful situations.
Improving sleep: Taking about 10 000 steps per day or a 45-minute walk in the mornings have both been found to help you fall asleep faster and helped to improve sleep quality and duration in just four weeks.
Sharpens your thinking: The hippocampus in the brain is important for memory but shrinks about 1% to 2% per year in older adults. A study found that walking at least six miles a week for a period of a year not only halts the shrinkage but improved the volume of the hippocampus by 2 %. Another study found that walking five miles a week helped to maintain brain volume and reduce memory problems in people with mild cognitive impairment or mild Alzheimer’s. It appears as if walking can enhance the connectivity between brain cells in those parts of the brain that are usually affected by cognitive impairment. The decision-making area of the brain also seems to work more efficiently when doing regular brisk walks. Some experts think these benefits may partly result from the increased blood flow to the brain that occurs with exercise.
Weight-promoting genes: A Harvard study amongst 12 000 men and women tried to determine how much 32 obesity-promoting genes contribute to body weight. Analysis of these people’s exercise habits showed that those who walked briskly for about an hour a day reduced the genetic effect by half. Other studies have linked moderate to vigorous exercise with reductions in mass in obese people.
Cancer: While walking has been linked to helping to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, studies have also indicated that regular brisk walking can lower the risk of several cancers, such as cancer of the breast, colon, bladder, kidney, lung, stomach, as well as esophageal and endometrial (the tissue lining the uterus) cancers
Metabolism: Daily walking increases metabolism by burning extra calories, especially when doing interval walking (with bursts of fast-paced walking).
Immune system: Moderate-intensity exercise such as walking boosts the immune system as it increases the number of immune cells that attack pathogens in the body. This lowers the risk of serious illness from infectious diseases. Studies also found that people who walked more had fewer sick days, milder symptoms, recovered faster, and spent less time in hospital.
Varicose veins: Walking is a proven way to reduce the risk of varicose veins developing, especially in older people. The venous system is known in medical circles as “the second heart”, as the muscles, veins, and valves in the calf and foot work together to push blood back up to the heart and lungs. Walking strengthens this secondary circulatory system, as the strengthening of leg muscles boosts blood flow.
How to walk for optimal health benefits:
The advice from Hippocrates some 2 400 years ago – that walking is the best medicine – is more valid today in modern society than ever before! Some experts claim that if exercise could be bottled, it would be the most prescribed medicine!
Walking for health. Published online 2019. Special Health Report. Harvard Medical School. (www.health.harvard.edu)
5 Surprising benefits of walking. Published 10 June 2021. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. (www.health.harvard.edu)
Walking for good health. Published online and reviewed 30 June 2015. Better Health Channel. Victorian Government’s Department of Health. Australia. (www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au)
12 Biggest benefits of walking to improve your health, according to experts. Published 14 July 2021. Prevention. (Provider of health information.) (www.prevention.com)
Walking compared with vigorous exercise for the prevention of cardiovascular events in women. Published 5 September 2002. The New England Journal of Medicine. Published by the Massachusetts Medical Society. USA. (www.nejm.org)
Walking: Trim your waistline, improve your health. Published 19 May 2021. Mayo Clinic. (www.mayoclinic.org)