SIX REASONS WALKING IS STILL THE ULTIMATE EXERCISE

Walking ticks so many boxes, improving our brain, mental and musculoskeletal fitness as well as physical fitness.

Whether you’re a new parent, going through the menopause, working endless hours or in retirement, walking is something we can do throughout our lives, whatever stage we’re at. And there are few other exercises that nourish our bodies quite as well as walking.

My own journey with walking began after suffering a retrocecal appendicitis while pregnant. I had to have abdominal surgery, which doctors warned would leave me with scar tissue. As a sports scientist, I knew this could lead to problems for my posture, joints and back. Wanting to counteract that, I began walking and soon noticed tangible improvements in my body and mind.

1. It raises your heart rate, making you breathe faster 

Walking brings all the benefits of a moderate aerobic workout while avoiding the impact on joints that occurs when jogging or running. 

Over time, walking will improve cardiovascular fitness and lower your resting heart rate. It also has wide-ranging benefits throughout our body, including improving our circulatory system (the networks of arteries and veins that carry blood throughout the body).

To manage your blood sugar levels, walk after you eat. After a meal, our blood sugar level rises and our pancreas releases insulin to bring it down. Even just a five-minute walk can help by blunting the spike in blood sugar. 

It’s important to keep your pace brisk. While all movement is beneficial, aim for 100 to 130 steps per minute for the biggest health benefits. Research has shown that if you can hit 125 steps per minute, you’re getting the same physical benefits as a light jog without the impact on your joints. 

Historically, we have focused on the quantity of steps we do, partly because the 10,000 steps a day message is so simple. But the latest research shows that the under-60s should aim for 8,000 to 10,000, while the over-60s should aim for 6,000 to 8,000 to cut their risk of dying early. This is much more accessible and encouraging.

2. It improves your bone density

When I launched WalkActive 18 years ago, aged 39, as a way to heal myself following surgery, I realised it was also an opportunity to improve my bone and joint health. Walking with good technique engages the muscles along the backside of your body (the posterior chain) such as the glutes, hamstrings and calves.

Engaging these muscles creates a little bit of a pull on our bones. This acts as a stimulus for the bone to produce osteoblasts (cells that help bones grow and stay strong), improving our bone density and reducing our risk of osteoporosis and broken bones. 

3. You really can walk yourself happier and healthier

Studies have shown that even short bursts of walking boosts our mood. This could be because walking stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (nerves that relax the body during periods of stress) and stimulates the amygdala (part of the nervous system that controls our emotions). This combination can help manage stress in our body.

If you walk by water, such as rivers, the coast or waterfalls, or in the rain, you’ll be especially exposed to negative ions in the air – electrically charged molecules that can form from sunlight, water and nature. People who are exposed to them consistently show better mental health, as well as blood pressure readings.

To motivate you to increase your speed, research suggests that there is a correlation between walking at 120 beats per minute and feelings of greater wellbeing. It gives you great feelings of euphoria.

Also, just generally being outdoors can manage our cortisol levels. You can encourage stress-reduction by visualising a problem being on the sole of your foot and pressing it into the ground as you walk.

4. It protects your brain 

Another thing that studies have shown is that people who walk more sleep better, which is vital for safeguarding cognitive function. When we sleep, our brain’s waste management system kicks into gear, removing toxins from the day that need to be disposed of. 

Brain scans of menopausal women who engaged in moderate exercise, which includes brisk walking, revealed they had more “good” brain matter (needed for memory and cognition) compared to those who had either been doing high intensity exercise or no exercise at all. This is thought to be because walking is so achievable and sustainable that women can maintain this form of exercise.

Walking can also be a source of creative thinking, as it switches the brain from “default” to “active” mode because of optic flow (how your brain registers your surroundings as they move around you). That’s a really happy situation for the brain because it can be busy focusing on something but also have a little bit of a distraction. It’s been shown in studies that walking, whether indoors on a treadmill or outdoors, is a great space for problem solving.

5. You stand taller (and feel younger)  

You might spend masses of money on your facials or massages but if you struggle to walk well, you appear old – it’s very ageing. 

Focusing on walking for your health can really give the optical illusion that you’re younger. When you walk with your head up and lengthen your back, your posture improves and you stand up straighter.

6. It supports weight loss 

Walking is achievable for most people, so it’s a simple way to add more activity to your day, especially for those struggling to find time to exercise. 

People who walk with good technique can lose weight and inches from their waistline in a matter of weeks. They can also change their body shape, as their muscles become tighter and stronger.

This has the knock-on effect of boosting confidence. Walking provides an opportunity for people to fundamentally challenge the way they think about exercise.

As told to Emily Craig

 How to fit in more steps

  1. Piggy back activities: Find a habit that you always do, whether it’s making coffee or looking at emails, and add steps to it. For example, commit to walking 1,000 steps before looking at your inbox or having your first coffee of the day.
  2. Make time-specific goals: Portion your day into three hour slots, such as 7am to 10am, 10am to 1pm and so on. Set a target of walking for a certain distance or length of time within each segment, even if it’s just 10 minutes.
  3. Walk with friends: Instead of catching up with friends over social media or a phone call, save news until you’re together in person and walking. This works really well if you want a longer walk and are looking for some motivation.
  4. Remember the health benefits: Walking after each meal aids digestion and helps manage blood sugar spikes, which are at their highest 30 to 90 minutes after eating. This rise is a natural response to eating and it isn’t a concern unless your glucose spikes too high or remains at an unhealthy level.

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