Most of us instinctively know walking makes us feel better. With restrictions in place, many of us are finding solace (and wellbeing) in our daily walk. But is walking enough to keep us fit? And how long do you need to walk to get the health benefits?
The good news is, we don’t have to hike into the hills to experience the health benefits of walking. Just ten minutes of this good stuff can make a difference to our health and our happiness.
According to the Harvard Medical School, “The simple activity of walking has so many powerful health benefits. Done correctly, it can be the key to losing weight, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and boosting your memory, as well as reducing your risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and more.”
In terms of how much you need… well, it depends on your goal.
Do you want to lift your mood, prevent disease, reduce stress, improve fitness, strengthen your muscles or maintain a healthy body weight? Are you happy just to survive, or do you want to thrive?
Walking to lift your mood – Strolling from 5 to 30 minutes on the footpath.
When you’re feeling a bit flat or a bit meh … walking does wonders for your mood. Within 5 minutes of lacing up your shoes and heading out the front door, your limbic system, which is the part of your brain makes you feel happier, is activated. Within 10 minutes you’re starting to feel a whole lot better and by 20 minutes the world will feel a whole lot brighter.
Walking to prevent disease – Walking for 30 minutes every day
Research from the World Health Organisation shows walking just 30 minutes a day reduces your chance of getting illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia, depression, some cancers and poor mental health by up to 40%.
Walking to reduce stress – Walk around the block or around the shops for 10 – 30 minutes
If you’re having one of those days … where nothings going right and your stress levels are building up … just head out the door and walk. If you can get to green or blue space you’ll get even more benefit, but just the action of moving will help reduce your cortisol and give you some happy hormones.
Walking to improve fitness – Walk a lot and puff a little every day
If you want to improve your fitness and quality of life, to live healthier, happier and longer, to have boundless energy and fall in love with where your body can take you, you need to move a lot and puff a little every day. In recent years, scientists have recommended we walk 10,000 steps a day for general health and wellbeing. However, this measure doesn’t recognise the quality of your steps. Strolling 10,000 steps along a flat footpath has fewer health benefits than hiking 5,000 steps up and down hills. When you add in the puffing, you’ll also improve your cardiovascular fitness and your muscular strength.
Walking to optimise your immunity – Walking for 20 – 30 minutes a day
The Harvard Medical School says walking is a great way to boost your immune function, which can help protect you from many illnesses. A study of over 1,000 adults found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder.
Walking for longevity – Walk 30 – 60 minutes a day including hills and stairs
For longevity, 4,400 steps has been shown to reduce your chance of dying by 44% when compared to walking only 2,700 steps a day. Any walking is better than none. Harvard also suggest that most of us will get 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day doing strolling around the house, going out for a coffee, or grabbing a few groceries. But if we walk 8,000 steps a day we might live longer than if we walk just 4,000 steps per day.
Some scientists also suggest that walking speed doesn’t seem to matter much for longevity. Those who walk 12,000 steps a day may live even longer than those who do 8,000 but the added benefit is small.
Walking to strengthen your muscles – Walk 30 minutes on hills and stairs with a backpack
This is the one many of us are missing in lockdown. Strengthening your muscles requires resistance, and your body weight can provide this resistance. However as you get stronger, you’ll need to add extra weight to your backpack to increase your leg and bum strength. Undulating and hilly hikes are great for leg strength. You can also add bodyweight exercises such as squats and lunges at intervals throughout your walk to build muscle strength.
Walking to maintain a healthy body weight – Walk 30 – 60 minutes a day including hills and stairs
Any walking is good for health but if you want to maintain a healthy body weight, more walking is better than less. Aim for 30 – 60 minutes per day and include hills and stairs.
How optimise the health benefits of walking
Duration (how long you walk for) is only one of the ways to measure the health benefits of walking. Frequency and intensity are also important.
There’s nothing more therapeutic than a long walk in the woods. On the weekends, give yourself a treat with a full or half day hike in nature. Aim for 4 – 5km per hour, which is a moderate pace where you can talk and talk comfortably.
If you’re busy, you’ll get more bang for your buck by increasing the intensity of your walking, by walking fast, say 6 – 7 km per hour, and/or walking up and down hills, stairs, ramps or soft sand. This can be done in 10 minute bursts, so try ten minutes at sunrise, ten minutes at lunch and ten minutes at sunset. For more on this check out Dr Michael Mosley’s tips.
Here’s the kicker … daily walking is the best medicine, so walking every day is great if you want to flourish. It’s better to build up your duration and intensity slowly and consistently, than to push yourself too hard and throw in the towel. Walking should be a joy, so find what feels good and do it daily. Some days you’ll have boundless energy, others you might feel a little more flat. Getting out and moving is what matters.
Any walking is better than none, and more walking is better than less. If you’re struggling with motivation, wild women have discovered that you need to get yourself a buddy, and/or get yourself a goal. Then start with little steps and gradually build up to higher duration, frequency and intensity.
Not only will you improve your mood and health, but you’ll also boost your immunity to prevent chronic disease and support your health. Recent research suggests that regular physical activity, such as walking, is associated with a reduced risk for COVID-19, as well as improved quality of life, so that’s another compelling reason to get yourself walking.
If you want to flourish, to live life to the full, fully present and energised with a spring in your step every day, you might want more. Many people find that for the mental health benefits alone, walking twice a day does wonders for their mood.