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Ready, steady, walk: how it can make you healthier
“Walk and be happy; walk and be healthy.” Charles Dickens
Walking is the most popular physical activity in Australia. Did you know it’s also one of the best ways you can improve your physical and mental health? The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other can have a powerful impact on your health and wellbeing.
There are many benefits to the simple act of walking. It can lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis and a host of preventable health conditions.
Author and neuroscientist Shane O’Mara summed it up when he said, “…walking is good for the body, good for the brain and good for society at large.” According to O’Mara, walking can make us healthier, happier and smarter.
How can walking make you healthier?
Those of us who aren’t naturally sporty or athletic – or who can’t engage in vigorous physical activity for whatever reason – can take heart from studies that show walking has powerful health benefits. Research has shown that walking has the potential to play a key role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Men and women in young, middle and older age groups can all benefit.
- According to the Heart Foundation, walking for 30 minutes a day or more can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke by 35% and the risk of type 2 diabetes by 40%.
- Walking more than 10,000 steps a day can help improve your sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, even a short daily walk of just ten minutes can help.
- A study of older women found those who averaged 4,400 steps a day reduced their risk of premature death. The benefits increased until 7,500 steps a day, when they levelled off.
- An Australian study found more walking meant less time spent in hospital.
- The Arthritis Foundation points out that walking can stop the loss of bone mass, strengthen muscles and support joints.
- Walking is good for your gut because it helps the passage of food through our intestines. One study from 2008 showed women who walk between one and two hours a week can reduce their risk of colon cancer by 31%.
How can walking make you happier?
Like any physical exercise, walking benefits your body and your mind.
Research has shown that walking can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and, like all exercise, walking can lighten your mood by releasing natural pain-killing endorphins into the body. Endorphins can reduce pain and enhance pleasure, triggering a positive feeling of wellbeing.
People who exercise regularly have improved mental and emotional health and they also have lower rates of mental illness.
Put simply, a good long walk can make you feel good, especially if you walk in nature and soak up the benefits of ‘green exercise.’
How can walking make you smarter?
Walking can increase the supply of blood to the brain. It seems the impact of the foot hitting the ground sends pressure waves through the arteries that trigger this increase in blood supply to the brain. The effect is strongest when jogging or running, but brisk walking can also benefit your brain.
Any form of exercise will pump more blood to the brain, which in turn helps you think more clearly. Exercise can also increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for memory.
Five surprising benefits of walking
Harvard Medical School points out these five surprising benefits of walking:
- Counteract the impact of weight promoting genes
- Help tame a sweet tooth
- Reduce the risk of developing breast cancer
- Reduce pain related to arthritis
- Boost immune function
Why we like walking
- It’s free
- It’s gentle
- You don’t need to go to a gym
- You can wear normal clothes
- You can do it almost anywhere, any time
- You can walk at your own pace
- Brisk walking counts towards your daily exercise goal
How much walking should you do?
The magic number we’ve all heard of is 10,000 steps, but there’s no evidence to suggest this carries specific health benefits.
Australian government guidelines encourage adults to be physically active on most, preferably all, days of the week, with a goal of 2.5 to five hours of moderate intensity exercise each week. You could go a long way towards meeting that goal by walking briskly for half an hour a day, which equates to around 3,000 to 4,000 steps. Around 40 minutes of brisk walking equates to about 4,500 steps.
Could you walk more?
The more you walk, the more you’ll benefit, especially if it’s a brisk walk. You don’t have to hit your daily target all in one go, you can add to it throughout the day.
Fitness trackers and apps can record how many steps you’ve done and how far you’ve walked. If you wear a tracking device or set a smartphone to track your activity (and remember to keep your phone on you!) you’ll soon know exactly how many steps you average each day.
The Australian Chiropractors Association has free downloadable walking apps, the Heart Foundation has a Facebook walking group, and the free Active 10 app, designed by public health officials in the UK, can also tell if your walk is considered ‘brisk’. You can download Active 10 from the App Store or from Google Play.
How fast should you walk?
You can track how fast you walk by how easy it is to hold a conversation. If you’re walking with a friend and you can keep a conversation going, you’re on a leisurely walk. If you can talk but you wouldn’t be able to sing, it’s a brisk walk. And if you’re huffing and puffing, you’re at maximum speed.
You can also track your speed by counting steps.
- 80 steps a minute = leisurely
- 100 steps a minute = brisk
- 120 steps a minute = fast
Walking up and down stairs can boost the cardiovascular benefits of walking. Take it slow and steady at first if you’re not used to climbing stairs. As your fitness improves you can avoid escalators or lifts when you’re out shopping and supercharge the benefits of walking by opting for the stairs instead. Seek out steep hills or stairs to burn calories two to three times faster than when walking on the flat.
Wear the right shoes
You don’t need to spend a fortune on fancy walking shoes, but your footwear should be sturdy, well-made and supportive so you can stride out with confidence. Choose shoes or trainers that feel comfortable and don’t cause blisters. As you increase the amount of walking you do, you might want to buy a pair of shoes that are specially designed for walking.
Get up and go
Plenty of studies shown that sitting for long periods is not good for health. Prolonged sitting can lead to varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, an increased risk of bowel problems, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Any amount of physical activity is better for you than prolonged sitting.
So, get up and go for a walk. Your mind and body will both thank you for it.
In Praise of Walking, Shane O’Mara, Vintage Publishing, July 2020
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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