Around six million years ago, early humans began walking upright on two feet. It took another four million years for our ancestors to completely forgo walking on all fours, evolving stronger knees, a curved spine, longer leg bones, and better hip support, all of which allowed us to become truly bipedal.
You could say that walking is deeply woven into the fabric of our being, an intrinsic activity that has been written in our genes over thousands of millennia. We have walked more and longer as a species than any other mode of animal or machine-powered transportation combined. Put in this context, it’s not hard to see why walking is so good for us.
Hippocrates, a Greek physician who has been credited as the father of modern medicine, said in the 5th century BC: “Walking is man’s best medicine” – and this sentiment still holds true today.
Although Hippocrates made his proclamation on walking for health more than 2,400 years ago, it has taken a battery of scientific studies to prove that, yes, he was absolutely right.
6 Reasons You Need To Start Walking More
Walking Promotes Overall Health
A meta-analysis of several studies, involving 459,833 participants in total, found that the simple act of walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by 31% and lowered the risk of death from all causes by 32%. The benefits were evident even in individuals who walked as little as 5 miles per week and those who walked at a leisurely (two miles per hour) pace. But the individuals who saw the greatest protection from disease were people who walked longer distances at a brisk clip.
Walking strengthens bones, improves balance, regulates blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, tones muscles, and improves sleep. It also lowers the risk for breast cancer, treats chronic lower back pain, and can prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Walking for Physical Fitness
Walking is a low-impact way to achieve a moderate level of physical exercise. Each step you take triggers the release of energy-boosting hormones and feel-good brain chemicals. Your heart rate rises from around 70 beats to 100 – 140 beats per minute, pumping more blood and oxygen to your muscles. As you walk, you begin to burn 5 calories per minute (as opposed to one calorie per minute when seated), and this calorie burning boost endures for up to one hour afterwards, even as you rest.
Most adults, by the time they reach middle age, gain approximately 2.2 pounds per year. And those extra pounds would add up to a 160 pound person weighing in at 204 pounds after 20 years! To examine the impact of walking on age-related weight gain, a 2009 study followed 4,995 men and women for 15 years and found that the more walking the participants did, the less weight they gained.
The amount of calories burned when walking depends on a person’s weight and the walking distance covered. The heavier the individual, the more calories are burned per mile. For example, a 160 pound person burns around 105 calories per mile while a person weighing 220 pounds would burn about 135 calories per mile.
Walking Keeps us Young
Aging and inflammation are closely intertwined, and some scientists believe that we can theoretically slow or stop the aging process (and age-related diseases) if we could only prevent pro-inflammatory molecules from causing our bodies to decline.
Any physical activity that bumps up your heart rate has been shown to reduce low-grade inflammation associated with aging. Tracking 4,289 middle-aged men and women over the span of 10 years, those who engaged in at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise each day (or 2 ½ hours per week) had lower levels of proteins in their bodies that cause inflammation, as compared with others who rarely exercised.
Walking – as well as other forms of moderate exercise – can even lengthen our lifespan. According to the American Heart Association, for every hour we walk briskly, we are adding an extra two hours to our life expectancy.
Walking is Uplifting
Taking a 30 minute walk each day has the manifold effect of lifting mood, increasing energy, easing stress, and boosting self-esteem, according to a study published in 2015. Additionally, daily walks had the dual function of alleviating low mood, and, when kept up in the longer term, prevented the symptoms of depression from returning.
While it is not completely understood why physical activity has such a positive impact on emotional well-being, getting the heart pumping and the blood flowing prompts the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins that can help make us feel better. Getting outside, too, provides the opportunity to socialize with others, distract us from our troubles, gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Walking in nature, rather than urban environments, provides an even greater mood-boosting effect.
Walking Enhances Brain Function
Whether you would like to ward off cognitive decline or simply enhance your existing mental abilities, walking every day can accomplish both of these feats. Better than resistance training and lifting weights, walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory and learning. It also has been shown to improve brain structure and functioning, strengthening the connection between neural networks that are involved with planning, scheduling, strategizing, and multitasking.
And walking doesn’t just benefit analytical left-brain types of tasks, it also confers an advantage for the creative set. Regardless of whether the walking occurred indoors or out, participants in the study were more inspired and inventive during and after a short walk, coming up with 60% more ideas than those who stayed put.
Walking is Practically Free
Aside from the will to do it and a pair of good sneakers, taking a walk each day won’t cost you a thing. There’s no need to purchase special equipment or a membership at the gym. In fact, getting into a walking routine could even save you money on expensive prescriptions and visits to the doctor.
How to Add More Steps Into Your Day
The origin of the 10,000 steps per day target began with a brand of pedometer sold in Japan in the 1960s – the “manpo-kei” which translates to “10,000 steps meter”. What may have started as marketing gimmick has since been upheld as a worthwhile walking goal by fitness enthusiasts and medical professionals.
It’s important to note that 10,000 steps per day – the equivalent of about five miles – isn’t a magic number and most government agencies and health advocates agree that any amount of physical activity, over and above what you normally do, is leaps and bounds better than none. So while 10,000 steps is a nice, round number, it’s not absolute and rigid. If you can do 8,000 steps per day – great! If you can walk 18,000 steps, that’s even better!
1. Invest in a Pedometer
The first step in keeping track of your daily movements is to invest in a good quality pedometer or activity tracker. Wear it for a few days to gauge how many steps you take without even trying, and use this number as a starting point. Once you set a goal (more on that below), the pedometer can be an excellent motivator, providing you with an accurate reading that will push you to walk those extra steps.
Editors Note: Since investing in a Fitbit Charge, my walking has increased dramatically. The Fitbit vibrates to let you know when you pass 10,000 steps for the day. It also emails you as you reach certain milestones. Just today I was informed that I had now walked the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef since I’ve owned my Fitbit. If you want to increase your walking, this is the best investment you can make.
2. Set Realistic Goals
The average American adult walks about 5,117 steps per day, just a touch above what is classed as sedentary. Increasing your step count in smaller increments is the best way to realize your goals without becoming discouraged. Once you’ve clocked your normal walking rate with a pedometer, try increasing your daily step count by 500 each week. If you’re starting out at 5,000 steps per day, bumping it up by 500 each week translates to the full 10,000 steps in 10 weeks.
3. Walk Right
No matter your age, walking is an incredibly safe form of physical activity which carries a very low risk of exercise-related injury. Even though you walk every day, walking for fitness and health should be somewhat mindful. Here are some tips:
- Keep your head up and looking forward, with your chin parallel to the ground
- Tighten your abdominal muscles gently with every stride
- Freely swing your arms, keeping your elbows slightly bent
- Maintain an upright posture – back is straight and not hunched forward or tilted backward
- Each step you take has you rolling your foot from heel to toe
- Try to keep your shoulders and neck as relaxed as possible.
4. Break it up Throughout the Day
Since 10,000 steps is about five miles, and generally you can cover one mile in around 20 minutes, that means you’ll need to devote approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes to walking each day to meet this goal.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account the number of steps you would take in an average day anyway so once you’ve determined your baseline steps with your pedometer, you can try to break up the extra steps in 20 minute chunks or some combination thereof. For example, if you are already walking 5,000 steps each day, you’ll just need to set aside 50 minutes to achieve the total 10,000 step count; split it up by taking two 25 minute walks during your lunch hour and after dinner.
5. Be Intentionally Inefficient
Every extra step you take really does add up! Here are some ideas on how to be less efficient for better fitness:
- Lugging a pile of groceries inside? Load up one or two bags at a time and take a few more trips.
- Always take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
- Park farther away from your destination.
- Feeling pensive? Why not pace while you think?
- Use the restroom at the office (or in your home) that is the farthest away.
- When watching TV, remove the batteries from the remote control so you have to get up and manually change the channel.
- Get off the bus one or two stops early.
- Meander through your home when you’re brushing your teeth or chatting on the phone.
6. Walk with a Buddy
Walking with your partner, a friend, or canine companion can provide support, motivation, and camaraderie that you can definitely use to work toward your 10,000 step goal. Aside from spending some quality time with a loved one, there’s an opportunity to add a little friendly competition to the mix and make your daily walks way more fun.
7. Get off the Beaten Path
Walking the same circuit over and over again is a recipe for boredom. Keep it interesting by switching up your routes regularly. Seek out new places to explore that you might not have realized are right in your own backyard. Check out MapMyWalk when you need inspiration.
8. Be Prepared
Drinking plenty of water – before, after, and during your walks – will keep you energized, fuel your muscles, and aid in weight loss. Purchase some comfortable walking shoes that have good arch support, flexible soles, and a firm heel. And always wear bright or reflective clothing if you tend to take your walks at night.
You don’t necessarily need to tough it out on cold and rainy days, either. Try taking a few laps around the mall or use a workout DVD like Leslie Sandsone’s Walk Away the Pounds.
9. Challenge Yourself
Once you get into a daily walking regime, you may find that it’s not as challenging as it once was. You can up the intensity of your walks to kick up your heart rate a notch or two by walking on hilly terrain, increasing your walking pace, walking in sand or snow, strapping on wrist or ankle weights, and taking the 1-mile walking test to beat your best time.
10. Reward Yourself
Although walking should theoretically be the reward unto itself, it never hurts to give yourself something a bit more tangible when you meet a goal. Go ahead and give yourself a treat – see a movie, drink a glass of nice wine, soak in a Himalayan salt bath, or just take a nap.