Technically, you started walking when you were about a year old. And unless you have some type of disability or condition that prevents you from walking, you’re still doing it — as you have practically every day of your life. But most
Americans don’t do enough walking in the course of their daily lives to reap the myriad health benefits it has to offer. This requires a more sustained effort, but it’s totally doable — and the rewards are worth it.
Every year, more and more studies document the benefits of regular exercise. Some experts even claim that if exercise could be bottled, it would be the most prescribed medicine. Below are some reasons to head out the door:
It protects your heart
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, but in many cases, it is preventable. According to one study, a third of all heart attacks and deaths due to heart disease in middle-aged women could be avoided if the women simply walked for exercise.
Harvard researchers followed more than 70,000 women ages 40 to 65 for eight years and found that walkers were less likely to die from heart disease. Those who logged three or more hours a week (or 25 minutes a day) reduced their risk of dying by 35 percent. Even those who were sedentary at the beginning of the study lowered their risk if they started walking during the study.
Walking is equally protective in men, too, according to an analysis that looked at the results of 18 studies involving a total of more than 450,000 men and women. And for both sexes, between five and six miles a week (or three-quarters of a mile a day), even at a leisurely
2-mph pace (that means a mile in 30 minutes) offers protection. At that easy pace, you have to walk about 23 minutes a day to start reaping benefits.
It helps stave off diabetes
Inactivity promotes Type 2 diabetes. Working your muscles more often and making them work harder improves their ability to use insulin and absorb blood sugar (glucose). This puts less stress on your insulin-making cells.
One study found that a 15-minute walk immediately after every meal provided better blood sugar regulation than a single daily 45-minute morning walk. If you already have diabetes, increasing activity throughout the day by 4,000 steps or more can improve levels of HbA1c, a highly sensitive marker of blood sugar, according to a study published in the journal Health Education Research.
It reduces falls and fractures
As you age, falling and breaking a bone can be a serious problem. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of both nonfatal and fatal injuries. Staying active keeps your muscles strong and flexible so you’ll be less likely to take a spill. And weight-bearing activities like walking will keep your bones stronger so you’ll be less likely to break one if you do fall.
It helps lower blood pressure
High blood pressure is a primary risk factor for heart disease and strokes, but walking is an effective way to lower blood pressure, according to a review of
27 studies. In a study from Arizona State
University, 11 prehypertensive adults either walked briskly for 30 minutes every afternoon or did three 10-minute walks — one each in the morning, afternoon and evening — for a total of 30 minutes a day. While both regimens lowered blood pressure, multiple short walks resulted in a lower average blood pressure over 24 hours and reduced the number of spikes throughout the day, compared with taking one longer walk.
It reduces breast cancer risk
More than 70 observational studies have found that physically active women have a lower risk for breast cancer.
In 2013, an American Cancer Society study of more than 70,000 women zeroed in on walking in particular. The results showed that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who walked three or fewer hours a week.
It helps tame a sweet tooth
A 15-minute walk has been shown to curb cravings for chocolate, according to a study from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Another study from the same group found that walking for 15 minutes can also reduce the amount of chocolate you eat in stressful situations.
It improves sleep
A 45-minute morning walk may help you fall asleep faster when bedtime comes, according to research published in the journal Sleep. During the yearlong study, researchers found that post-menopausal women who took five or more morning walks a week fell asleep faster than those who took fewer morning walks or those who walked in the afternoon.
It improves immune function
During a 12-week study of 1,002 men and women, Appalachian State University researchers found that walkers stayed the healthiest. Those who logged at least 20 minutes a day, five times a week, experienced 43 percent fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less.
It can lengthen your life
How would you like to increase your life expectancy by 3.5 years? All it takes is 30 minutes of walking five days a week, according to research that reviewed the findings of six studies that, together, involved more than 650,000 people. As little as 15 minutes a day resulted in almost two extra years. Work up to an hour a day, and you could live more than four years longer.
Medical editor: Lauren E. Elson, M.D.; physical medicine and rehabilitation instructor, Harvard Medical School
Fitness consultant: Michele Stanten; walking coach, certified fitness instructor, American Council on Exercise