Article written in May 2022 by Christine Zellers, Assistant Professor/Educator Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Department of Family and Community Health Sciences
Walking into fitness may only require a good pair of shoes and motivation to improve health and fitness. The benefits of walking for health are numerous and include chronic diseases prevention for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Overall health benefits of walking vary and walking regularly for exercise provides aerobic conditioning that is free and can be done anywhere. Additional health benefits from walking include better sleep quality, increased energy and improved mood to name just a few. So, lace up those walking shoes and get walking to feel better and reap all the benefits walking has to offer.
If a good night’s sleep, diabetes prevention and increased energy aren’t motivation enough to start walking think about the many other physical and emotional advantages to a regular walking routine. Walking has been shown to improve mental healthy by improving mood and lessen depression and anxiety symptoms. Likewise increased aerobic exercise like walking has been shown to decrease the incidence of anxiety and depression for those with substance use disorder. Walking regularly burns calories and paired with a healthy eating pattern can support a healthy weight and prevent obesity. It is also a joint friendly exercise that improves arthritis pain, body function and mood when done regularly according to the Centers for Disease Control. Feeling tired or in need of better productivity? Lack of energy may be a sign of poor sleep or too little sleep and walking supports a better night sleep. Increased blood flow from activities like walking have been shown to improve cognitive and memory functions because it gets blood flowing to the brain. Increased step counts from walking have also been linked to an increase in life expectancy and better cardiovascular function. Chronic diseases like hypertension, cholesterol and blood sugar have all been shown to be prevented by walking regularly and numbers can improve for these comorbidities by taking a walk regularly. Walking improves systolic pressure, strengthens the heart muscle and gets blood flowing for improved blood pressure. It also raises good cholesterol (HDL-high-density lipoprotein) and lowers bad (LDL – low-density lipoprotein) to balance cholesterol levels. Walking helps the body burn insulin properly whereby preventing or improving diabetes. Those who have reduced lung function may see improved function because walking improves lung function and exercise capacity. There is evidence that adults with asthma who walk could improve their lung function and asthma control. Instead of reaching for an energy drink go for a walk, going for a walk when energy is low can increase your energy levels and doing it regularly will help improve stamina to walk and do other daily tasks. It also creates better bone density and muscle mass to ward off the effects of bone loss or osteoporosis. If this long list of health benefits isn’t enough to make you want to go for a walk, then consider that it may make you feel better overall. Exercise for the recommended 150 minutes per week is pleasurable when walking in nature or sharing a walk with a friend or family member.
Before starting any new exercise routine, it is important to consult with a doctor. Walking is free but it is important to have safe supportive walking attire like sneakers and weather appropriate clothing. Beginners should start at a moderate pace and gradually increase to a more vigorous walk. Begin with smaller distances and extend the length as frequency builds. Try walking for at least ten minutes at a time if moving at a moderate pace. More experienced walkers can increase the pace of movement, use arm movements or add distance to make walking more challenging. Experienced walkers can enjoy a continuous vigorous pace that will be less strenuous on the body compared to running and offers the benefits of high intensity aerobic exercise like increased heart rate and increased aerobic capacity. Exercise levels vary with every individual and may affect how much, how long and at what rate a person can exercise. Understanding levels of exercise exertion can assist with gaining stamina and maximizing workouts, while also preventing overexertion for people who have special health conditions or may be limited to specific levels of exertion. To get a full understanding of how much exertion walking is providing find your estimated maximum age-related heart rate by subtracting age from 220. After determining the maximum beats per minute for optimal movement you can determine intensity level for moderate intensity, the target heart rate should be 64%-75% of maximum heart rate. To estimate moderate exercise rates, use the formula: estimated maximum age-related heart rate x 0.64 = moderate exercise or to determine vigorous walking levels heart rate should be between 77%-93% of estimated maximum age-related heart rate or estimated maximum age-related x 0.77 (to 0.93) = vigorous exercise heart rate. A less specific way to determine exertion rates is using the talk test, if talking or singing is not difficult that is a low exertion rate, if talking comfortably is not difficult but singing is, that is a more moderate intensity level and if speaking a few words is difficult without gasping for breath that is a vigorous exercise level. Being aware of exertion rates while walking can assist in staying within needed boundaries or increasing exercise for a more vigorous workout.
Americans live a sedentary lifestyle meaning a large portion of work and home life involves sitting more than moving. Walking provides people of all ages and physical ability a suitable option to move more and sit less. The introduction of wearable step monitors has created a demand for Americans to reach 10,000 steps per day; however, that figure is not scientifically based. A goal of 10,000 steps is a random figure that was developed to create more movement. The number of steps a person should move will vary with each person and the 10,000-step goal is encouragement to move more to improve overall health. No matter the reason, better health, step goals or just feeling better walking is a great way to be physically active.