The Power of Walking: An Underrated Form of Exercise

    America has a movement problem. The lack of movement in Americans is one variable on why we also have an obesity problem. 43% of Americans are obese and the leading cause of death is cardiovascular disease (CVD). With obesity on the rise, it is associated with an increase of anxiety, depression, and risk of CVD related deaths. Why I said we have a movement problem is that on average, Americans walk between 5,000-6,500 steps a day. This amount of movement is low and considered sedentary. Studies have compared people who walk this much with those who walk up to 16,000 steps on average/day. The all-cause mortality of just walking 6,000 steps/day is 126% higher than those who walked 16,000 steps. This lack of movement is what I believe to be a big variable on why obesity is an issue, as well as the lack of knowledge on nutrition but that is a topic for another day.

    Walking is a fundamental part of daily life. It is the easiest form of movement that the majority of people are able to do. It is a low impact form of movement on the joints and requires zero equipment, unless you hate the cold like I do and need to be inside on a treadmill. The hardest part about going for a walk is the commitment of doing it, other than that there should be no excuse. So, what are the benefits of going for a walk? 

Mental Health Benefits 

    With mental health issues on the rise, one of the best things to do is move. Exercise has a huge benefit on mental health, whether it’s strength training, cardio, sports, it doesn’t matter what the activity is. Studies have compared individuals who exercise and who do not perform any form of exercise. Those who do not exercise have poorer moods and greater stress compared to those who regularly exercise. Walking is a very beneficial form of exercise for mental health because it is restorative. Going for a walk can be enjoyable and help alleviate anxiety and depression regardless of the duration. Physical exercise in general helps with better processing of negative emotions which promotes better mental health. Being outside in the sun alone can boost your mood and when you spend the time walking outside, you get the added benefits of getting vitamin D from the sun. Deficiency of vitamin D is another factor for mental health. 

Physical Health Benefits

    Overall, more steps/day is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality and lower risk of CVD morbidity and/or mortality. Just walking more can help increase insulin sensitivity which helps with blood sugar levels. Walking speed can be looked at on your functional ability and physical health. Blood pressure is a vital sign and is used as an general indicator of future health outcomes or to show underlying health issues. Your walking speed is like the blood pressure in that it can be used as an indicator of health issues. Walking speed is correlated with your functional ability, and the potential to predict your future health status. A decline in walking speed is a decline in functionality at home, being more dependent on others. Your risk of falling and getting injured increases when your walking speed decreases. Hospitals will use walking speed to determine on yoru discharge location, whether you can go home alone, needing home care, or discharged to a facility with care. This is more important with the older population, but what you do now will influence how you age and the quality of life you will have when you are older. An increase of your walking speed is highly correlated with a higher quality of life. Here is a list of variable that influences your walking speed:

  • Health status
  • Motor control
  • Muscle performance
  • Musculoskeletal condition
  • Sensory & perceptual function
  • Endurance & habitual activity level
  • Cognitive status
  • Motivation & mental health
  • Environment

Most of these variables are very dependent on lifestyle. Walking more and being active with strength training will highly influence your walking speed and overall quality of life being independent.  Just walking an extra 1,000 steps/day from your baseline will reduce your risk of all-cause mortality by 12%. The benefits will keep increasing for every 1,000 steps you take. Studies have looked at all-cause mortality and CVD related deaths with low step counts and high counts. Walking just 2,700 steps/day regularly will put you at a 3-fold greater risk of all-cause mortality compared to individuals who walk 16,000 steps. The point is that it will not hurt you to walk more, but the risk of not walking and being sedentary is very high. 

How to get more Steps In

    I hope that I was able to communicate the importance of just moving more. The downside of walking more is time and commitment. The benefits far outweigh the downside here and the risk of not moving more can actually take time away from you. Sorry to be a downer here, but it’s true. Think of walking more as buying more time with your loved ones. It is a long game you are playing here for long term benefits. So how can you work on getting more steps in? There are many strategies you can try here:

  • 10 minute walks after each meal (this will also help with digestion)
  • Taking the stairs, skip the elevator
  • Parking in the back of parking lot
  • Set an alarm every hour to get up and stretch, walk around etc
  • Pace around the house while listening to music, podcasts etc
  • Set a block of time to go for an 30-60 minute walk
  • Drink more water (this will force you to walk to the bathroom)

There are more strategies to walk more, get creative with it and be mindful about it. Ideally get outside in the fresh air, the sun, and walk more. Being in the midwest with young kids I know that I have to find other ways to walk more. Make walking a priority and take note of things like how you are feeling, your energy, sleep, appetite, and digestion. This will help you associate feeling better with walking which will reinforce your walking habits. 

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