You don’t have to walk for hours and hours to reap any benefits – research suggests that just 20 minutes a day is enough to protect your brain, heart and mental health. Sign us up!
Whether it’s a power walk to the station on your way to work, a lunchtime stroll for food or a brief stretch of the legs mid-afternoon, we love a walk. But while running and gymming are firmly in the ‘good for your health’ fitness camp, we often overlook the overwhelming health benefits of walking.
Walking is so bloody good for you. As well as getting us from A-to-B, it can improve just about every part of our health in next to no time. And actually, lots of us already know that. In fact, new research from Columbia suggests that over half of Brits believe green social prescribing – ie doctors making walking in nature part of their treatment – would help improve their physical and mental health
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Why is walking so good for health?
Walking improves brain health
Research from the Washing VA Medical Centre has found that those who walk for two and a half hours a week – 20 minutes a day – are 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who don’t.
In fact, the a release from the American Academy of Neurology has said that for most middle-aged people, “the highest level of fitness can be achieved by walking briskly most days”. The sooner you start, the better chance you have of protecting your health.
It’s great for our hearts
Since the 1970s, ‘no pain, no gain’ has been the ever-present motto of the fitness industry. The idea is that if you’re not pushing yourself to your limits, you’re not working hard enough. While that sort of high-intensity training is great for significantly improving fitness, it’s not always sustainable. Training hard on a daily basis can run the risk of injury, fatigue and even a drop off in interest.
Low impact steady state cardio (LISS), on the other hand, is still great for heart health and you can do it every day. In fact, a 2013 study claimed that walking briskly can help your heart health as much as running.
Published in the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, researchers compared data from two studies of 33,060 runners and 15,045 walkers. Walkers experienced greater health benefits than runners: seeing the risk of first-time high blood pressure drop by 7.2%, compared to 4.2% for runners – while cholesterol risk was cut by 7 % for walkers compared to 4.3% for runners. Both had the same 12% cut in risk for first-time diabetes.
“Walking and running provide an ideal test of the health benefits of moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running because they involve the same muscle groups and the same activities performed at different intensities,” says study leader Dr Paul Williams, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “People are always looking for an excuse not to exercise, but now they have a straightforward choice to run or to walk and invest in their future health.”
Walking can boost our immune systems
Nature walks can strengthen our immune system. A 2021 review found that spending time outdoors can be beneficial in keeping healthy people well and in boosting the immunity of people living with inflammatory conditions. An older study suggested that walking in nature reduces stress which, in turn, boosts immune health.
The study looked at research coming out of Japan, which has found that forest bathing may play a role in fighting cancer. That’s because some plants emit a chemical called phytoncides, which protect them from rot and insects. When we breathe it in, we experience an increase in the level of ‘natural killer’ cells which form part of our immune response to cancer.
“When we walk in a forest or park, our levels of white blood cells increase and it also lowers our pulse rate, blood pressure and level of the stress hormone cortisol,” said the lead author. White blood cells are part of our immune system that protects the body from infection.
It can increase our lifespan
In a report that included findings from multiple studies, researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31% and cut the risk of dying by 32%. These benefits were equally prevalent in men and women and were apparent by covering just 5.5 miles a week at a speed of two miles per hour.
If you walk 10,000 steps a day, you’re covering almost five miles a day so you really don’t have to go far at all to reap the cardio protections. People who walked longer distances or walked at a faster pace (or both) resulted in the largest reduction of risk for cardiovascular disease.
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Do you need to walk at a certain speed to reap the benefits?
While any form of walking is good, Dr Georgina Stebbings, senior lecturer in sport & exercise physiology from the Manchester Metropolitan University, explains that intensity does make a difference: “Ideally, it’ll be intense enough to get you out of breath (i.e. moderate intensity), which could be a short power-walk or a longer, slower paced walk over more difficult terrain”.
“In a society when sedentary/sitting time averages approximately eight hours per day for adults, it’s not only important to be active, but to also reduce the sitting time. So, even if you’re not able to complete moderate intensity walking/activity, simply breaking up prolonged periods of sitting every 30 minutes with light intensity movements/walking is sufficient at keeping blood sugar levels lower throughout the day (which is helpful in staving off diabetes).”
How to walk more without making an effort
She points to a 2016 Health Survey for England which estimated that less than 35% of adults manage to complete the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. In order to walk your way to that target, you could go for a 10-minute power walk three times a day – easily achievable when many of us are still working from home and are more able to take a quick break from our desks.
Take one brisk 10-minute walk a day
Her point confirms the findings of a 2017 study by the University of Leicester which found that slow walkers were around twice as likely to die of a cardiovascular issue than people who considered themselves to be ‘brisk’ walkers. The study tracked 420,727 healthy adults over a six year period and – after factoring in things like smoking and hours spent watching TV – researchers found that the link between walking pace and heart health was still strong.
Professor Tom Yates, lead author of the study and reader in physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health at the University of Leicester said that this “suggests habitual walking pace is an independent predictor of heart-related death”.
Back in 2018, Public Health England (PHE) and the Royal College of General Practitioners encouraged the nation to incorporate at least 10 minutes of brisk walking into their day, calling it the ‘Active 10’ in order to cut the risk of type II diabetes and other conditions related to inactivity.
“I’d advise anyone of any age and activity level to fit in at least one 10-minute brisk walk a day as a simple way to get more active, especially those who may be taking medication for a long-term health condition – you will receive even more benefits from walking briskly for 10 minutes or more a day,” Professor Sir Muir Gray, clinical advisor for the Active 10 app and PHE’s One You campaign said at the time.
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The Active 10 wasn’t designed to be a leisurely stroll. Although low-impact, power walking is a full-body workout that sculpts arms, legs and core muscles. Benefits also include firing up the metabolism and improving blood circulation, blood pressure and cholesterol. Getting outdoors even for 10 minutes enables you to get a good dose of that hard-to-find vitamin D too.
During lockdown, Diren Kartal – head coach at Project X Training – has been taking to his Instagram Stories to encourage his followers to get up and start their day by hitting 10,000 steps before breakfast.
“People don’t necessarily have to hit 10,000 steps a day – I just advocate people to move more,” he explains.
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