by Jeff Siegel
Walking is easy, inexpensive, amazingly good for you, and has few undesirable side effects. Yet it is all too often overlooked when people consider which form of exercise is best for them.
The results surprised even JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, DrPH, despite her extensive knowledge about the subject. "No, I didn't realize just how effective walking was," says Dr. Manson, the co-director of women's health at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "We always knew that walking was effective, but after looking at the results, I am surprised that walking is not readily adopted by more people."
The results came from a study presented by Dr. Manson and her colleagues at a meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). The study, part of an 8-year research project of 84,000 female nurses ages 40-65, reported that women who walked for at least 3 hours a week had a 30%-40% lower risk of heart attack and stroke than women who did not walk. The study also suggested that the brisker the walk, the greater the health benefit.
"The benefits of walking are just not well appreciated," says Dr. Manson. "There is still a misperception among the public that in order to achieve any health benefit, you have to exercise vigorously or be a marathon runner. And that is just not true."
There are numerous benefits to walking. Here are a few of them:
Although walking is safe and dependable, do not start any sort of exercise regimen without first consulting your doctor. If you have received a clean bill of health, keep these points in mind.
If you are chronically sedentary, do not try walking 10 miles the first time you get off the couch. Start off with a small goal in mind, like walking for 10 minutes at a time, then slowly build up how long you are walking. If you still have difficulty, break up your walk time and spread it out over the course of the day. After a short time, you will be able to do more of it at once. The key is to not get discouraged.
Keep in mind, especially if you are just starting to walk, that you have to come back to your starting point. Make sure you can cover the entire distance comfortably, and not just the first part of it.
That brisk pace of 3-4 miles per hour is not as daunting as it seems. It works out to a mile every 15-20 minutes. And people who are new to exercising do not have to hit that speed right away to benefit from walking. The Nurses' study pointed out that even people with a slower pace had a 32% reduction in heart disease compared with people who did not walk at all.
It not only makes the time go faster, but companionship makes it easier to go walking on the days when the last thing you feel like doing is exercising.
A pedometer or fitness tracker allows you to measure how many steps you take daily. With a device you can incorporate walking activities into your daily life and keep a record of how far you walk. Set new goals to increase the amount of steps you take each day. Pedometers are now readily available and quite inexpensive. Fitness trackers come with many options and vary in price. Both devices can help you guide and evaluate your exercise activities.
You can log your activity on a chart or in a journal. The easiest way to track yourself is to download an app onto your smartphone. The app can map your walking course, calculate your pace, and help you manage time and distance.
Walking strengthens the large leg muscles, including the quadriceps and the gluteus muscles. However, it will not give you a body-building physique. If you want that, you will have to do weight training. Walking alone is not a terrific way to lose weight—you have to combine regular exercise with a reduced-calorie diet. Do expect walking to make you feel better, both physically and mentally.
Dr. Manson hopes that more people will realize what walking has to offer. So, get up, lace up your sneakers, and hit the road or trail!
American Heart Association
President's Council on Fitness
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Kokkinos P. Physical activity, health benefits, and mortality risk. ISRN Cardiol. 2012 Oct [Epub ahead of print].
Manson JE, Hu FB, et al. A prospective study of walking as compared with vigorous exercise in the prevention of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med. 1999;341(9):650-658.
Roddy E, Zhang W, et al. Aerobic walking or strengthening exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee? A systematic review. Ann Rheum Dis. 2005;64:544-548.
Start a walking program. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/starting-a-walking-program.pdf. Published 2011. Accessed January 5, 2017.
Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 1/13/2015