Walking is the most accessible form of exercise in the world. You don’t need any fancy equipment. You don’t need a gym membership. You can easily work it into your day.
“From a broad public health perspective of preventing disease, walking is incredibly important,” Matthew Buman, an associate professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, said.
It is more than just a way to get from one place to another. Walking has tangible short-term and long-term health benefits.
Preventing chronic diseases
Walking, especially brisk walking, helps prevent chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In a chapter in Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, researchers outline lifestyle and dietary changes that contribute to chronic disease prevention. These include avoiding tobacco use, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting time spent watching television, eating a healthy diet and maintaining daily physical activity.
The researchers note, “Important health benefits have been associated with walking for half an hour per day, but greater reductions in risk are seen with longer durations of physical activity and more intense activity.”
“It can’t be understated … the health enhancing effects of walking to prevent things like cancer and diabetes,” Buman said.
Immediate benefits from walking
One of the effects that occurs almost immediately when you walk is you see an improvement in mood.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found evidence daily walking can improve one’s mood. Additionally, other studies have shown walking in nature, even urban nature such as a park, can boost one’s mood. Researchers found walking reduced anxiety and depression, anger and time pressure, especially for those walking in nature and with a friend.
The sleep benefits from walking are also fairly acute. If you walk more today, you’ll tend to sleep better tonight.
A study in Japan found two hours of forest walking a day improved both sleep length and quality among participants. The explanation these researchers provide is, “Exercise may amplify core body temperature. A steep decline of core body temperature before nocturnal sleep was reported to induce sleep.”
Walking also improves how you function; how you are able to get around.
As you get older, walking helps maintain your range of motion. Continuing to stay active and walking can provide health benefits to people as they age. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found, among older women, even a moderate increase in steps per day could decrease mortality rates.
“... An average of approximately 4,400 steps per day was significantly associated with lower mortality rates compared with approximately 2,700 steps per day,” the study found. “More steps per day accrued were associated with steady declines in mortality rates up to approximately 7,500 steps per day, beyond which rates leveled.”
Guidelines for daily physical activity
The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s (ODPHP) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were updated in 2018. The new guidelines state “physical activity fosters normal growth and development and can make people feel better, function better, sleep better and reduce the risk of a large number of chronic diseases.” The guidelines suggest adults should aim for a combination of moderate-intensity (2-5 hours) and vigorous-intensity (1-2 hours) aerobic physical activity every week.
— ODPHP (@HHSPrevention) May 29, 2019
All walking counts
“Whatever the intensity of the walking is, it does have health benefits,” Buman said. So walking down the street, doing household chores and walking for transportation all provide health benefits.
Buman echoes the message of the Physical Activity Guidelines. It’s important to replace time sitting with any kind of physical activity, he said. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the lofty 10,000-step goal, especially for someone who’s averaging fewer steps a day.
“If you’ve got someone who on average is taking 4,000 steps a day,” Buman said, “going from 4,000 steps a day to 6,000 steps a day is going to have a huge health benefit for them. Probably going all the way to 10,000 steps is not a good first step. They should work up to that.”
Marc Adams, who is an associate professor at the ASU College of Health Solutions, agrees. He and his team designed a study called WalkIT Arizona that uses adaptive goal setting to account for the ups and downs of everyday life.
“What’s neat about adaptive goals is the goals are not a threshold, they’re not a trajectory you need to follow up. They mold to the participants,” Adams told ASU Now. “So sometimes they’ll be a little higher, sometimes they’ll be a little lower. And it all depends, because we all work, we all travel, we all have illness.”
Benefits of brisk walking
Steps are not always the best indicator of overall activity though. Buman notes intensity is a much better measure. The higher the intensity of the walking, the greater the health benefits that can be reaped.
People should shoot for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, he said. That means walking where you might break a sweat or start breathing harder, walking that goes above what you might experience just walking down the street.
“Many people underestimate the benefit that (walking) has,” Buman said. “They feel like they need to go for a five-mile run to get health benefits. And clearly there’s massive health benefits from even moderate amounts of walking.”
A 2002 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that, “regular brisk walking improves aerobic fitness in sedentary people, whether undertaken in multiple short bouts or in fewer longer bouts.” The study’s results showed that regular brisk walking not only increased people’s mood, but it also helped lower blood pressure, improve blood lipid profiles — tied to cholesterol levels — and lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
In updated physical activity guidelines, more emphasis is put on moderate to vigorous physical activity such as brisk walking. For Buman, the important takeaway is any amount of physical activity is better than none. Replacing sitting during the day with a little more walking does provide important, tangible health benefits.
Sarah Farrell is a graduate student studying sports journalism at Arizona State University
Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.