"Walking is man’s best medicine." –Hippocrates
Earlier this year, I began a daily walking program in earnest after researching all of the many health benefits that walking offers. I literally walked my way right out of a chronic low back pain episode. However, it is what I have learned through the experience of walking that has been most astounding.
Hidden Benefits of Walking
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the cardiovascular health benefits of walking – lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, blood pressure and sugar levels, and enhancing circulation and lymphatic exchange. Likewise, most people are familiar with the protective health benefits of walking, such as enhanced metabolism and weight loss, increased bone density, reduced risk of breast and colon cancer, diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, and increased longevity.
Lesser known benefits of walking include:
• Enhanced Mental Acuity
• Relief from Stress, Depression and/or Anxiety
• Strengthening of Core/Relief of Low Back Pain
• Improved Balance and Coordination
• Better Sleep
• Increased Sexual Desire and Satisfaction
Scientists have recently found that regular brisk walking can even activate genes involved in promoting fat metabolism, and targeting the all important abdominal fat in particular.
So What Makes Walking So Uniquely Beneficial?
In a word, oxygen. Walking is an aerobic exercise that – when done correctly – simultaneously floods the body tissues with ideal amounts of oxygen and other nutrients while eliminating cellular toxins and wastes through lymphatic stimulation. This “cellular breathing” happens for an extended period of time without creating undue stress on mechanical body parts or cellular energy systems.
Think about it. When is the last time you sat around deep breathing for thirty minutes? If you did, how long would it take for you to feel lightheaded? Walking creates the perfect amount of exertion to use up excess oxygen without overwhelming cellular detoxification potential. Think of walking like stoking the fire in your fireplace. Just like a fire, you are oxidizing fuel – only at a reduced rate. When you bring in more oxygen, you increase the rate of metabolism and burn more fuel, and you do so more efficiently.
The Key to Maximizing Benefits is to Focus on Your Breathing
As a young long distance runner, I learned the importance of rhythmic breathing to maintain adequate oxygen levels and avoid the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. Marathon runners train for countless miles to enhance their body’s cellular energy potential so they can keep up with the rigorous demands of a long race.
Fortunately, you don’t have to become a marathon runner to maximize all the incredible benefits of walking. Walk at a brisk enough pace to take four steps on the inhale and four steps on the exhale. This will force you to breathe deeply but naturally – in through the nose, out through the mouth. When you climb a steep hill (hopefully your walking course does contain at least two long hills), switch to three steps per breath to compensate for the increased work load. When you top the hill, continue with the faster breathing until you recover (usually a tenth of a mile or so for me) and then resume the four step pace.
This breathing strategy works very well for running too, with a two step breathing pace added for sprinting. Older walkers that walk with a slower gait may need to pace themselves with three steps per breath and switch to two steps on hills.
How Much is Enough?
According to a recent U.S. Surgeon General report on physical activity and health in America, more than half of the U.S. population does not participate regularly in any type of exercise. Most exercise experts recommend thirty minutes of activity per week day. Taking 10,000 steps over the course of a day is roughly equivalent to 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise.
A diabetes prevention program for people who are overweight showed that walking 150 minutes a week can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60 percent. Women in the Nurse’s Health Study (72,488 female nurses) who walked three hours or more per week reduced their risk of a heart attack or other coronary event by 35% compared with women who did not walk.
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis put a group of men and women, ages 60 to 70, on a nine to twelve month exercise program that consisted of walking or jogging. On average, the subjects exercised 45 minutes several times a week. By the end of the study, both the men and the women had lost weight, and primarily from the abdominal area. However, in most studies of overweight people who progressively increased their periods of walking over a year’s time, no weight loss occurred until their walking exceeded 30 minutes a day.
It appears that 30 minutes a day is the minimum that will provide you with all the benefits of walking except weight loss. Every minute added will bring about more weight loss until you eventually reach your ideal body weight. I have targeted a minimum of 45 minutes for my walks, although I will sometimes take off for ten minutes or so just to break up the tension caused by prolonged periods of working at the computer.
The following tips will help you get the most out of your walking program:
• Get the right gear – Choose shoes with proper arch support, a firm heel and thick flexible soles to cushion your feet and absorb shock. If you walk after dark, wear bright colors or reflective tape for visibility. Don’t use dumbbells; they will only stress your joints. Walking poles look funny but they do add a significant upper body workout and help you climb hills.
• Walk alone or with a committed partner, no distractions, limit talking, focus on your breathing. Breathe in fresh air; breathe out stress, negative thoughts and emotions. Once you master the breathing patterns, focus on prayer and enjoying God’s presence. Just as He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, He loves to walk with us.
• Choose your course carefully – Walk outdoors if possible for fresh air and Vitamin D. Avoid paths with cracked sidewalks, potholes, low-hanging limbs or uneven turf. Once you build up your strength and stamina, consider trail walking as it increases calories burned by up to 80%.
• Warm up – Walk slowly for first five minutes to warm up your muscles and prepare your body for exercise.
• In Summer, walk early or late to beat the heat. Remember to hydrate. In Winter, cover your ears and hands and wear layers.
• Pay Attention to Posture – Keep your head level as you walk and look straight ahead. Bend your elbows slightly and keep them close to your sides. Swing your arms back and forth as you walk. Let your heel strike the ground first, then roll from the heel to the ball of your foot. This will help you avoid shin splints.
• Stretch – After you cool down, gently stretch your muscles.
Remember, the faster, farther and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits! Researchers have found a remarkably consistent association between faster walking speed and longer life. So begin your walking program today and claim your happier, leaner, and healthier future!