The Health Benefits of Walking

Hippocrates said, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Thich Nhat Hanh says, “While you are walking, smile and be in the here and now, and you will transform that place into paradise.” Let these words of wisdom inspire you to begin walking the walk to a happier and healthier you.

Getting inspired to walk every day can yield health benefits without overexerting you to the point of exhaustion. In addition to increasing your fitness level, walking can help you recover from an injury or surgery, promote weight loss, increase heart health, and improve your mental health. And for some it may enhance their spirituality and deepen their connection to nature. Maybe you have heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking,” which is based on the research that a sedentary life is just as unhealthy as smoking cigarettes. Many people are trying to walk more and sit less but sometimes it is difficult to find the time and motivation to walk. Unlike other more aerobic exercise, walking takes a bit more time and planning throughout the day. If you can’t go for one long walk you can always take frequent shorter walks to get the same health benefits.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults ages 19 to 24 aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week. In addition to being a low-impact way to meet the physical activity guidelines, walking requires no special clothing or gear and costs nothing. While brisk walking is best, there are benefits from walking at a regular pace as well, such as lowering your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Walking strengthens your bones and muscles and may help you maintain a healthy weight. According to a recent Harvard study, walking even counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes. Researchers studied 32 obesity-promoting genes in more than 12,000 people to determine how much those genes contribute to a person’s weight. They discovered that the participants in the study who took a brisk walk for one hour a day cut the effects of the genes in half. The researchers also noticed that even a 15-minute walk can curb the cravings for sugar. So next time you want to eat that chocolate bar or open a soda, going for a short walk could help ease that craving.

Another noteworthy effect of walking is important to women. With 1 in 3 women at risk for breast cancer, an American Cancer Society study found that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or fewer per week. If you are suffering from arthritis-related pain, walking just 5 to 6 miles per week can help protect your joints. Walking lubricates your joints and strengthens the muscles that support them.

Walking is especially good for fighting off sickness. A recent study of more than 1,000 men and women showed that a 20-minute daily walk on at least five days a week resulted in 43 percent fewer sick days than for those who exercised only once a week. The study participants who did get sick also experienced milder symptoms for a shorter period of time.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, teaches that wherever we walk, we can practice meditation. He asks that when we walk, we look around and see the beauty that surrounds us. Take a long look at the trees, the billowy clouds, the flowers, and the grass. With each step he suggests that you say to yourself the following:

breathing in, “I have arrived”;

breathing out, “I am home”;

breathing in, “In the here”;

breathing out, “In the now”;

breathing in, “I am solid”;

breathing out, “I am free”;

breathing in, “In the ultimate”;

breathing out, “I dwell.”

These experts shared their thoughts about how walking can help you get in touch with your deeper purpose in life. There are different ways of walking that can improve your mood, self-esteem, and ability to meditate or to help develop a deeper spiritual bond with others or nature. Kate Link, MSEd, CPCC, ACC, and Marijne van den Kieboom, MA, ACC, who share a love for walking, launched an innovative program called Leadership ‘N Motion. At Leadership ‘N Motion (L’NM), they believe that without movement there is no growth. Walking is a primary tool to help move things forward in one’s life. L’NM’s unique approach connects what neuroscience tells us about how physical movement/walking, mindfulness and being in nature to advanced personal and professional leadership. “Walking can be an antidote or respite from the fast pace of our lives and the sense of feeling overloaded,” said Link. “Walking helps us slow down and increase our opportunities for reflection. Extended walks, especially, can help us practice more in-the-moment awareness and greater detachment from all that otherwise demands our attention. As we walk, we thin the boundary between ourselves and the environment and between ourselves and others. Through walking, we give ourselves time to rediscover — or meet anew — our true selves. We listen more closely to the inner voice and when it too quiets, we get a sense of what else might be heard and felt.”

For city dwellers, walking is part of your daily routine, but access to parks and other natural settings may be limited. Does the setting matter? “Neuroscience confirms that walking promotes brain connectivity and boosts mood and creativity regardless of where we walk,” according to Link and van den Kieboom. “Research indicates that walking, even a short amble, increases communication between the hemispheres of the brain. Done outdoors, the effects of walking on the brain increase. There is a therapeutic effect of nature (ecotherapy). Being in nature encourages a heightened sensory experience, however, even images of nature can have a calming effect. So for city and suburban dwellers — or even those walking on a treadmill — walking is still very beneficial.”

Link and van den Kieboom also shared thoughts about those who cannot walk — even temporarily. “Not everyone is physically able to walk. Even those able to walk find themselves in situations [in which] they are more temporarily immobilized. Still, there is much we can glean from walking — even if we can’t walk. Neuroscience finds that action-related metaphors and similes have corresponding motor representation in the brain. Connecting a physical action to metaphoric language (versus actually engaging in the action) elicits a neural response. Using the language of walking may actually impact neural circuitry as the brain doesn’t always differentiate between the literal and metaphorical.”

To take Link and van den Kieboom’s ideas a step further — envision yourself walking toward something you want in life. Actually picture yourself moving forward. Visualizing the movement of walking activates the motor cortex and can give you the brain power to figure out what to do and how to achieve it. Link adds, “When we create visual pictures in our mind that involve stepping up, walking towards or away from something, being on a path will keep your brain active and may contribute to taking the strides you wish to make in your life.”

The benefits of walking, or even thinking about walking, can provide a foundation for increased physical and mental well-being and perhaps help you discover something new about yourself and the world.

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Learn more about walking for your health

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease

Leadership ‘N Motion

Interested in pursuing walking as a workout? Read “Training for a Walkathon” and “All About Walking.”