Walking for Exercise

three women, older in age, walking up a grassy hill with blue sky behind them

Walking is one of the most popular forms of exercise worldwide. It doesn’t require expensive equipment or special skills, and it provides a wide range of health benefits. Whether you choose an outdoor solitary path in nature, a busy route on city sidewalks, a treadmill workout, or a few rounds around your office building, walking is a relatively accessible way to stay active.

Walking is a type of cardiovascular physical activity, which increases your heart rate. This improves blood flow and can lower blood pressure. It helps to boost energy levels by releasing certain hormones like endorphins and delivering oxygen throughout the body. Brisk walking is considered a moderate-intensity, low-impact workout that does not exert excess strain on joints (hip, knee, ankles) that are susceptible to injury with higher-impact workouts.

People may think that walking is not as effective as higher-impact workouts. Yet a large cohort study of runners and walkers found that after 6 years of follow-up, when expending an equal amount of energy, moderate-intensity   offered similar benefits as higher-intensity running in reducing the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. [1] The faster the walking pace, the greater the risk reduction observed.

Walking and Health

The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults with chronic conditions do at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity weekly, if able. [2] Walking is an exercise that meets this aerobic component and is associated with improving high blood pressure and body mass index, and lowering the risk of diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, and early death. [3-6] Walking speed, duration, and frequency can be adjusted depending on one’s starting fitness level, so that almost everyone can participate in walking as exercise.

A note on walking pace:  Moderate intensity activity is defined as having a metabolic equivalent (MET) of 3.0-6.0, or a pace of about 2.5 to 4.2 mph. A growing body of research has shown that the faster the walking pace, the greater the health benefits. [15] A Physicians’ Health Study found that participants who walked regularly had a reduced risk of CVD and early death from CVD compared with those who didn’t walk regularly. [16] The greatest benefits were in those who walked 3 mph or faster (“brisk” or “very brisk” pace), but those walking 2.0-2.9 mph (“normal” pace) also saw a protective benefit compared with those not walking regularly. Some studies have found that walking at a self-rated fast pace was associated with a reduced risk of early deaths from all causes compared with reported walking at a slow pace. [17-19] Yet one study following 4840 participants found that total steps taken was an important factor in reducing mortality: the more steps taken, the lower the risk of death from all causes. The association of walking intensity (speed) and lower mortality was not as strong when adjusting for total steps taken (meaning that a slower walk may also be protective against early death the more steps that are taken). [20]

Do I really need to take 10,000 steps a day?

You’ve probably heard that moving 10,000 steps a day is a healthy goal. Some apps and pedometers have 10,000 steps earmarked, so that when you reach it, a congratulations screen dings or vibrates. Not a simple goal as many of us sit more than stand, thanks to driving cars, sitting at office desks, and reclining in chairs at home; in fact the average number of daily steps an American takes is closer to 4,800. [21] It may surprise you that the benchmark number of 10,000 is not actually based on science but was created as a marketing tactic in the 1960s by a company making pedometers.

So is there any science to support stepping it up? Generally, research finds that more steps are better but even a lower amount can achieve health benefits. A study following 4,840 men and women 40 years of age and older for about 10 years found that those taking at least 8,000 steps daily had a 51% lower death rate from all causes compared with those taking 4,000 steps or fewer. [20] A large cohort of more than 16,000 older American women (mean age 72 years) from the Women’s Health Study followed for 4 years found that those taking 4,400 steps a day had a 41% lower death rate compared with those taking about 2,700 steps a day. [21] Death rates continued to drop in relation to taking more steps up to 7,500 daily, but steps beyond that did not show additional benefit.

Although these studies confirm that taking more steps is good, the exact amount to see a health benefit will vary among individuals. The guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “move more and sit less throughout the day; some physical activity is better than none” remains an appropriate goal for everyone. [2] There’s nothing wrong with aiming for 10,000 steps or even higher, except when it becomes so daunting that you lose motivation, or you feel discouraged that a lesser amount is not good enough. Rather than feeling chained to a specific step count, listen to your body, challenge it, and feel good about what it can accomplish.

Planning Your Walking Routine

Now that you’re ready to begin walking for exercise, there are several details to consider. Where will you walk? Will you need special clothes? Are there any precautions to take?

Where to walk

There are various options, and having different choices available can prevent boredom, accommodate poor weather, and change up the intensity.

  • School track. If you have injuries or are new to walking, you might start with a school track during off-hours that provides a generally flat and often cushioned surface.
  • Sidewalks. If walking in the city or high-traffic areas, sidewalks are the safest choice. Keep your eyes on the path before you, and be aware of people who may be moving quickly around you.
  • Indoor mall. This is a popular choice during off-shopping hours as it provides a temperature-controlled environment with a flat predictable surface and stairwells to increase the intensity. There are usually benches or seating throughout the mall for resting. Studies have found that mall-walking is a safe, accessible, and affordable exercise environment for older adults. [23,24]
  • Home exercise videos. There are safe, free walking videos available online or for purchase in which you would follow an instructor, set to music. Preview the video before following it, to ensure it is the right tempo and intensity for your needs.
  • Treadmill. This machine can be adjusted for speed and incline to help increase or decrease intensity. Always ask for a demonstration or read equipment directions carefully before using a treadmill for the first time.
    • Look forward, not at your feet. Looking down can cause you to lose your balance.
    • Try not to hold onto the rails with both hands. If you feel unsteady, slow the walking pace. Walking with the arms moving at the sides is a natural action and will better engage the core muscles and develop balance. If balance is initially poor, try holding onto just one rail.
    • Start at a slower speed to allow your body to adjust to the movement. Gradually increase the speed or incline every few minutes if desired to increase intensity. There are also fitness benefits in varying the speed and/or intensity throughout the workout, increasing and decreasing the pace or incline. Most treadmills have built-in “interval training” workouts that follow this pattern.
    • Allow a 5-minute cool-down, walking at a slower pace. This can prevent dizziness that occurs if suddenly stopping the treadmill.

Clothing

Clothes for walking should be comfortable and not too tight, to allow you to move freely. Some athletic clothes are made with special polyester or nylon sweat-wicking fabric, which helps to keep moisture away from your skin. It is designed to move sweat to the fabric’s outer surface to be evaporated quickly. Cotton absorbs sweat, adding weight and dampness to clothing, and does not dry out easily. It may be helpful to wear layers as your body temperature may change throughout the walk.

Shoes should have flexible soles and good arch support. Generally, running or any fitness shoe is appropriate for walking. Allow extra room in the toe bed as your foot may swell during exercise because of extra blood flow (up to a full shoe size!). This can lead to blisters if your feet rub against the shoe or the toes rub against each other. Choose a shoe at least a half size larger than your usual shoe. However, also be careful of too-large shoes that cause your foot to slide back and forth, which can create blisters. Replace the shoe when it becomes worn down, feels less supportive, or you notice new foot or leg pain after walking.

Accessories like sunglasses and hats may be needed when walking at peak sun hours to protect against UV exposure to skin and eyes.

Walk safely

Pedestrian fatalities related to traffic accidents, risk of falls or other injuries, and environmental hazards including assailants are all important considerations before stepping out:

  • Choose a well-lit area or walk during daylight hours.
  • Wear reflective gear if you walk towards dusk (try inexpensive reflective bracelets if you don’t have reflective clothing).
  • Choose a path that is not too isolated. It may be worth traveling further out to a park or area that has sidewalks or paths designed for walkers.
  • Walk with someone if possible.
  • Keep a mobile phone within easy reach at all times in case you need to call for help.
  • Don’t listen to music or podcasts too loudly, talk on the phone, or text while walking, which can distract you from being able to hear and see cars, people, and other surroundings. Not surprisingly, studies find that texting while walking decreases speed and stride length and may negatively affect balance, increasing the risk of trips and falls. [25]
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water before you start walking and carry extra water with you especially in warm weather.
  • If walking during peak sun strength from about 10am to 3pm, apply sunscreen to exposed areas even if the sun does not feel strong or it is cloudy.

Transitioning into a walking routine

Not ready for a structured walking routine? Try gradually easing into it by first increasing daily steps. Wear a pedometer or use a step counter app on a smartphone to encourage you to move. Try adding 1000-2000 steps a day to what you currently take now. If you drive to work, park in the furthest spot from the entrance. If you take public transportation, get off 1-2 stops early. Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever there is the option. Take a quick stroll around the office at the top of every hour, traveling down a different hallway each time. These extra steps will quickly add up throughout the day, increasing your strength and stamina in preparation for a regular walking regimen.

Walking and Mindfulness

If walking is your exercise of choice, a typical routine may start with this: athletic shoes on, earbuds in, upbeat music playing, walking path determined. Your main goal is to complete a certain number of steps or length of time.

The fitness benefits are clear, but what you may not realize is that walking also offers psychological perks that we may miss. These come from increasing our awareness of the sights and sounds that are beyond our pedometer and music playlist. An example might be looking at nature (trees, flowers, clouds) or paying attention to people or events happening as we walk past. Buddhist monks practice walking meditations, which concentrates on the movement or position of the arms or legs while walking, which leads to increased relaxation. Some studies have shown that this form of mindful walking can reduce blood pressure and depression. [26]

One randomized controlled trial lasting 12 weeks observed adults with type 2 diabetes performing a Buddhist walking meditation (walking on a treadmill while concentrating on footsteps by stating “Budd” and “Dha” with each step) or a traditional walking regimen. [26] Both groups walked at the same moderate intensity with a duration and frequency of 30 minutes 3 times a week. The walking meditation group resulted in lower fasting blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and cortisol levels than in participants doing a traditional walking regimen.

Other studies have found that walking in nature, such as in a forest or alongside a river, can decrease negative moods like depression, anxiety, anger, fatigue, and confusion. [27,28]

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