Lesser Known Walking Benefits
Walking as a form of exercise is easier on the joints than running, but offers many similar benefits if the duration of the walk is extended to roughly double that of a conversation-pace run. Walking is relaxing, equipment-free and nearly everyone can do it. It does not match the caloric cost or cardiovascular intensity of running, cycling or swimming, but over a one- or two-hour duration, walking can provide a considerable fat burn as well as a very good core, pelvic, thigh and calf muscle workout.
Harvard Medical School reports that walking for just two and a half hours a week can cut your risk of heart disease by 30%. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer. And walking lowers blood pressure as well as cholesterol.
Walking also builds ankle and metatarsal strength for improved balance and agility. It strengthens the muscles surrounding the knee, making it an excellent choice on off days to better prepare runners for the heavy pounding of hard training days while staving off patellofemoral syndrome. Over time, there is some evidence that walking can relieve low back pain.
In a 2010 study of healthy college students, walking measured up quite well to elliptical training—though the latter is even easier on the joints due to it being a significantly less load-bearing form of exercise. The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study that found walking causes 112% of a person’s body weight to strike the ground with every step, compared to only 73% in elliptical training.
The students were asked to complete two quarter-hour workout sessions: one walking on a treadmill, the other on an elliptical machine. They were told to maintain a challenging pace that was nevertheless sustainable without deteriorating over the course of each session, i.e., roughly a 4 or 5 on a 10-point intensity scale. Energy consumption was monitored, and it was discovered that this remained the same no matter which machine the subjects were using.
You can, of course, pick up the intensity on an elliptical to deliver a workout more akin to running, but when intensity is bridled back, the energy expenditure of elliptical training matches that of walking—with walking being the better choice to increase bone mineral density.
Five surprising benefits of walking
Harvard Health Publications recently composed a list of lesser known benefits of regular walking. It contains a few surprises.
1. Walking counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes. Harvard researchers looked at 32 obesity-promoting genes in over 12,000 people to determine how much these genes actually contribute to body weight. They then discovered that, among the study participants who walked briskly for about an hour a day, the effects of those genes were cut in half.
2. Walking curbs cravings for sweets. Two studies from the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk can ease the desire for chocolate, as well as actually reduce the amount of chocolate people eat in stressful situations. Newer research confirms that walking can reduce cravings and intake of a variety of sugary snacks.
3. Walking reduces breast cancer risk. Researchers already know that physical activity in general lowers the risk of breast cancer. But an American Cancer Society study that looked specifically at walking found that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or fewer per week. Even more notable, walking provided this protection even for the women with breast cancer risk factors like being overweight or using supplemental hormones.
4. Walking eases arthritic pain. Several studies have found that walking reduces arthritis-related pain, and that walking five to six miles a week can even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place. Walking is protective of the hip and knee joints in particular—the ones especially vulnerable to osteoarthritis—by lubricating them and, as noted above, strengthening the surrounding muscles.
5. Walking boosts immune function. A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least five 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.