5 Little-Known Health Benefits of Walking

What do you do when you want to experience the benefits of physical activity, and make it a part of your life for the long term, but it seems that most methods out there are either not backed by scientific evidence, or require too much time and effort?

Give walking a try!

Think about it. Walking is what kept your pre-agricultural ancestors in shape for thousands of years. They didn’t have CrossFit; they didn’t have leg press machines; they didn’t have 7-minute abs videos.

What they did have, is the need to find food. They would hunt and gather, oftentimes traveling large distances daily.

So why is walking such a well-kept secret if it’s so effective?

Because it’s really hard to make money off of it. It requires no equipment besides a pair of shoes. It requires no DVD to show you HOW to walk (most of us learned around our first birthday). It requires no private space to do it in (so it’s hard for gyms to make money off it). And a company can’t trademark, or patent, walking (though I’m sure many have tried). Basically, the only way a company could monetize walking is through a pedometer, but you can just download a free app to track that. I generally suggest the free version of RunKeeper. It just tracks your walk through GPS, and logs it so you can see your progress.

If you’re still not convinced that walking is a legitimate physical activity, here’s 5 physical and mental health benefits of walking.

Walking burns calories

A man weighing 300 pounds will burn roughly 160 calories after walking for 20 minutes at an average walking pace (3 mph). The number of calories you burn will vary based on your weight, your pace, and how fit you are. While 160 calories may not seem like a lot, if you walk just 20 minutes per day, 5 days a week, for 1 year, that adds up to 41,600 calories – which equates to 12 pounds of fat loss. Increasing your pace, or the duration of your walk increases the calories burned.

Walking decreases your risk of stroke and heart attack

In a Harvard study that tracked the physical activity of 72,488 nurses with follow-ups over eight years, walking at least 3 hours a week was linked to a 35% lower risk of heart attack and a 34% lower risk of stroke. The amazing thing is that the decrease in heart attack risk was the same for 3 hours of walking per week as it was for 1.5 hours of intense exercise per week. So, don’t be so quick to discount walking as “not effective enough”.

Walking keeps your bones strong and healthy

Walking is a low-impact weight-bearing exercise that can help to build and maintain bone density, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. In fact, a Harvard study of 61,200 nurses found that walking just 4 hours a week (with no other exercise) was linked to a 41% decrease in the risk of hip fractures. Why is walking so great for your bones? Just like weight lifting forces your muscle cells to adapt by getting stronger, walking places a demand on your bones, forcing them to adapt by becoming denser.

Walking improves your mood

In an Iowa State University experiment, students were asked to either sit, stand, or walk (on a treadmill) while watching a 10-minute video tour of an art gallery. Afterwards they were asked to rate their mood. Those who walked while watching the video had a positive effect on their mood, unlike sitting and standing.

In another study, this time from the University of Texas, 40 patients suffering major depressive disorder were divided into two groups. While one group rested quietly for 30 minutes, the other walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes. Both groups reported a reduction in “anger”, “fatigue”, “depression” and “tension” on a questionnaire. However only the group that walked on the treadmill reported feeling good, with improvements in “vigor” and “well-being”. Of course, walking is no cure for depression and it doesn’t treat the underlying causes, but it can provide short-term relief. So, the next time you’re feeling a little stressed or sad, going for a walk might be just the thing you need.

Walking helps you stay mentally sharp

The hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory, shrinks in late adulthood, which leads to impaired memory and, sometimes, dementia. But there’s good news! A study of 120 older adults (average age of 66) found that aerobic exercise, in the form of walking, increased hippocampal volume.

In the study, the participants were split into two groups. The aerobic exercise group started by walking 10 minutes, 3 days a week, and increased the daily walk length by 5 minutes each week, until they got to 40 minutes per session in week 7. After week 7, the aerobic exercise group continued to walk 40 minutes, 3 days a week. The other group was the “stretching and toning” group, who, as you may guess, exercised by doing balance exercises, one yoga sequence, and muscle-toning exercises using resistance bands and dumbbells.

After one year, the adults in the aerobic exercise group (who walked 3 times a week) saw an increase in hippocampal brain volume of 2%, while the stretching and toning group had a 1.4% decrease in hippocampal brain volume. And, as you may have guessed, increases in the hippocampal brain volume of the exercise group were directly related to improved memory performance.

I especially love that study because the participants started by walking just 10 minutes per day. That’s really the best way to create a lifestyle change; by taking small steps, and building upon little successes!

Takeaways

It’s often said that if all the benefits of exercise could be made into a pill, it would be the #1 best-selling pill in the world. I can see it now:

Walking - side effects include improved mood, stronger bones, fat loss, enhanced memory, and decreased risk of death.

So this new year, instead of trying a new fad diet, or the hot new weight loss DVD, maybe start a walking routine. Your mind and your body will thank you.