“Walking is man's best medicine.” - HippocratesWalking is probably the most underestimated and undervalued activity we do. We often take it for granted until we have some injury or can no longer walk, while it is probably the single most important activity that keeps us alive and healthy and adds to the quality of our lives. As well as the benefits to health, walking has potentially important environmental and social implications. It is also the least likely activity that is going to cause injury as we are designed to walk. Fossil records show that we have been walking (bi-pedal) for around four million years. That’s a lot of walking and as time has progressed we have become better at it.
Walking is the most common and preferred activity for people.For example, in the US 54% of women and 41% of men cite walking as their most common activity during the past month 1 and it as the most frequently reported physical activity among high school students 2. While it might be the major activity we just don’t do enough of it. In England, for example, 29% of adults do less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per week and about 8% do not even walk continuously for five minutes over a four week period. 3
Just as important, however, is the speed of walking.
Walking at a pace of 5–8 km/h expends sufficient energy to be classified as moderate intensity and is an easy and accessible way of meeting physical activity recommendations. Studies have also shown the speed of walking is important; in a meta-analysis of five studies (14,692 participants in total), people in the slowest quarter of walking speed had significantly higher mortality rates than did those in the fastest quarter 4, that is, the faster walkers live longer. A very good reason to up the pace a bit. An average walk (not a stroll) is about 5.0 kilometres per hour (km/h) up to 6.5 or 7 km/h for a brisk walk.
Alternative to drugs
Walking offers many benefits to health, whether it be preventing disease, contributing to emotional and cognitive health, or helping to maintain independence later in life.
Walking is the real “wonder drug” that we all need to be taking.
And while the benefits are multiple and the behaviour is simple, most of us don’t do enough of it. In effect the benefits of walking can been seen to outstrip all the potential for pharmaceutical drugs in the marketplace and, in many cases, walking can be seen as an alternative to conventional drug therapy. The health benefits and resulting medical care savings of walking and physical activity are extremely large. Further, these benefits accrue regardless of age, weight, or existing health challenges.
In effect the benefits of walking can been seen to outstrip all the potential for pharmaceutical drugs in the marketplace
In a study of institutionalised elderly women aged over 70, walking 50-65% of the maximum heartbeat had the effect of decreasing blood pressure together with improvement in flexibility, left hand grip strength, sense of equilibrium, self esteem, depression and life satisfaction 5. People only need to be active for at least 150 minutes a week and it can occur in short bouts, lasting at least 10 minutes or longer periods if you like.
But the more you walk and the faster and the bigger the steps you take, the longer you live.
No other activity shows up with so many benefits as walking.
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses have shown walking to have various and multiple health benefits including positive effects on fitness, fatness, blood pressure control, weight loss, depression and other areas of mental health and stress, and cardiovascular disease risk prevention, pain management and spinal support as well as some cancers such as colorectal cancer. A systematic review of walking found statistically significant reductions in body fat, BMI and blood pressure and increases in breathing capacity 6. The review reported a reduction in blood pressure of around 3.72 mm Hg, around the same lowering from most of the pharmaceutical drugs on the market.
The greatest benefit was reported in those involved in group walking 6.
This reduction is comparable to earlier large studies of walking and resting blood pressure 7 which found a 2% reduction in blood pressure from walking. The importance of this difference becomes significant when you know that a 2 mm Hg reduction in blood pressure can reduce coronary heart disease risk by 6% and stroke and transischaemic attacks (transient strokes) by 15%. 8. Other studies have reported a reduction of only 2 mm Hg in blood pressure could reduce stroke mortality by 10% and mortality from vascular causes in a middle aged population by 7% 9.
Timing is important
Walking has also been associated with a reduced risk and even playing a role in reversing type 2 diabetes. A Harvard University study examining the exercise habits of more than 70,000 women, showed that a 40 minute walk every day reduced type 2 diabetes risk by 40%, and with a longer walk the risk could be decreased by an even larger percentage. Even among adults with diabetes, those who walked for two or more hours a week lowered their mortality rate from all causes by 39 per cent. However, the timing of walking also appears to be important. Walking after a meal reduces the blood sugar and lipid levels by increasing their absorption into the muscles.
Walking after a meal the sugar and lipids are directed into the muscles not to be added as fat around the liver.
When you walk you use more than 200 different muscles, which create healthy molecular signals, which positively alter the body’s biochemistry and metabolism. One of these is a particular muscle chemical, lipoprotein lipase (LPL), a protein enzyme that has been studied in depth because this enzyme has a central role in several aspects of lipid (fat) metabolism. LPL controls plasma triglyceride (fat) breakdown (burning the fat into energy), shifting the cholesterol from LDL to HDL, and other metabolic risk factors decrease when we stand or begin walking. The importance of producing enough LPL cannot be underestimated as people who produce less LPL have a five-fold increase in the risk for death and greater chronic heart disease. The production of LPL is therefore extremely beneficial to us.
Regular walking is beneficial for enhancing mental health, for example, reducing physical symptoms and anxiety associated with even major stress. A study of Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) symptoms, depression, anxiety and stress, sleep quality in 76 participants aged 47, found total PTSD symptoms, combined symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, and sleep behaviour were significantly and negatively associated with total walking time and that increased PTSD symptoms were associated with lower levels of walking. 10. In a study of 20 healthy, elderly adults with a mean age of 70, negative feeling scores such as tension-anxiety, anger-hostility, and confusion significantly improved after walking 11.
Positive for depression
Depression is a common disorder worldwide widely recognised now to be an inflammatory condition and not one of a serotonin imbalance as the drug companies want you to think.
Walking has been shown to alleviate depression.
In meta-analyses using eight trials it was shown that walking has a statistically significant, large effect on symptoms of depression 12 and no negative side effects. In a study investigating the mood in 102 sedentary, ethnic minority women over a five month period they found walking significant decreased depressive mood and an increase in walking over the course of the study was associated with change in vigour 13. One study of 50 breast cancer patients reported 12 weeks of moderate intensity walking midway through chemotherapy had positive effects on fatigue, self esteem and mood. The study reported 80% adherence rate to completing the 12 week intervention and recording weekly logs and reported the self-managed, home-based intervention was beneficial for improving psychosocial wellbeing 14 .
Walking has also been found to improve our brain development. Older adults who walk frequently, have lower risk for cognitive decline in later life. In a study of 299 adults, aged 65 or older, greater levels of walking predicted greater volumes of frontal, occipital, entorhinal, and hippocampal regions of the brain, nine years later. Walking 72 blocks was necessary to detect increased grey matter volume, but walking more than 72 blocks added additional brain volume. Further, greater grey matter volume with walking reduced the risk for cognitive impairment two-fold. Greater amounts of walking were associated with greater grey matter volume, which, in turn, is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment. These findings are in line with data that aerobic activity induces a host of cellular cascades that could conceivably increase grey matter volume 14.
Older adults who walk frequently, have lower risk for cognitive decline in later life.
Benefits for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
We now know that Alzheimer’s disease is a cardiovascular condition related to blood flow and nutrients reaching the brain.
Epidemiological data support an inverse relationship between the amount of physical activity including walking undertaken and the risk of developing both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease . Beyond this preventive role, exercise may also slow down their progression . Several mechanisms have been suggested for explaining the benefits of physical activity and walking in the prevention of Alzheimer’s. Walking improves the efficiency of the capillary system and increases the oxygen supply to the brain, thus enhancing metabolic activity and oxygen intake in neurons, and increases neurotrophin levels and resistance to stress. Walking activates the release of neurotrophic (brain growth) factors and promotes the formation of new blood vessels, facilitating the generation of new neurons and synapses, which, in turn, improve memory and cognitive functions 15.
Research with Alzheimer's disease subjects has shown that walking plus conversation has an even better preventive effect than walking alone 16, suggesting that the "socialisation effect" of exercise is an important aspect. In another controlled exercise trial, the practice of walking combined with bright light exposure improved sleep among Alzheimer's Disease patients 17, suggesting that we should be doing more of our walking outside in the sun with our friends.
Boost to creativity
Other cobenefits of regular walking include improved academic and job performance and improved community cohesion. Creativity has a number of positive benefits. Studies have found gains in participants’ ideational fluency (creativity) after aerobic running or dancing 18, with similar results for aerobic walking, regardless of participants’ fitness history . Whether one is outdoors, or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.
A group of four separate experiments by the same research group showed walking boosts creative ideation in both real time, and shortly after each of the four experiment variations. In the first experiment it was shown that walking increased the creativity of 81% of participants. In the second experiment, an increase in creativity, was still seen when participants were seated after walking. Experiment 3, demonstrated that walking outside prompted the most novel and highly creative thinking, when compared to those sitting inside and out, and walking inside. Walking is believed to promote a free flow of ideas, being a simple and robust solution to increasing both creativity and physical activity 19. Perhaps every workforce should add some walking time?
“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” - Friedrich Nietzsche (1889)
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.
- Watson et al
- Song et al
- Farrell L, et al. 2013
- Murtagh et al., 2015
- Son and Lee. 2001
- Murphy et al 2007
- Kelley et al. 2001
- Cook et al. 1995
- Lewington et al 2002
- Rosenbaum et al 2016
- Erickson et al 2011
- Robertson R, et al. 2012
- Lee et al 1999
- Erickson et al., 2010
- Paillard et al 2015
- Tappen et al 2000
- McCurry et al 2011
- Gondola, 1986, 1987
- Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014
Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.