Even though some of you may be tired of reading this, it needs to be written. This is important: you need to walk more. In fact, if there’s one New Year’s resolution I think everyone should make, it would be to walk more. Many of you made this the centerpiece for your plans, many did not, figuring you already do enough. Nope. No one really walks as much as they should, though. That small subset of my readers who do walk enough should still read this post if only to fortify their resolve.
Why do I hammer home this point so often, anyway?
There are a few main reasons why I’m so fond of walking, also known as moving frequently at a slow pace. First, it’s all-inclusive. Absent debilitating injury or infirmity, everyone can walk. No excuses (unless you have one).
Second, the necessary equipment is right down there. See those bizarre appendages underneath you? That’s what you walk with. See that horizontal surface stretching into the horizon? That’s what you walk on.
Third, it’s the foundation for good health and makes life better. It’s this last point that brings me to the meat of today’s post: all the ways in which walking enhances our life.
It keeps your buttocks engaged with the world.
A wise man once said that excessive sitting causes glute inactivation and atrophy. This is true, but it’s not like simply standing is enough to keep them strong and engaged. You have to walk, and walk often. To make sure the way you walk is actually activating your glutes, place your hands on each glute. You should feel your glute tense up a bit with each footfall as it accepts the load, and that same glute should tense up even more when you push off to take another step so that your hand gets a little “pushback.” Gallivant around like this, making sure each glute is working. Those buttocks! Ne’er-do-wells, the lot of ’em if you give ’em half a chance!
It modestly reduces body fat.
Walking isn’t going to get you shredded, ripped, cut, or yoked. It might not be as brutally and mechanistically effective on a minute for minute basis as other forms of exercise, but frequent walking will help anyone with two functioning legs and hip and knee joints that allow movement who would otherwise meld into the couch lose some body fat. That’s pretty cool, I think.
It improves glycemic control, especially after meals.
Just 15 minutes of walking after eating improved the blood glucose control in older people with poor glucose tolerance. Try to keep the walk as close to the meal as possible to aid in weight loss.
It improves triglyceride levels and lowers blood pressure, especially after meals.
Whether short (ten 3-minute bouts of brisk walking) or longer (one 30-minute bout of brisk walking), briskly walking after a meal lowers postprandial blood pressure and triglyceride levels.
It might help you live longer if you do it briskly (or at least presages a longer life, if not causes it).
A recent study of over 7000 male and 31000 female recreational walkers found that walking intensity predicted mortality risk. Those who walked the fastest tended to die the least. It’s important to note that this wasn’t an interventional study where walkers were coached to walk faster; this was just looking at the relationship between natural walking speed and mortality risk, so naturally slow walkers who resolve to increase their speed may not see the same relationship – but it certainly can’t hurt!
It’s well tolerated by people with arthritis (and could even improve their condition).
Arthritis patients have it tough on the exercise front. They won’t get any better avoiding exercise, but exercise tends to hurt. What to do? Walk. Walking is gentle, particularly if you perform it with proper form. And one study even found that walking (and weight lifting) improves balance in older adults with osteoarthritis.
It’s good for your brain.
Walking does much more than work the area underneath your neck. It also has extensive cognitive benefits, improving memory in seniors, cognitive control and academic performance in preadolescents (especially those who need it most), and (when done outdoors) boosting creativity in the young and healthy. The farther an older person can walk in six minutes, the better he or she performs on memory and logic tests; folks who perform poorly on the walking test tend to have reduced grey matter volume in certain sections of their brains. Aristotle’s famed tendency to walk as he taught students suddenly makes sense.
It reduces stress.
What do I do when I need to get away from a particularly stressful day in “civilization”? Go for a walk, preferably in a natural setting. For me, it’s the beach or the Malibu hills. For others, it might be the woods or even a park. Sure enough, going for a walk in the woods is a surefire way to lower cortisol.
It reduces stress even when it doesn’t.
A study examined the effect of forest walking on stress in young adults, finding that although chromogranin A (a biomarker of stress) increased, the subjects reported reductions in subjective perceptions of stress (which, remember, may matter more than “objective” markers).
It boosts immune function.
Several lines of evidence point to the benefits of walking on the immune system. First, a “mere” 30 minute walk increases killer T-cells and other markers of immune function. Second, among free-living Japanese elderly, higher daily step counts correlate with improved mucosal immunity. Finally, among postmenopausal women involved in a walking training program, the normally deleterious immune effects associated with menopause were ameliorated.
It prevents falls in the elderly.
Walking on uneven, natural ground like hiking trails, improves balance and reduces falls in the elderly. “Walking programs,” which usually have elderly patients walking indoors or on treadmills as briskly as they can handle do not appear to work very well. Slow, unsteady, and meandering walks appear to be better. Don’t wait until you’re already at risk of falling, though. The earlier you start habitually walking, the better your ability to navigate the land without falling will be.
It gives you a chance to think.
When we walk, we think. And because walking is a low-difficulty endeavor, we can direct our executive functioning to more internal matters. We work through problems, come up with ideas, replay conversations, scheme, ruminate, and discover solutions. Or maybe we just think about that funny dog we saw on the way to work the other day. That’s a worthy subject, too.
It can be a kind of meditation.
Meditation is a foreign concept for many Westerners; we know about it, but we don’t know it. Even when we want to try it, having read about the benefits, we can’t quite muster the will to sit still for twenty, thirty minutes at a time. Enter the walking meditation. Do it formally, or just go for a walk and let your mind tune out from all the chatter. You’ll feel better either way.
It improves meetings.
Regular old seated meetings can be tedious, yawn-inducing beasts, even when the people and subject matter involved are interesting. Walking meetings, which are exactly what it sounds like, are growing more commonplace in the business world, and I couldn’t be happier. Seth Roberts found that replacing his seated student/teacher meetings with walking meetings was refreshing and invigorating.
It’s in your blood.
Your distant ancestors didn’t develop horribly calloused knuckles and brave savannah predators just so you could sit at the computer and devolve into an immobile blob. You come from a long and storied line of walkers. Keep the tradition alive!
It’s in your genes.
This one sounds similar to the last one, but it’s different. What I mean by “it’s in your genes” is your genes “expect” you to move around a lot at a slow pace, and walking affects how your genes are expressed. Walking has been shown, for example, to positively affect the genes responsible for fat and carbohydrate metabolism in skeletal muscle, to reduce inflammatory gene expression in adipose tissue, and to lower oxidative and inflammatory gene expression pathways in older adults.
It enables recognition of the felt presence of immediate experience.
When you drive, you can’t really focus on all the interesting stuff occurring in the world around you. Outside of what’s happening on the road, you shouldn’t focus on what’s occurring around you when you drive. Even riding a bike you tend to get tunnel vision. Walking on the other hand offers infinite chances for engagement with the outside world. See a rose? When you’re walking, you can stop and smell it. See a little path on the side of the trail heading somewhere cool? If you were driving, you’d have whizzed right past it. We all need a little more presence in our lives, and walking enables it.
As you can see from the bulk of the evidence I’ve just presented, walking can have a powerful effect on your health – and it doesn’t take very much of it. Most studies showing the benefits have people walk for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes at a time. That’s a lunch break. That is parking in the last lot. That’s taking a quick jaunt around the block. That is stealing a few moments away from your desk. It’s doable, people. You just have to do it.