by Randy Kambic
Even mainstream media have picked up on the many physical and mental benefits of walking, including weight loss, reduced stress, increased energy and better sleep, and that’s only the beginning. These additional compelling effects may well catalyze us to consistently step out for a daily walk, understanding that cumulative steps count, too. For more inspiration, check out this month’s race walking event at the Summer Olympics.
Walking helps heart health and diabetes. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking program launched last fall, the risk of heart disease and diabetes can be significantly reduced via an average of 22 minutes a day of brisk walking. “Physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain cancers, osteoporosis, cognitive decline and even depression,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Can you imagine if there was a pill that could simultaneously have all those benefits? Everyone would be clamoring for it.”
Walking reduces anxiety and clears thinking. The results of a national survey of nearly 3,000 women between the ages of 42 and 52 published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that those who walked as part of a regular physical activity showed fewer signs of depression compared with inactive women. The more physical activity a woman logged, the less likely she was to exhibit such symptoms, suggesting that moderate-to-intense levels of exercise may help protect against mental illness. The survey further revealed that 85 percent believe walking helps reduce any present anxiety and feelings of depression, while two-thirds reported that walking stimulates their thinking.
Walking facilitates doctor-patient communication. Columbus, Ohio-based Walk with a Doc (WalkWithADoc.org) helps organize free walking events each month via 230 chapters nationwide. They’re led by physicians and other healthcare authorities. “It’s a casual forum in which to communicate and also learn about the health benefits of walking,” says Executive Director Rachael Habash, who’s aiming for 350 chapters by year’s end. When doctors emphasize the benefits of exercise, patients tend to listen.
Walking boosts life performance. “Until the late 1960s, 90 percent of America’s children who lived up to a mile away walked to school. Today, that figure is 30 percent,” says Sheila Franklin, of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, in The Walking Revolution documentary (scroll to the video at EveryBodyWalk.org). Experts warn that less walking by youngsters can create sedentary habits and lead to shortened life spans.
Daily walks to school boost cognitive performance in students, according to Mary Pat King, the National Parent Teacher Association director of programs and projects. Dr. Richard Jackson, a pediatrician, professor and chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health at University of California, Los Angeles, and former environmental health director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, reports that walking improves children’s learning ability, concentration, moods and creativity.
The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow. ~Henry David Thoreau
Even lifelong walkers are moved to walk more by using a pedometer to track their steps and distance traveled, says Dr. Lauren Elson, a physical medicine and rehabilitation instructor at Harvard Medical School, who is also the medical editor of the recent Harvard Special Health Report Walking for Health (Health.Harvard.edu/walk). A meta-review of 26 studies found that using the device raised physical activity levels by nearly 27 percent, adding about 2,500 steps per day. Most stores that sell exercise equipment offer inexpensive pedometers, while smartphone users can download an app such as Moves, Breeze or Pedometer++. Apple’s iOS includes the free app Health.
Walking leads to meaningful exchanges. Social connections and honest conversations between two people can be aided by walking outside instead of sitting inside. Clay Cockrell, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City, began walking with clients 12 years ago. He notes that casual venues like parks have been especially helpful for men. “They sometimes have a more difficult time making eye contact in sessions. Outside, they are looking where they are going, looking at nature, other people—the pressure is less. My own health has improved, as well,” he says. He shares ideas with the public and other therapists at WalkAndTalk.com to maximize the benefits. He sees moving the body forward along a path as a metaphor for moving forward in life.
Adds Habash, “We believe that engaging in health should be simple and fun, like putting one foot in front of the other at every opportunity.”
Randy Kambic is an Estero, Florida, freelance writer and editor who regularly contributes to Natural Awakenings.