by aWomansHealth Editor updated 6/2021
There are countless physical activities out there, but walking has the lowest dropout rate of them all and is one of the most basic changes you can make to effectively improve your health.
We think exercise is useless unless it’s strenuous and leaves us exhausted. But one of the simplest types of physical activity—walking is—also one of the most beneficial. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking, at least five days a week, can lower your risks for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
How Many Steps Did You Take Today?
With fitness trackers and phone apps many individuals have become obsessed with tracking their daily "step count". Research now suggests that this may be helpful.
A study published in March 2020 found that a higher daily step count but not the intensity of stepping is associated with lower mortality risk from all causes. Researchers from the National Institute of Health wanted to investigate this question to provide new insights that could help people better understand the health implications of the step counts they get from fitness trackers and phone apps.
This study tracked 4800 U.S. adults aged 40 for up to seven days between 2003 and 2006. The participants were then followed through 2015. Researchers found that compared with taking 4,000 steps per day, a number considered to be low for adults, taking 8,000 steps per day was associated with a 51% lower risk for death from any cause. Taking 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65% lower risk compared with taking 4,000 steps. In contrast, the authors saw no association between step intensity and risk of death after accounting for the total number of steps taken per day.
These findings are consistent with current recommendations that adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Adults who do any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits. (1)
Fit It In
You have lots of opportunities to fit walking into your daily schedule, even if you don’t have time to go to a gym. If you drive to work, park at the farthest point of the parking lot and walk the difference. If you take the bus, get off one or two stops earlier than normal. Take a 10-minute walk during your lunch break and another during your coffee break. Fit in another 10 minutes after dinner. If you’re regularly active, you’ll burn more calories, which helps you manage your weight and other cardiovascular risk factors. Plus, physically active people nearly always report better moods, less stress, more energy, and a better outlook on life.And remember, you don’t need a “no pain, no gain” mentality to benefit from physical activity.“Don’t dwell on some preconceived notion you have about what physical activity is supposed to be like,” Dr. Church says. “Just keep moving and focus on how much you’re helping yourself.”
Physical Activity Improves Quality of Life
Do you want to add years to your life? Or life to your years? Feeling your best boosts your zeal for life. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate activity, but three 10-minute periods of activity are almost as beneficial to your overall fitness as one 30-minute session. This is achievable! Physical activity may also help encourage you to spend some time outdoors. Sunlight on your skin helps your body produce vitamin D, which brings many added health benefits.Here are some reasons why physical activity is proven to improve both mental and physical health:
Physical Activity Boosts Mental Wellness
Regular physical activity can relieve tension, anxiety, depression and anger. You may not only notice a "feel good sensation" immediately following your physical activity, but most people also note an improvement in general well-being over time during the weeks and months as physical activity becomes a part of your routine.Exercise increases the flow of oxygen which directly affects the brain. Your mental acuity and memory can be improved with physical activity.
Physical Activity Improves Physical Wellness
- Stronger Immunity It enhances your immune system and decreases the risk of developing diseases such as cancer and heart disease.·
- Reduced Risk FactorsBecoming more active can lower your blood pressure by as much as 4 to 9 mm Hg. That's the same reduction in blood pressure delivered by some antihypertensive medications. Physical activity can also boost your levels of good cholesterol.·
- Physical Activity Prolongs Your Optimal HealthWithout regular physical activity, the body slowly loses its strength, stamina, and the ability to function well. And for each hour of regular exercise you get, you'll gain about two hours of additional life expectancy, even if you don't start until middle age.
Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, for as little as 30 minutes a day has the proven health benefits listed above as well as:
- Improves blood circulation, which reduces the risk of heart disease.
- Keeps weight under control.
- Helps in the battle to quit smoking.
- Improves blood cholesterol levels.
- Prevents and manages high blood pressure.
- Prevents bone loss.
- Boosts energy level.
- Helps manage stress.
- Releases tension.
- Promotes enthusiasm and optimism.
- Counters anxiety and depression.
- Helps you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
- Improves self-image.
- Increases muscle strength, increasing the ability to do other physical activities.
- Provides a way to share an activity with family and friends.
- Reduces coronary heart disease in women by 30-40 percent.
- Reduces risk of stroke by 20 percent in moderately active people and by 27 percent in highly active ones.
- Establishes good heart-healthy habits in children and counters the conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, poor lifestyle habits, etc.) that lead to heart attack and stroke later in life.
- Helps delay or prevent chronic illnesses and diseases associated with aging and maintains quality of life and independence longer for seniors.
So why not see for yourself? Once you get over the inertia and find creative ways to fit physical activity into your life, we think you'll agree that the effort to get moving is worth it!
Starting a walking program is simple. All you really need is motivation and comfortable shoes. If you have had health problems or are new to exercising, you may want to consult your doctor before beginning a walking program.
Once you are ready to start, it’s as simple as taking a stroll around the neighborhood. Begin slowly and build. If you are starting from years spent on the couch, aim for 10 minutes. If you already have a strong exercise regimen, you’ll be able to walk for longer periods of time.
Form and Function
Although walking is simple, there are a few points to consider.
Posture. Stand tall with your shoulders back. Tighten your abdominal muscles and buttocks and fall into a natural stride.
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Stride. Avoid over striding. Take small, quick steps and allow the foot to roll through the gait pattern (rather than slapping against the ground).
Arms. Allow your arms to swing alongside your body. Avoid letting the elbows swing out to the sides like chicken wings.
Tools of the Trade
You really don’t need anything to begin walking, but some people find a few accessories helpful.
Water bottle. It’s important to stay hydrated before, during, and after your walk. Consider investing in a water bottle holster or a handheld water bottle that straps to your palm.
Pedometer. A pedometer will measure your steps and the distance you have walked. It can be a motivating tool to help you build distance.
Heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor will help measure the intensity of the exercise. Not everyone needs a heart rate monitor, but if you are trying to build cardiovascular fitness, it can provide valuable feedback. Individuals who are recovering from health problems may benefit from the use of a heart rate monitor to prevent overdoing it.
Like any fitness program, walking provides benefits only if you actually do it. To stay motivated, try the following simple tips.
Make it a habit. Schedule your walk for the same time each day. Write it on your calendar and commit to it, rain or shine.
Make it social. Many women find a friend or group with whom to walk. In addition to helping you keep the commitment, this provides an opportunity for social connection with the added bonus of fitness.
Make it fun. Have the kids accompany you on bikes. Bring the dog. Listen to music. Try anything that will add a dose of fun to your walk.
Incorporate variety. Vary your route to prevent boredom and plateaus. Treat yourself to changes in scenery and terrain to keep your walks interesting.
Have a destination or goal. Use your walk as an opportunity to run an errand or to meet a friend for coffee. You’ll be reducing your carbon footprint while increasing your fitness factor.
Sign up for an event. Signing up for a fundraising walk not only will motivate you to train but will inspire you and provide an opportunity for community engagement.
Measure your progress. Consider maintaining a log of your walks. You could keep track of distance covered, time spent walking, or weight loss. Find a system that works for you.
- Saint-Maurice PF, Troiano RP, Bassett DR, et al. Association of Daily Step Count and Step Intensity with Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA. March 24, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.1382