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March 28, 2023/Living Healthy/Wellness

The Health Benefits of Walking

It can help improve heart health, reduce stress, fight food cravings and boost self-esteem

Person enjoying a walk with thier dog while looking at their phone.

Walking: You do it as you go from your car to your office. You do it when you take a stroll around the block with your dog. You even do it when moving from your couch to the fridge for a snack.

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It’s something that we do consistently throughout the day without thinking — and people who walk regularly swear by the health and psychological benefits of their daily jaunt.

Research shows that walking at a brisk pace for about 30 minutes a day leads to long-term health benefits, including a reduced risk for heart disease.

“We already have an abundance of evidence showing that aerobic activity can significantly improve our cardiovascular risk factors, which typically include cholesterol reduction, weight management, blood pressure reduction, as well as even glucose or blood sugar control,” says cardiologist Tamanna Singh, MD.

Dr. Singh shares the benefits of walking and how to get started on a routine that works for you.

Benefits of walking

Even making a small increase in how often you walk every day can lead to some positive health advantages.

Reduces risk of heart disease

The benefits of walking for 30 minutes a day include decreasing your resting heart rate, lowering your blood pressure and LDL (your “bad” cholesterol), and strengthening your heart.

“Walking helps make your heart more efficient,” says Dr. Singh. “As you’re improving your fitness, your heart actually becomes more effective with each heart pump that it provides for that type of exercise.”

It’s been proven that regular walkers have fewer heart attacks and strokes, lower blood pressure and higher levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) than non-exercisers. Walking can also improve blood sugars and either improve the management of diabetes or help prevent it altogether.

Reduces stress

If you’ve ever gone out for a walk after a stressful situation and come back calmer and more collected, you know firsthand how walking benefits you positively when it comes to coping with stressful events.

Our lives are full of stressful situations. We’re juggling multiple roles at home and work. And it can all feel overwhelming.

Walking can help. It gets your heart rate up, brings your stress level down and reduces your chances of developing further illnesses like stroke, broken heart syndrome or cardiomyopathy.

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And studies confirm that walking benefits your mood, by releasing your body’s endorphins.

“You’ll be proud at the end of each walk by setting small goals to get moving and accomplishing them, all the while increasing your self-esteem,” encourages Dr. Singh.

Helps you lose weight

Walking is also one of the best exercises for losing weight — it’s relatively easy to do, easy on the joints, it’s free and you have to do it every day anyway.

To start walking for fitness, try to begin with a 20-minute walk every day.

“If that’s too much, start smaller,” Dr. Singh advises. “But do set a goal of building to 30 minutes a day, every day.”

Going on a brisk 30-minute walk can help you burn 200 calories per day. Once you’ve mastered that, take your time increasing your duration, frequency or walking intensity. Avoid increasing mileage and/or time more than 10% more any one day than your maximum the prior week to avoid any setbacks like a musculoskeletal injury.

Reduces blood sugar

Our blood sugar levels change throughout the day — ranging from high to low as our bodies try to manage the amount of insulin we need. Our goal is to try to keep those blood sugar levels consistent, which can help keep us from feeling thirsty and tired after we eat (hello, post-lunch crash.)

So, what can you do? If you just finished eating, try taking a short walk. Research shows that walking for just two to five minutes after a meal can lower your blood sugar.

“We tend to see better blood sugar management,” states Dr. Singh. “For people who have diabetes, they may notice that their blood sugars are more stable.”

Improves your immune system

Trying to avoid getting a cold or the flu? Walking can help support your immune system.

By increasing your blood flow, reducing stress and strengthening your body’s antibodies, you’re keeping your immune system strong for whenever it’s needed to fight any virus or bacteria.

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Protects your joints

As you walk, you lubricate and strengthen your muscles and increase blood flow to your cartilage.

And this can be especially beneficial for people with arthritis, as walking is a low-impact way to exercise and it helps keep your joints flexible and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.

Reduces cravings

Cravings, in general, are usually bad news for people trying to lose weight. Craved-for-foods tend to be calorie-dense, fatty or sugary, with chocolate topping that list.

But research shows that walking can curtail the hankering for sugar, both during the walk and for about 10 minutes afterward.

Research also suggests walking ultimately helps people lose weight not only by getting their heart and metabolism up, but also by curbing those cravings for sugary snacks, like the aforementioned chocolate.

By taking a short walk, the study found people are able to regulate their daily sugary treats intake — often by as much as half.

Reduces risk of cancer

Research shows that two and a half to five hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week — which includes walking — can help reduce your risk of certain cancers like colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, liver, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Improves sleep

Most of us aren’t getting enough sleep per night — it’s recommended that we get between seven and nine hours each night.

One study shows that walking can help improve the quality of sleep you get each night — another reason it pays to increase how many steps we take each day.

How to start walking

It’s time to reap the benefits of walking daily.

“Walking is oftentimes the easiest type of exercise. We walk every day,” notes Dr. Singh. “It’s a free activity, and all you really need is a good pair of shoes to protect your feet and to ensure you’ve got good posture and that you’re using your muscles appropriately.”

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And there are different ways to walk — you can walk in place or if you’re looking for ways to make your walking routine more challenging, you can try Nordic walking.

Here are some other tips to help you start and maintain a walking routine:

Start out slow

If you’re just starting an exercise routine, don’t push yourself too hard. Any kind of physical activity will be a stress on your body, so you need to give yourself time to adapt.

“A slow start will help with sustainability. It’ll lead to small wins along the way,” advises Dr. Singh. “When we start too hard, too fast, we can get disappointed.”

Also, if you’re not used to exercising, the biggest risk is an injury.

“You want to start slow to help with what your body can tolerate,” she adds. “If you have any sort of musculoskeletal injuries, consult with your physician first. If you have any cardiac problems or are recovering from cardiac surgery, speak with your cardiologist about how to progress and start your exercise program.”

Track your steps

Using an app that features a pedometer is key to walking success, Dr. Singh says.

People who love their apps or pedometers log a reported 2,000 more steps per day. Why? The reward comes from witnessing your success in real time and enjoying the mental reward of celebrating your step-based accomplishments.

Find a walking buddy

“To make your workout feel easier too, ask someone to join you,” Dr. Singh suggests. “Walking together offers many positives for our collective mental health.”

It significantly reduces any loneliness and isolation that you may be feeling. When you’re walking with a buddy, you’re bound to enjoy your workout more psychologically by talking, connecting and sharing an experience.

Not to mention that sharing a walk makes you focus less on the physical exertion as you chat with your walking partner, she says.

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And your buddy doesn’t have to be a human.

“Oftentimes, I’ll recommend walking with your pet,” says Dr. Singh. “If you have a dog, make sure that you’re the one who’s going to walk your dog every day.”

Provide an incentive

A new book you’re interested in just came out or the latest episode of your favorite podcast is available. Make it a priority to take a walk as you listen to those.

“If you have particular songs or podcasts that you really enjoy listening to, save the ones that you really enjoy or your favorites for those walks as an incentive,” recommends Dr. Singh.

Don’t be hard on yourself

You may want to have a very specific schedule on when you walk and for how long. But make sure you give yourself some flexibility — life happens and you may miss a day.

“If we miss a day or we don’t do as much walking as we wanted, oftentimes, we feel down about it,” says Dr. Singh. “Then, we’re not necessarily as motivated to do it the next day. I say make walking an intention, be intentional about movement. Then, as you start to become more habitual about it, it’s going to be very easy to build on duration and build on intensity.”

While walking may seem simple, don’t overlook its power to help you reach your fitness and wellness goals.

“Walking can be done anywhere — you can walk in your home, you can go up and down stairs, you can walk at your workplace,” she encourages. “The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. The health benefits of walking can help manage a lot of those risk factors like cholesterol, blood sugar, weight management, blood pressure and overall, that can reduce your cardiovascular risk by about 80%.”

And remember how much fun walking can be — and how much better you will feel.

“Get outside, immerse yourself in nature and get some fresh air,” says Dr. Singh. “All of those things are going to make you feel better physically and mentally.”

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