The simplest form of exercise — walking — is one of the best.
If you’re like many people making health vows now, gym memberships, fitness apps, and intense training regimes are topping your list. And if you’re like a large number of these well-intentioned “resolutioners,” these promises will wither, taper, and melt within, maybe, a month or so.
What might help success? Simplify. Simply walk.
Decades of solid medical research support that one of the easiest exercises for the human body provides major health benefits, as good as workouts that are much harder, more expensive, and tougher to access. Walking, say experts from cardiologists to psychologists, is a powerful mode of physical activity, helping to prevent disease and provide emotional well-being.
“It is an exercise that is too often forgotten in the world of exercise classes and organized sports,” said Nirav Pandya, a UC San Francisco Medical Center pediatric orthopedist and sports medicine specialist. “People who are active and walking are happier and healthier.”
“You don’t need to have a personal trainer or lot of devices hooked to you to do this well; just get out and do it. When we’re going to be consuming more, we should think about getting out and walking more,” said cardiologist Donald Grandis, also of UCSF.
Walking helps prevent numerous chronic illnesses, equal to other types of cardio-vascular workouts, experts say. Putting on those walking shoes and taking to the sidewalk, the pathway, the trail, alone, or with a family flock may be the perfect antidote to overindulgence.
Better yet: Make it a regular thing.
“Research does show that walking is an excellent exercise that has multiple benefits for the body as it as low-impact weight-bearing exercise,” Pandya said.
“It improves cardiovascular and pulmonary health; reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke; improves blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes; improves bone density and muscle strength / endurance; reduces body fat; and helps with range of motion and pain,” he said.
As with all exercise, the benefits are tied to the length of activity, or how long someone is walking, and to some extent the vigor, or how much a walker is pushing him or herself. But any amount of walking has health benefits, and the most important thing is to move your body, whether from the car to the front door, up the stairs, or taking the dog around the block.
“Even easy walks have benefits for the body,” Pandya said.
Grandis, who has a specialty in disease prevention, suggested people aim for walking at least 150 minutes a week, with 75 of those minutes vigorous, or fast enough to build up a light sweat. For a healthy pace, you should be able to talk as you walk.
He cited the physical activity guidelines of the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “They don’t mention steps; they don’t measure heart rate. They just focus on doing 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity,” Grandis said.
This recommendation is for the general public — a minimum. Doing more is certainly fine. A medical rule of thumb is to discuss your workout plans with your doctor before getting started, to make sure it’s a good match for your health.
Research consistently shows that walking can be beneficial for people of all ages, including the elderly. As we age, physical activity is correlated to preventing dementia, by maintaining vascular health and blood circulation, and preventing falls, among other benefits. “There is no age where you should stop engaging in physical activity, as far as we know,” Grandis said.
But there’s nothing wimpy about walking as a workout, even for younger jocks and jockettes. Ramp it up, if you want, and your fitness level can handle it: walk faster, longer, uphill.
But there’s no need to go to extremes, leaving you totally out of breath and drenched in sweat. Research indicates that pushing oneself too far in physical exercise may do more harm than good, that the body has a threshold between healthy and unhealthy exertion. A hot area of research, the medical jury is out.
“The more you do, the better, but there may be a point where too much is harmful, but we don’t know that point for sure . . . we’re still looking into it,” Grandis said.
Other benefits of walking include that it’s usually pretty easy to find safe, comfortable places to walk, free, and it’s social if you want, meaning you can walk and talk with others. Plenty of research documents the health benefits of social connection. Mall or indoor walking works for many; outdoor nature hikes for others.
Bottomline for success or sticking with a walking goal? Nothing you don’t already know. Choose a walk or walks that you find pleasurable. “Whatever is comfortable and enjoyable should be key,” Pandya said. “Whatever terrain or intensity that an individual likes that can make walking a normal part of their routine is perfect.”