Walk This Way

How to reap the health benefits of getting your steps in
Published March 19, 2021

With spring weather finally upon us, and National Walking Day (April 7) just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to incorporate regular walks into your routine.

Not only is walking an accessible way to get some activity in your day, it’s also got tons of mental health benefits. And one of the best parts? It’s free!

You don’t need to invest in special clothing, equipment or pay a monthly membership to reap the benefits of walking, says Rachel Land, a Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist and teacher for Yoga Medicine Online.

And the benefits of walking are many.

Increased muscle strength and bone density: “Walking is a body-weight exercise, so when we walk more, our muscles and bones become stronger to adapt to that load,” says Land. “Over the long term, this strength can delay the onset of common age-related conditions such as osteoporosis.”

Improved cardiovascular fitness: “By challenging our heart and lungs to fuel the additional workload that walking represents, these systems become more efficient, making day-to-day physical tasks feel easier. Over time, this offers regular walkers a reduced risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, plus improved blood sugar management, which reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes,” Land says.

Longer life expectancy: Regular walkers have been shown to have a reduced “all cause mortality,” Land explains, when compared with sedentary people and even when they started walking later in life.

In addition to all those physical health benefits, walking is also great for your mental health.

“By now most of us are aware of the physical benefits associated with regular exercise, but newer research suggests that it has a powerful impact on our mental well-being, too,” says Land.

Some of the mental perks of walking include:

Sound sleep: “We all know how critical a good night’s sleep is to us feeling physically and mentally well, with established benefits to long-term health as well as attention, mood and memory,” says Land, adding that a 2016 study showed that daily walking for as little as four weeks resulted in participants reporting better sleep quality and duration.

Stress relief and mood boost: “Walking regularly, especially in nature, has been shown to lower anxiety and rumination, leading to a reduced risk of depression,” Land says. And, she adds, even a one-off 10-minute walk could help improve your mood.

Better brain function for life: “Regular activity as we age, like walking, has been shown to actually increase the amount of grey matter in our brain,” Land says. This translates to better attentiveness and memory and a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

So with all these benefits in mind, why not go for a walk today? Here are Land’s tips for starting a walking routine that’s right for you.

Fit it into your existing routine: “The best time to take a walk is when you are actually likely to do it. If your mornings are already jam-packed, try a lunchtime or evening walk instead. If you work late, try a morning walk. One thing the experts agree on is that you are more likely to stick to a healthy new habit, like walking, if you create a routine by tying it to an existing behaviour. So add your walk into your existing routine (such as walking on waking, to your morning coffee, during your lunch break, around the school run, on finishing work or after dinner). Set a walk duration that fits the time you have available and get started.”

Keep it regular: Regularity is more important than intensity or duration, Land explains.

“Standard health recommendations suggest that we walk for more than 30 minutes at least three times a week, but studies on older adults have shown that as little as 14 minutes three times a week can make positive differences. So if you can’t imagine having an uninterrupted block of time every day, break your walk into smaller, more manageable chunks. Set an alarm every couple of hours to remind you to get up and walk around the house, around the office or around the block.”

If you’re taking public transport, Land suggests getting off one stop early and walking the remaining distance, or finding a new coffee or lunch venue a little farther away than your usual spot.

Make it enjoyable: “Figure out what motives you,” says Land. “You might be more likely to walk if you listen to your favourite music, podcast or audio book at the same time. Or perhaps you relish the challenge of finding a new route to walk every week, setting targets to increase your distance or speed, or adding in hills or stairs.”

And, she adds, if you want to double-down on the mental health benefits, try walking with a family member, friend, colleague or pet.