Benefits of walking: this study proves that we should all be walking more (and how to)

Posted by for Strong Women

Don’t throw in the towel now that the gyms have re-opened – walking has more benefits than you think. 

Raise your hand if you’re one of the many who found themselves walking a lot more during lockdown? Us too. It was our go-to distraction, a way to break up the mundane work day and step away from our not-so-comfortable makeshift desks, and a way to keep fit with no gyms. But now that we have our weight rooms and our swimming pools and our tennis courts back, it doesn’t mean we should be giving up walking. 

Why? For starters, walking is the most accessible, easiest way to stay fit. That might seem unlikely if you’re into more intense forms of exercise. After all, if you’ve spent half your life at Barry’s Bootcamp (in person or online), walking isn’t going to make much of a difference… Or is it?

Since the 1970s, ‘no pain, no gain’ has been the ever-present motto of trainers and running clubs. If you’re not working at 80% of your overall max, you’re not working hard enough. While that sort of high-intensity training is great for significantly boosting fitness and preparing for races and competitions, it’s not always sustainable. With training hard on a daily basis, you run the risk of injury, fatigue and even a drop off in interest. 

Low impact steady state cardio (LISS), on the other hand, is still great for heart health and you can do it every day. In fact, a 2013 study claimed that walking briskly can help your heart health as much as running. Published in the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, researchers compared data from two studies of 33,060 runners and 15,045 walkers. Walkers experienced greater health benefits than runners: seeing the risk of first-time high blood pressure drop by 7.2%, compared to runners’ 4.2% – while cholesterol risk was cut by 7 % for walkers compared to 4.3% for runners. Both had the same 12 percent cut in risk for first-time diabetes.

Woman on a walk
Benefits of walking: researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31% and cut the risk of dying by 32%

“Walking and running provide an ideal test of the health benefits of moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running because they involve the same muscle groups and the same activities performed at different intensities,” says study leader Dr Paul Williams, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “People are always looking for an excuse not to exercise, but now they have a straightforward choice to run or to walk and invest in their future health.” 

In a report that included findings from multiple studies, researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31% and cut the risk of dying by 32%. These benefits were equally prevalent in men and women and were apparent by covering just 5.5 miles a week at a speed of two miles per hour. If you walk 10,000 steps a day, you’re covering almost five miles a day so you really don’t have to go far at all to reap the cardio protections. People who walked longer distances or walked at a faster pace (or both) resulted in the largest reduction of risk for cardiovascular disease. 

While any form of walking is good, Dr Georgina Stebbings, Senior Lecturer in Sport & Exercise Physiology from the Manchester Metropolitan University, explains that intensity does make a difference: “Ideally, it’ll be intense enough to get you out of breath (i.e. moderate intensity), which could be a short power-walk or a longer, slower paced walk over more difficult terrain”.

“In a society when sedentary/sitting time averages approximately eight hours per day for adults, it’s not only important to be active, but to also reduce the sitting time. So, even if you’re not able to complete moderate intensity walking/activity, simply breaking up prolonged periods of sitting every 30 minutes with light intensity movements/walking is sufficient at keeping blood sugar levels lower throughout the day (which is helpful in staving off diabetes).”

Woman walking in woods
Benefits of walking: In a 2016 Health Survey for England, less than 35% of adults were reported to complete the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week

She points to a 2016 Health Survey for England which estimated that less than 35% of adults manage to complete the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. In order to walk your way to that target, you could go for a 10-minute power walk three times a day – easily achievable when many of us are still working from home and are more able to take a quick break from our desks.

Her point confirms the findings of a 2017 study by the University of Leicester which found that slow walkers were around twice as likely to die of a cardiovascular issue than people who considered themselves to be ‘brisk’ walkers. The study tracked 420,727 healthy adults over a six year period and – after factoring in things like smoking and hours spent watching TV – researchers found that the link between walking pace and heart health was still strong. Professor Tom Yates, lead author of the study and reader in Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Health at the University of Leicester said that this “suggests habitual walking pace is an independent predictor of heart-related death”.

Back in 2018, Public Health England (PHE) and the Royal College of General Practitioners encouraged the nation to incorporate at least 10 minutes of brisk walking into their day, calling it the ‘Active 10’ in order to cut the risk of type II diabetes and other conditions related to inactivity. 

“I’d advise anyone of any age and activity level to fit in at least one 10-minute brisk walk a day as a simple way to get more active, especially those who may be taking medication for a long-term health condition – you will receive even more benefits from walking briskly for 10 minutes or more a day,” Professor Sir Muir Gray, clinical advisor for the Active 10 app and PHE’s One You campaign said at the time.

The Active 10 wasn’t designed to be a leisurely stroll. Although low-impact, power walking is a full-body workout that sculpts arms, legs and core muscles. Benefits also include firing up the metabolism and improving blood circulation, blood pressure and cholesterol. Getting outdoors even for 10 minutes enables you to get a good dose of that hard-to-find vitamin D too.

During lockdown, Diren Kartal – head coach at Project X Training – has been taking to his Instagram Stories to encourage his followers to get up and start their day by hitting 10,000 before breakfast.

“People don’t necessarily have to hit 10,000 steps a day – I just advocate people to move more,” he explains. 

Images: Getty / Unsplash

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on an old Dutchie.

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