Of all the ways to stay fit, walking is the easiest, safest, and least expensive. It can also be the most fun, especially on a fine day, with a good companion and an enticing goal a few miles away. On city streets or in the woods, walking is the best way to experience a landscape. If it’s rainy, you can always walk in the mall or use a treadmill. And after your workout, you know you’ve done yourself some good. A brisk walk (usually 3 1/2 to 4 miles per hour, depending on the length of your stride) burns nearly as many calories as running the same distance at a moderate pace and confers similar health benefits. Even slow walking confers some benefits, as do short walks.
Here’s just a small sampling of scientific findings about walking from the past few years:
Metabolic benefits. Mile for mile, brisk walking can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease as much as running, according to a large observational study in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. The farther people ran or walked and the more calories they burned, the greater the reduction in risk. Of course, it takes much longer to walk a mile than to run it, so you need to spend more time walking to get the same benefits as you would running.
Healthy arteries. Sitting for long periods has many adverse effects on the body, including reduced ability of arteries to relax and contract (called endothelial dysfunction), which increases cardiovascular risk over the long term. But taking short (5-minute) walking breaks every hour or so can prevent this sitting-induced arterial stiffening, as was seen in a small study of young men in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Blood sugar control. Walking after meals helps control blood sugar in inactive older people with prediabetes, according to a small study in Diabetes Care. Walking for 15 minutes half an hour after each of three daily meals was better for 24-hour blood sugar control than walking for 45 minutes in a single daily session.
Chronic diseases. Many studies on people with a variety of chronic conditions, notably heart disease, diabetes, and prostate or breast cancer, have linked walking (and physical activity in general) with better health outcomes. For instance, a Chinese study in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that people with chronic kidney disease who walked regularly were half as likely to die during a one-year period than those who rarely walked. They were also less likely to need dialysis or a kidney transplant. The researchers controlled for age, initial kidney function, and factors such as diabetes and heart disease.
Low back pain. For people with chronic low back pain, walking can be as beneficial as a strength-training program targeting abdominal and back muscles, according to an Israeli study in Clinical Rehabilitation. The participants exercised twice a week, either walking briskly on a treadmill or doing strength-training exercises, working up to 40 minutes per session. After six weeks, the groups had similar reductions in pain and disability. Interestingly, a small Turkish study in the International Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that people with low back pain benefited more from regular walking (three times a week for four weeks) than from using a treadmill, largely because of the somewhat different biomechanics involved.
Knee osteoarthritis. A study in Arthritis Care & Research looked at 1,800 people with or at high risk for knee osteoarthritis but with no functional limitation at the start. Compared to more sedentary participants, those who took at least 6,000 daily steps (as measured by an activity monitor over a seven-day period) were least likely to develop mobility problems two years later. The authors recommended initially aiming for 3,000 steps a day (about 1.5 miles) and working up to 6,000 or more a day.
Creativity. A series of four studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, entitled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs,” found that students experienced a boost in creative thinking during and right after walking, compared to sitting. Walking, especially outdoors, “opens the free flow of ideas,” presumably via both physical and psychological effects, the researchers suggested.
Improved mood and attitude. In a British study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, university office workers reported increased enthusiasm and relaxation and reduced stress after 30-minute lunchtime walks. Walking was done in groups, so the social aspect may have played a role.
Bottom line: Other types of exercise may be as beneficial as walking, and more strenuous exercise may confer additional benefits. But the simplicity of walking makes it a great option. You need no equipment or special clothing, and you can do it just about anytime, alone or with friends. Start by adding several short walks (even just five minutes) to your daily routine.
If you need more encouragement to walk, check out the U.S. Surgeon General’s new 72-page report called Step It Up!—a “Call to Action” to promote walking and walkable communities.
Want to burn more calories, build strength, or both while you walk? See 7 Ways to Boost Your Walking Workout.