While HIIT workouts and gym memberships may seem like the obvious health and fitness choice, they're not for everyone. The good news is that there's something you do every day that can provide just as much of a boost to your health.
We're talking about walking!
As our smart network of GPs will tell you, a regular walk can be a real life-saver. With summer giving us plenty of long, sunny days to enjoy the great outdoors, here’s a look at what walking can do for your health.
1. A healthy heart
Exercise is good for your heart and it seems walking could be the best option of all. Specifically, there’s research to suggest that it could have a bigger impact than running.
Research published by the American Heart Association in 2013 tracked the heart health of 48,000 people over six years. It found that those who regularly took a brisk walk cut their risk of heart disease by 9.3%, compared with just 4.5% for those who favoured running.
The same research revealed that walking was also better at tackling high cholesterol and high blood pressure. High cholesterol risk was down 7% for walkers, with just 4.3% for runners, while similar results were recorded for high blood pressure.
And there’s more! The Stroke Association suggests that taking a 30-minute walk every day can lower your risk of strokes by as much as 27%. Plenty of incentive to get your walking boots on.
2. Lose weight
You know that ‘one weird trick’ to losing belly fat that you keep reading about? Well, it doesn’t exist.
The closest you’ll get is walking, which isn’t really a ‘trick’, but is particularly useful for dealing with the fat around your belly, otherwise known as ‘visceral fat’. This forms a layer around your vital organs and affects their ability to work properly, while it’s linked to a wide range of health issues from diabetes to dementia.
The key to losing weight is to burn more calories than you’re currently putting in. Exactly how many calories you burn will depend on how fast you walk and how much you weigh to begin with.
You may have read that 10,000 steps per day is the ideal amount for someone looking to lose weight. This is about five miles, so you’re sure to shift some of your unwanted timber. This will obviously increase if you’re walking uphill, as it’s a more intense activity.
3. Reduce risk of diabetes
Half an hour seems to be the magic number when it comes to walking. Studies have shown that a daily 30-minute walk can cut diabetes risk by up to 60% and improve your blood sugar control.
Walking to and from work would cover this for many people. If you live too far away to walk the full distance, consider parking a little further away from the office, or getting off the bus a couple of stops early.
4. Protect your brain against dementia
As we get older, our brains shrink. If that sounds a bit scary, you can use walking to slow the process down. That magic total of 30 minutes is back again, as a 2013 study showed that three half-hour walks a week caused the areas of the brain associated with memory and processing info to increase in size.
Known as the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, they grew between 2% and 3% in test subjects, thereby slowing down the natural ageing process. It’s worth noting that you’ll get this benefit even if you’re not losing as much weight as you’d hoped through walking.
5. Toned muscles
We need to qualify this one. Walking is mainly a cardiovascular exercise, so walking on a flat road is unlikely to build or tone your muscles. However, hill walking has the potential to improve a range of muscles, especially your glutes, hamstrings and calves.
Improving your muscle-to-fat ratio can also help speed up your metabolism, as muscle uses up calories much faster than fat.
6. Get plenty of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and sunlight is one of our best sources. We get most benefit between March and September, so a summer stroll is the best way to get what you need.
It takes longer to burn calories walking than it does through running, which means you’re likely to spend more time outdoors. If you usually exercise at the gym, you’re not seeing any daylight, so walking is a good way to address this.
Of course, you mustn’t forget to wear a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF if you’re planning on spending a long time outside.
7. Boost circulation
As your heart health improves, it’s better equipped to pump blood to the parts of your body where it’s needed. This includes areas that are relatively far away from the heart, such as your legs and feet. A strong heart helps every muscle in your body get the oxygen it needs to function properly.
Poor circulation can result in a condition called peripheral artery disease. Symptoms of this include painful cramps in your leg muscles, due to the fact they’re not getting as much blood as they should.
Walking can improve your circulation by preventing your arteries from becoming blocked, which is one of the main factors that has a negative impact on blood flow.
8. Improve your mood
Exercise is known to improve your mental health, due to the fact that your body releases serotonin - the ‘happy hormone’ - in response to physical activity. This is why it’s regularly recommended for people suffering from depression, anxiety or stress.
It doesn’t seem to matter where you walk, either. While research suggests a stunning hilltop view or a stroll through a wildlife park can improve your mood, a 2016 study from Iowa State University proved that even walking somewhere dull won’t take away from the psychological boost you get from exercising.
9. Sleep better
Walking to lose weight has many benefits and better sleep is another one to add to the list.
That’s because being overweight is one of the main causes of a condition known as sleep apnoea, in which your airways close up during sleep and your brain is forced to wake you up so that you can continue breathing normally.
10. Build strong bones
When you’re young, it’s important to exercise regularly in order to increase bone density and strength. The work you put in becomes even more important after the age of 35, when bones start to become weaker.
Higher impact stuff is most useful for your bones, so a gentle stroll won’t provide this benefit. Your walk needs to be brisk and intense in order to help your bones, so you should feel your heart rate increase.
Changing direction can help too, such as walking backwards or sideways. Just be sure to watch where you’re going!
11. Care for your joints
Walking puts pressure on your joints. This is a good thing, as if you don’t use them regularly, they’ll deteriorate.
Unlike muscles, joints don’t receive any blood from your body. However, they still need oxygen and nutrients to function at their best and each step you take helps to achieve this. Walking circulates the synovial fluid that surrounds your joints, preventing friction between bones that could lead to arthritis later in life.
12. Curb cravings
The temporary sugar rush provided by an unhealthy snack can be quite addictive, which is why it’s hard not to go back for more. Exercise can create that same feeling of satisfaction and elevated mood.
It follows that a good walk can make you feel so great that you won’t need to reach for a chocolate bar or packet of crisps.
13. Easy to work into your day
It’s not always practical to get to the gym. You might have a long journey home from work, or want to spend time with your kids in the evenings. The good thing about walking is it’s a form of exercise that you can naturally fit into your day. It could include your journey to work, or you could go for a walk during your lunch hour.
Rather than feel guilty about skipping your workout, try to fit around 10,000 steps into your daily routine and use walking as your main method of keeping fit.
14. All ages can do it
Many forms of exercise become more challenging as you get older. Playing sport, lifting weights and even running can cause more strain than our ageing bodies can handle.
That’s not the case with walking, where you can choose how gentle you want your exercise to be.
15. Reduced risk of injury
In theory at least, you’re less likely to injure yourself out walking than playing a contact sport. You can control the intensity of your exercise to suit your abilities and there’s less risk of an impact injury, a fall or a pulled muscle - provided you’re watching where you’re going, of course!Get more health advice