After my mum had an operation for her knee (a lack of cartilage was making walking and moving very difficult) she had less motivation than ever to exercise in a gym or with weights at home. The thought of it was a bit daunting, but after some encouragement from family, she joined a local walking group. A few months later, I'd never seen her so happy, so busy at the weekends, and also with so little knee pain, she's now part of 3 different walking groups that keep her very busy!
The scientific evidence to support the benefits of walking, in cases like my mums and others, is very strong. There have been some fascinating studies recently on how important it is to get walking and how much you actually need to start getting some incredible benefits. The good news is it’s probably less than you think.
And, if like me and many others, you struggle to find the time each day to do everything the wellness industry says we should, a simple walk (or maybe a brisk one) could be what you need. Get some fresh air, physical exercise, time away from screens, mindfulness, and reduce your risk of several diseases all with one activity.
Walking for longevity and physical health
Several studies show us that walking is a great way to prolong your lifespan and your healthspan, which is how many years you live in good health, not just alive.
A 2019 study looked at the role of walking for longevity using accelerometers to measure the steps per day of 16,741 women aged 62 to 101, across a 7-day period. The researchers then followed up with them several years later.
During the follow up of 4.3 years, 504 of the women in the study died. They split the women into four groups, those who had walked an average of 2700, 4400, 5900, and 8400 steps a day. The women that walked a modest average of 4400 steps had a 41 percent lower risk of death than those who had walked 2700 steps a day 1.
That’s quite incredible, just an extra 1500 steps a day, that’s about 0.7 miles, could almost half your risk of dying early from any cause.
The risk of dying prematurely continued to decrease with more steps up to 7500 a day, where the results then leveled off.
Whilst we can’t be 100% certain that these results represent cause and effect, given the researchers controlled for other variables that could impact the mortality rates amongst these women, it’s highly likely that walking was responsible for this difference.
Another study, released a year later, followed a similar method and looked at both men and women with an average age of 57. Over the 10 year follow up, the researchers found that 8000 steps a day was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality compared to 4000 steps a day 2. So, upping the steps to 8000 could see even more benefits.
A study released last month backs these findings up again. Scientists looked at 94 739 UK Biobank participants and found that doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week reduced the risk of heart failure by 63% compared to doing no moderate activity. That’s just 22 minutes of moderate activity a day to massively cut your risk of heart failure 3.
“These findings indicate that every physical movement counts. A leisurely, 10-minute walk is better than sitting and no physical activity,” said co-leader of the study Frederick Ho, PhD, a lecturer on public health at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. “And, if possible, try to walk a little faster, which increases the intensity and potential benefits of exercise.”
Ho’s comment is, of course, backed by science. A UK study of 474,919 participants found that brisk walkers had longer life expectancies than slow walkers. This was across all levels of obesity 4.
Walking is also associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, one of the biggest killers in America. Just 30 minutes of normal walking a day can decrease your risk of coronary heart disease by almost 20%, regardless of any other factors 5.
This research shows us that walking can be used to meet the physical activity guidelines set by the US Department of Health and Human Services, of 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, which unfortunately not enough Americans are meeting. A recent report of the Surgeon General into physical activity and health states that “physical activity need not to be strenuous to be beneficial” and that 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can be used to meet the targets.
Your daily steps don't even have to be in one go, you can make it up between shuffling around the house, getting out on an evening stroll, and just swapping a bit of driving for some walking.
The benefits of walking beyond physical health
The benefits of walking don’t end with your physical health.
Several studies now show us the benefits of walking for depression and stress-relief, happiness, loneliness and creative thinking.
A study looking at the role of walking on creative thinking found that, across the researchers' three experiments, 81%, 88%, and 100% of the participants were more creative when walking compared to sitting. This led Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, authors of the study and researchers at Stanford University, to conclude “when there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.” 6.
For me, on the days I get out walking, I feel so much better. Getting away from the screens and getting moving helps my ideas flow in ways that feel blocked when I’m sitting staring at a screen.
There is also strong evidence that walking, especially outdoors in natural environments, can prevent and even treat cases of anxiety and depression. This was the outcome of a review published in the British Medical Journal, that analyzed the results of fifty separate research studies 7.
A study from 2020 took 90 healthy university students during exam time, known to many of us as an incredibly stressful period. They measured their mood and psychophysiological responses to three interventions that the researchers hypothesized may reduce stress: walking in nature, watching nature scenes, and physical exercise alone 8.
Whilst all three interventions had restorative effects on cortisol levels (the primary stress hormone), walking in nature resulted in significantly lower cortisol levels than nature viewing alone, and it had a significantly greater improvement on mood than watching nature or exercising alone 8.
Tips to increase walking
We can conclude that to enjoy both the physical and mental benefits of walking, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate hike through the countryside, or even reaching 10,000 steps a day.
It’s enough just to add bits and pieces into your day, like parking further away from the supermarket entrance in the parking lot, a 10 minute walk at lunch time or an evening stroll, and taking the stairs instead of getting the lift.
For extra benefits, make time at the weekend for a walk with friends or family, or suggest to friends you meet for a walk rather than a sit down coffee. This is one I use a lot, the idea of meeting my friend for a stroll is much more appealing especially after sitting at my desk all week, sometimes we even sit with a coffee afterwards as well.
So if the thought of exercise sends a shiver down your spine, forget the crowded gym classes, dreaded spandex, and unused gym membership, and just get out on a walk. Reap even more benefits (and save a bit of time) by making it brisk!
I’ll see you in the next blog post, right now I’m feeling extra motivated to take my lunchtime stroll!
1. Lee, I.-M. et al. Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women. JAMA Intern. Med. 179, 1105 (2019).
2. Saint-Maurice, P. F. et al. Association of Daily Step Count and Step Intensity With Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA 323, 1151 (2020).
3. Ho, F. K. et al. Association Between Device-Measured Physical Activity and Incident Heart Failure: A Prospective Cohort Study of 94 739 UK Biobank Participants. Circulation CIRCULATIONAHA.122.059663 (2022) doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.122.059663.
4. Zaccardi, F., Davies, M. J., Khunti, K. & Yates, T. Comparative Relevance of Physical Fitness and Adiposity on Life Expectancy. Mayo Clin. Proc. 94, 985–994 (2019).
5. Zheng, H. et al. Quantifying the dose-response of walking in reducing coronary heart disease risk: meta-analysis. Eur. J. Epidemiol. 24, 181–192 (2009).
6. Oppezzo, M. & Schwartz, D. L. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cogn. 40, 1142–1152 (2014).
7. Kelly, P. et al. Walking on sunshine: scoping review of the evidence for walking and mental health. Br. J. Sports Med. 52, 800–806 (2018).
8. Olafsdottir, G. et al. Health Benefits of Walking in Nature: A Randomized Controlled Study Under Conditions of Real-Life Stress. Environ. Behav. 52, 248–274 (2020).