Taking a walk may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of exercising, but getting your steps in on the regular can actually do a lot for your health and overall well-being.
“Walking seems to have a positive impact on mental health,” explains Dr. Christopher McMullen, a sports medicine physician who sees patients at the Sports Medicine Center at Harborview and Sports Medicine at South Lake Union. “Walking for exercise can also reduce musculoskeletal pain, lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar in people with diabetes, lower blood pressure in people with hypertension and strengthen bones.”
In essence, that simple stroll you’re taking to get some fresh air actually offers up a whole host of health benefits.
To help you take your daily steps to the next level, here’s what you should know about making the most out of your next walk.
What are the health benefits of walking?
As McMullen notes, gentle physical activity like walking can have a significant impact on your mental health as well as your physical health.
“Most notably, an increase in daily steps likely lowers all-cause mortality risk,” McMullen says.
What that means is the more steps you take each day, the less likely you are to develop a serious health condition that can lead to your death like cancer, heart disease, stroke or Type 2 diabetes.
Don’t believe it? Take a recent study that reviewed the daily step count of nearly 5,000 Americans who were 40 and older. Over the following decade, participants who took at least 8,000 steps per day had a lower risk of death compared to those who took just 4,000 steps per day. That risk of death was even lower for those who took at least 12,000 steps per day.
Another key takeaway from the study? Walking cadence, or pace, didn’t seem to matter as much as the overall number of steps. So even if you’re not a speed walker, you’re still benefiting from taking a stroll and fitting in steps throughout the day.
“If even 4,000 daily steps seems too lofty a goal, anything is better than nothing,” McMullen says.
How can you maximize your next walk?
If you’re ready to lace up your sneakers, keep in mind there are plenty of ways to earn yourself some extra health points, too.
“Walking can definitely be made into more of a workout if that’s the goal,” McMullen explains. “After all, speed walking is an Olympic sport.”
If you have the upper body strength and endurance to do so, you can beef up your walk by adding a little weight.
You can do this by carrying a set of dumbbells with you, wearing a backpack with evenly distributed weight or even donning a weighted vest.
Want to take it a step further?
“Add concurrent upper extremity exercises like bicep curls or shoulder exercises to increase the level of intensity,” McMullen says.
Another way to maximize your walk is to bring on the intervals, or interspersing periods of more intense exercise with periods of rest or less intense exercise.
To do this, alternate blocks as “speed walking” and “relaxed walking” to help get your heart rate up. Or opt for a stroll in a hilly area, where you can enjoy a mix of uphills and downhills. You can also map out a walk that takes you up and down public stairways.
Focus on posture
While there’s no “right” way to walk, McMullen says, you can make it a point to practice good posture.
“Try posture-correcting exercises, such as bringing the shoulders and chin back and making a concerted effort to engage the abdominal muscles,” he says.
Whatever you do, though, just walk in a way that feels natural and comfortable to avoid injuring yourself.
Take a mindful moment
While walking has obvious physical benefits, you can also make it a point to focus on your mental health while you get your steps in.
McMullen suggests combining a walk with mindfulness exercises, like deep breathing or staying connected with the present moment. Focus on how the sun feels on your face or how the tree branches sway in the wind.
By taking a moment to appreciate the simple joy of walking, you can help yourself de-stress and keep the good vibes going.
So what are you waiting for? Go on and take a walk.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 3, 2020. It has been updated with additional information on August 5, 2020.