Walking- The Oldest Form of Exercise
“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” – George Trevelyan, 1913
Walking seems so ordinary, so relaxed an activity that it’s hard to believe that it has so many health benefits. What benefits you ask? Well, studies show that regular walks can significantly lower the risk of heart attack, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, breast cancer and colon cancer. Walking also helps reduce body weight, cholesterol levels, constipation, depression and impotence. Additional studies show that walking can increase muscle mass, flatten the belly, reshape the thighs and even reduce the risk of age-related dementia.
Our bodies are extremely well designed for walking, and are actually much happier if kept in motion. About four million years ago our ancestors found distinct benefits in walking upright. Since then, walking has been an integral part of human life on earth. It is only since the late industrial age that we began sitting or standing still for long periods of time, leading to large numbers of soft tissue disorders such as back and neck pain, shoulder tension and forearm issues such as carpal tunnel. When our bodies are in motion, our muscles are continually contracting and relaxing. A working muscle continually flushes out old blood and waste products. It then allows new fresh blood to enter as it relaxes.
But that’s not all that’s going on when you walk. Early in your walk adrenalin signals your heart to beat faster and raises your blood pressure, pumping more blood into the muscles of your limbs. As your heart rate climbs, your oxygen consumption can increase tenfold, causing your body to burn up carbohydrate reserves. All this activity causes the brain to release endorphins into the bloodstream that help to block many types of pain and usher in that cozy sense of well-being. The brain also releases serotonin during your walk, giving you an elevated mood state. Blood pressure doesn’t stay up indefinitely. It typically drops within 24 to 48 hours of exercising, and will tend to stay down with continued exercise. The risk of blood clots also drops and stays lower if you keep the walking up. As well, circulation improves, and digestion becomes more efficient. With continued walking the body becomes better at getting glucose (energy) into the muscles where it’s needed, smoothing out blood sugar levels and helping the body process fat.
If you want to equal the aerobic workout that runners get, you will need to go a little farther, and exercise a little more often than a runner. One study showed that walkers exercising 40 minutes, four times a week could equal the aerobic benefit of runners exercising 30 minutes, three times a week. Walking has the added benefit of having one-fifth the impact on your joints as compared to jogging or aerobics. If you are up for more of a challenge, or just need a diversion, here are a few walking alternatives.
HIKING: Getting out in nature fills is good for the soul, and exercise becomes more interesting as hours turn into minutes. As well, varied terrain can inject intervals and balance training into your walk.
CLIMB WALKING: Climbing hills or stairs is the most vigorous form of walking. Climbing works stomach, buttock, lower back and leg muscles. Who out there doesn’t need work on their stomach or butt? If you are new to this activity, increase your hill work gradually.
POWER OR SPEED WALKING: To do speed walking, breathe normally and pump your arms vigorously as you speed up your pace. Practice over short distances until you can walk comfortably at a vigorous pace of 7 to 9 km per hour.
WATER WALKING: Walking in the water gives you the increased resistance of water, zero impact on the joints and is also refreshingly cool in periods of hot weather.
What The Research Says
Children: An estimated 78% of children do not get the minimum recommended level of daily exercise.
Thirty years ago 66% of children walked or biked to school. Less than 10% do today. When children walk to school, it positively affects their academic performance, improves their self-image and independence, provides healthier social and emotional development, and increases the likelihood that they will grow into active adults.
Heart Attack and Stroke: One study involving 74,000 women age 50 to 79 found that brisk walking for 2 1/2 hours per week cut the risk of heart attack and stroke by about one-third. An earlier study by the same research team found similar benefits in middle-aged and older men.
Diabetes: National Institutes of Health’s seven-year Diabetes Prevention Program showed that walking — in combination with a healthier diet — did more to ward off diabetes than did the popular diabetes prevention drug Metformin.
Breast Cancer: A Nurses’ Health Study found reductions in breast cancer risk among 122,000 participants who walked or did more vigorous forms of exercise for seven or more hours per week compared with those who exercised one hour or less.
Cognitive Decline: A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that older women who walked regularly were less likely to develop memory loss and other declines in mental function than women who were less active. Those who walked 18 miles or more per week fared best.
Depression: A Duke University study found that a brisk 30-minute walk or jog around a track three times a week was just as effective as antidepressant medication in relieving the symptoms of major depression in middle-aged and elderly people.
Colorectal cancer: The Physicians’ Health Study, involving 22,000 men aged 40 to 84, found that participants cut their risk for colon cancer and polyps in half by engaging in moderate daily exercise.
Osteoporosis: A 1995 study of 1,000 women and 700 men published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that walking protects the bone density of the hips.
Mental Acuity: A 1999 study published in the journal Nature found that walking delivered a beneficial added dose of oxygen to the frontal regions of the brain in people over 60, triggering faster reaction times and improvement at doing a repetitive task.
Cholesterol: A study published in February in the Journals of Gerontology showed that women aged 70 to 87 who walked three days a week for 10 weeks significantly increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglyceride levels.
Longevity: A study of 9,611 adults showed that those who were regularly active in their 50s and early 60s were 35 percent less likely to die in the next eight years than those who were sedentary. For those who had a high heart risk because of several underlying conditions, the reduction was 45 percent.
So, why don’t we hear a lot more about walking? Partly because no corporation is making big money on it, partly because our cities are designed for cars, not pedestrians, and partly because it’s not as “sexy” as other forms of exercise. Walking may or may not be sexy, but it is such a perfect form of exercise that most of us can do it at almost any point in our life, whether young, pregnant, injured or elderly. You can do it right from your own doorstep, any season of the year, with a minimum of equipment. It’s free, safe, enjoyable, easy to do and hard to get wrong. Whether you are walking for health, because of income level, as an “anti-corporate, pro-eco, anti-car, pro-sustainable cities statement”, or just to get out and get some fresh air, walking is good for you. As exercise and activity goes, walking is an extremely smart choice. There are few of us out there that wouldn’t benefit from adding a few more miles of walking to our week. How about getting out today?
Check out the following links for inspiration, tips, or walking events in Niagara:
http://www.thewalkingsite.com/10000steps.html 10,000 Steps a Day
http://www.tourstcatharines.com/tours.shtml St. Catharines Walking Tours
http://www.welovetorun.com/ St. Catharines Roadrunners and Walkers