It may not be as suave as Zumba or as exhilarating as kickboxing, but walking is an effective form of exercise. In fact, experts say that it can achieve benefits similar to those achieved by running if it is performed frequently and for long enough periods (at least 30 minutes on five days each week). As long as you have sturdy shoes and an open, relatively flat surface (indoors or outdoors) you can take part.
Can this simple—even menial—activity really have a notable impact on health? Thanks to Harvard Medical School, I found some impressive statistics to answer that question.
Health benefits of walking
- A meta-analysis of studies on walking found that it reduced the risk of cardiovascular events (such as heart attacks) by 31% and cut the risk of dying by 32%. These benefits were found in both men and women. Of course, those who walked longer distances and/or walked at faster paces had more benefits, but benefits were even seen with distances of only 5.5 miles per week at a casual pace (2 miles per hour).
- Among a group of 72,488 female nurses, walking a minimum of 3 hours per week was associated with a 35% lower risk of heart attack and cardiac death and a 34% lower risk of stroke.
- Among a group of 44,452 male health professionals, walking for a minimum of 30 minutes per day was linked to an 18% reduced risk of coronary artery disease.
- A 10-year-long study of over 200 postmenopausal women found that those who walked one mile each day had an 82% lower risk of heart disease.
- Various studies have shown walking can help protect against dementia, peripheral artery disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, colon cancer, and even erectile dysfunction.
- In general, people who walk more weigh less. The number of calories burned while walking varies based on a person’s body weight.
Body weight Calories per mile
120 lbs. 85
140 lbs. 95
160 lbs. 105
180 lbs. 115
200 lbs. 125
220 lbs. 135
All that by just walking? I am impressed. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right when he said, “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very fast.”
- Footwear and clothes – Wear comfortable shoes that have arch support, firm heels, and thick but flexible soles. Dress in loose-fitting, comfortable clothing that can be layered to accommodate various temperatures. If you will be walking outside, consider wearing bright colors so you are easily visible to drivers.
- Technique – Warm up by stepping in place for a few minutes or walking a short distance at a slow pace. Once warmed up, stretch your muscles before continuing with the bulk of your walk. As you finish your walk, slow down your pace and stretch again to cool down (this reduces stress on the heart and skeletal muscles).
- Intensity – If there is any question regarding your ability to exercise given your health conditions, check with your doctor. If you are used to walking, keep at it. If you are just beginning, start slowly. Start by walking 10-15 minutes at a time and then gradually increase your time to 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week. Your pace should bring your heart rate to about 60-70% of your maximum heart rate (which is roughly 220 minus your age in years). For example, if you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate is 180 beats per minute. Walking should increase your heart rate to approximately 108-126 beats per minute. Use the carotid artery (in the neck) or the radial artery (in the wrist) to monitor your pulse.
I think what I like most about walking is that it does not cost any money (except the occasional purchase of shoes) and I can do it without leaving my neighborhood. (If you live in a rough neighborhood you may need to go to a nearby shopping center or similar location to walk safely.) Hopefully the health benefits described above will provide extra motivation on days when I’m trying to find an excuse to avoid a workout!
Do you walk for exercise? What has your experience been with it?