How Walking Benefits Your Health and Longevity
- Inactivity is the fourth biggest killer of adults worldwide, responsible for 9 percent of premature deaths. Walking more, ideally daily, can go a long way toward reducing this risk
- Walking for 20 to 25 minutes per day has been found to add anywhere from three to seven years to your life span. Smokers may also increase their life span by nearly four years by walking regularly
- Walking can be tremendously beneficial for those struggling with chronic diseases such as obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease
- Walking has also been shown to lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, hormonal imbalances, arthritis, PMS, thyroid disorders, fatigue, varicose veins and constipation
- British research suggests that when it comes to weight management, regular walking can be just as beneficial, or more, than working out in a gym
By Dr. Mercola
While a regimented fitness routine is certainly part of a healthy lifestyle, what you do outside the gym is equally important. Most adults spend 10 hours or more each day sitting, and research1,2 shows this level of inactivity cannot be counteracted with a workout at the end of the day. To maintain health, you really need mild but near-continuous movement throughout your waking hours.
One strategy that has been shown to have a positive impact is simply to stand up more. Increasing your daily walking is another key strategy that pays significant dividends, both short term and long term. According to the World Health Organization, inactivity is the fourth biggest killer of adults worldwide, responsible for 9 percent of premature deaths,3 and walking more could go a long way toward reducing this risk.
Walking Produces Beneficial Biochemical Changes in Your Body
The short video above reviews what happens in your body while walking. For starters, when you take your first few steps, your body releases chemicals that give your body a quick boost of energy. Once you get going, your heart rate will increase, from about 70 to about 100 beats per minute. This boost in blood flow will warm up your muscles. As you move, your body will also increase production of fluid in your joints, thereby reducing stiffness.
Walking for six to 10 minutes can raise your heartbeat to about 140 beats per minute and trigger your body to start burning up to six calories per minute. While your blood pressure will rise from the exertion, this increase is counteracted by chemicals that help expand your blood vessels, such as nitric oxide. This expansion in turn allows greater amounts of oxygen-rich blood to reach your muscles and organs, including your heart and brain. Over time, taking regular walks will help lower your blood pressure if it tends to be high.
Walking for 11 to 20 minutes results in an increase in body temperature and sweating as blood vessels closer to the surface of your skin expand to release heat. At this point, you start burning about seven calories per minute. The increase in heart rate also causes you to breathe deeper. Epinephrine (adrenaline) and glucagon also begin to rise at this point to boost muscle activity. Epinephrine helps relieve asthma and allergies, which helps explain why walking and other exercises tend to have a beneficial impact on these ailments.
At 21 to 45 minutes, you’ll start burning more fat, courtesy of a drop in insulin. This is also when you’ll start experiencing greater physical and mental relaxation as your brain starts to release “feel good” endorphins. Walking has also been shown to boost memory and creative problem-solving,4 so taking a walk when you’re puzzling over a problem may allow you to come up with better solutions. One Stanford University study found walking increased creative output by an average of 60 percent, compared to sitting still.5
After 30 to 45 minutes, you’re really oxygenating your whole body, burning more fat, strengthening your heart and cardiovascular system, and boosting your immune function. Provided you’re walking outdoors and the weather complies, an hour of sunshine will also help boost your mood and provide a number of beneficial health effects associated with vitamin D production.
Those struggling with depression would do well to get out of the concrete jungle and into nature, as nature walks have been found to be particularly beneficial for your mood by decreasing rumination — the obsessive mulling over negative experiences.
Walking Boosts Health and Longevity
Several studies have confirmed that walking boosts health and longevity. For example:
•In one, walking for 20 to 25 minutes per day (140 to 175 minutes per week) was found to add anywhere from three to seven years to a person’s life span.6
•Research7 published last year found that as little as two hours (120 minutes) of walking per week may reduce mortality risk in older adults, compared to inactivity. Meeting or exceeding the activity guidelines of 2.5 hours (150 minutes) of moderate activity per week in the form of walking lowered all-cause mortality by 20 percent.
•Research published in 2012 found brisk walking improved life expectancy even in those who are overweight.8
•Smokers may also increase their life span by nearly four years by engaging in physical activity9 such as walking. Former smokers who kept up their physical activity increased their life expectancy by 5.6 years on average, reducing their all-cause mortality risk by 43 percent.
Smokers who were physically active were also 55 percent more likely to quit smoking than those who remained inactive, and 43 percent less likely to relapse once they quit. A Norwegian study10 also showed that regular exercise is as important as quitting smoking if you want to reduce your mortality risk.
About 5,700 older men were followed for about 12 years in this study, and those who got 30 minutes of exercise — even if all they did was light walking — six days a week, reduced their risk of death by about 40 percent. Getting less than one hour of light activity per week had no effect on mortality in this study, highlighting the importance of getting the “dosage” right if you want to live longer.
Walking Is Good for Whatever Ails You
Other studies have shown walking can be tremendously beneficial for people struggling with chronic diseases such as obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cardiovascular disease. In one, COPD patients who walked 2 miles a day or more cut their chances of hospitalization from a severe episode by about half.11,12
Another study13 found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60. Walking for an hour or two each day cut a man’s stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn’t matter how fast or slow the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds. Walking has also been shown to lower your risk of:14,15
|Type 2 diabetes||Depression and anxiety|
|Dementia and Alzheimer’s||Arthritis|
|Hormonal imbalances||PMS symptoms|
So, while walking might not seem like it would be “enough” to make a significant difference in your health, science disagrees. It makes sense that walking would be an important health aspect considering humans are designed for walking. And, in our historical past, before conveniences such as automobiles and even the horse and buggy, humans walked a lot. Every day.
Walkers Generally Weigh Less Than Other Exercisers
Research16 from the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that when it comes to weight management, regular walking can be just as beneficial, or more, than working out in a gym. To reach this conclusion, the researchers assessed the effects of a number of different workouts, comparing health markers in more than 50,000 adults who were followed for 13 years. Activities were divided into:
- Brisk walking
- Moderate-intensity sports (examples: swimming, cycling, gym workouts, dancing, running, football, rugby, badminton, tennis and squash)
- Heavy housework and/or walking with heavy shopping bags
- Heavy manual work (examples: digging, felling trees, chopping wood, moving heavy loads)
The big surprise? People who regularly walked briskly for more than 30 minutes generally weighed less than those who hit the gym on a regular basis and/or exclusively did high-intensity workouts. According to the press release, these results were “particularly pronounced in women, people over 50 and those on low incomes.”17 According to the authors:
“Given the obesity epidemic and the fact that a large proportion of people … are inactive, recommending that people walk briskly more often is a cheap and easy policy option. Additionally, there is no monetary cost to walking so it is very likely that the benefits will outweigh the costs.
It has also been shown by the same authors that walking is associated with better physical and mental health. So, a simple policy that ‘every step counts’ may be a step toward curbing the upward trend in obesity rates and beneficial for other health conditions.”
Indeed, walking has been a longstanding recommendation to meet fitness guidelines, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association have all recommended getting 30 minutes of brisk walking several days a week for general health and disease prevention.18,19
Walking Can Also Be a High-Intensity Exercise
While taking daily walks forms a great foundation upon which to build your health, research also shows that to really maximize health and longevity, higher intensity exercise is called for. Based on two large-scale studies20,21 the ideal amount of exercise to promote longevity is between 150 and 450 minutes of moderate exercise per week. During the 14-year follow up period, those who exercised for 150 minutes per week reduced their risk of death by 31 percent, compared to non-exercisers.
Those who exercised for 450 minutes lowered their risk of premature death by 39 percent. Above that, the benefit actually began to diminish. In terms of intensity, those who added bouts of strenuous activity each week also gained an extra boost in longevity. Those who spent 30 percent of their exercise time doing more strenuous activities gained an extra 13 percent reduction in early mortality, compared to those who exercised moderately all the time.
Besides doing high-intensity exercises on an elliptical, bike or treadmill, super-slow strength training is another excellent high-intensity exercise worth considering. That said, if you’re out of shape and/or overweight, the idea of high intensity interval training can seem too daunting to even attempt. The elderly may also shy away from high intensity exercises for fear of injury. My recommendation? Don’t allow such concerns to overwhelm you and prevent you from getting started.
Once you’re walking on a regular basis, you can easily turn this activity into a high-intensity exercise simply by intermittently picking up the pace. Japanese researchers, who developed a walking program designed specifically for the elderly, have shown that a combination of gentle strolling and fast walking provide greater fitness benefits than walking at a steady pace.22,23
The program they developed consists of repeated intervals of three minutes of fast walking followed by three minutes of slow strolling. Completing five sets of these intervals, totaling 30 minutes of walking, at least three times a week, led to significant improvements in aerobic fitness, leg strength and blood pressure.
Everyone Can Benefit From Walking More Each Day
As mentioned, walking can be an excellent entry into higher intensity training, regardless of your age and fitness level. Personally, I typically take an hourlong walk on the beach every day that I’m home. As you’ve probably heard by now, chronic sitting is the new smoking — it actually has a mortality rate similar to this toxic habit.24 It even raises your risk of lung cancer by over 50 percent. What’s worse, it raises your risk of disease and early death independently of your fitness and other healthy lifestyle habits.
According to Dr. James Levine, codirector of Obesity Solutions at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and Arizona State University, you need at least 10 minutes of movement for every hour you sit down. I recommend limiting your sitting to less than three hours a day, and to make it a point to walk more every day. I suggest aiming for about 10,000 steps per day, over and above any other fitness routine you may have.
A fitness tracker can be a very helpful tool to monitor your progress and ensure you’re hitting your mark. Just be sure that you are using one that does not have Bluetooth enabled (the Oura ring and Apple Watch are the two that I know of that allow you to turn off the Bluetooth). Tracking your steps can also show you how simple and seemingly minor changes to the way you move around at work can add up. For example, you can:
- Walk across the hall to talk to a co-worker instead of sending an email
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Park your car further away from the entrance
- Take a longer, roundabout way to your desk
- Take a walk during your lunch hour (importantly, this habit has been shown to reduce work-related stress25)
- 1 Ann Intern Med. 2015;162(2):123-132
- 2 CNN January 21, 2015
- 3 Guardian July 1, 2013
- 4 Psychology Today March 8, 2017
- 5 Journal of Experimental Psychology 2014; 40(4): 1142-1152 (PDF)
- 6 The Independent August 30, 2015
- 7 American Journal of Preventive Medicine DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2017.08.019
- 8 Medical News Today November 7, 2012
- 9 Medical News Today April 23, 2012
- 10 British Journal of Sports Medicine May 14, 2015 [Epub ahead of print]
- 11 Respirology February 2, 2014 [Epub ahead of print]
- 12 WebMD March 5, 2014
- 13 Stroke November 14, 2013 [Epub ahead of print]
- 14 Prevention January 11, 2018
- 15 NBC News September 2, 2017
- 16, 17 London School of Economics and Political Science November 3, 2015
- 18 American Heart Association March 2014
- 19 American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2013 Jan;44(1):76-84
- 20 JAMA Internal Medicine April 6, 2015, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.0533 [Epub ahead of print]
- 21 JAMA Internal Medicine April 6, 2015, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.0541 [Epub ahead of print]
- 22 New York Times February 19, 2015
- 23 Journal of Applied Physiology 2014 Dec 24: jap.00819.2014
- 24 Diabetologia. 2012 Nov; 55(11):2895-905
- 25 Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports January 6, 2015 [Epub ahead of print]