Pandemic restrictions have led many people to start walk more, often because they have little else to do or simply to move around. Walking workouts have even become popular, with many “challenges” and exercise videos available online.
Walking is good for you, there’s no doubt about it. As a way to add physical activity to your life, it has many benefits. There is a very low barrier to entry, which means that almost anyone, regardless of age or ability, can start walking regularly as a form of exercise.
Walking has clear benefits for keeping our bodies functioning as we age, improving cardiovascular health, help lose fat and maintain muscle massand also helping to maintain bone density. And these benefits are true for people of all ages. It seems the more active you are as a young adult affect overall health and (in rats, at least) physical function of bones and muscles later in life.
Walking outdoors is also associated with mental health benefits, particularly if you are able to walk in parks or green spaces. Such a “green exercise” can improve Mental Health and well-being, reduce symptoms of depressionand lower blood pressure to a greater degree than a similar urban exercise.
These effects are so strong that walking on a treadmill in a sterile laboratory environment, but watching a TV showing green spaces, can improve stress responses and improve self-esteem and mood compared to looking at scenes of urban built environments.
How many steps?
But how many steps are necessary? Although we’re often told to aim for 10,000 steps a day, that number isn’t really evidence-based. In a study of 16,741 older women (mean age 72), people who walk less than 2,000 steps per day had the highest risk of death from many different causes, such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. People who walked more were less likely to die from any cause.
This effect plateaued at around 7,500 steps, suggesting (at least in this population of older women) that activity beyond this provided no additional mortality benefit. Simply put, walking more likely helps you live longer, but 10,000 steps was no different than 8,000 steps. Similar results are observed in adults over 40, with a plateau in the effectiveness of increasing the number of steps somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 steps.
Another factor to consider is walking pace. As intuitive as this may sound, it’s worth pointing out that walking faster is better for you than walking slowly. In a recent randomized controlled trial, 12 months of walking five times a week for 50 minutes at low speeds did not improve measures of fitness, whereas walking at faster speeds did. (The researchers used a personalized measure for each person — so “fast” versus “slow” depended on each individual.)
Walking speed is also a predictor of mortality in the elderly. People who walk more slowly are much more likely to die within the next 14 years from any cause than those who walk at a faster pace.
Is walking enough?
But while walking is good for your health, it’s not a magic cure for everything. For even greater benefits, consider adding both higher intensity exercises and strengthening exercises as recommended by the World Health Organization and NHS England.
This should include vigorous, challenging, and quick movements that make your heart beat faster and make you out of breath, such as running or biking up hills, playing sports, or climbing stairs. Again, intensity is at stake here. So, although walking is good for cardiovascular fitness, running is bettereven if you still only use similar amounts of calories on a short run compared to a longer walk.
Muscle-strengthening exercises, like weightlifting, are also great for building muscle mass and strength at any age. These will help maintain muscle mass and function as you age, and are associated with a reduced incidence of chronic diseases.
It is important to note that the losses of muscle mass and function begin between the ages of 30 and 40. So exercising while you’re younger isn’t just good for you now, but could help your health and function decades later.
Instead of counting steps, the World Health Organization suggests people think about ‘minutes of activity’ and what people should achieve at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise if you prefer. Moderate-intensity activity is about six out of ten on your personal intensity scale – so things like light sports, brisk walking or dancing.
Activity trackers can also help you keep tabs on how many minutes of daily activity you have. Most smart phones have built-in apps and many can be downloaded for free.
So, does walking make you feel good? Yes. Do you need to walk 10,000 steps a day? Probably not, but it won’t hurt you if you do. If you’re trying to maximize your health benefits by being more active, consider adding other types of exercise alongside lighter activities like walking that challenge your fitness and strength.