I’ll admit it. I used to think walking as a form of exercise was about as exciting as painting a brick wall repetitively for six hours. I used to weigh it up with other forms of sweat-inducing exercises like sprints or a HIIT workout, where I would finish the session feeling exhausted yet accomplished. Walking, on the other hand, never felt like it was benefiting me a great deal. I mean, sure, as a way of getting me from A to B it was an obvious tool, and admittedly I was enticed to walk outside because of the bronzed skin that resulted from walking in the sun (and probable leather handbag look in the future). But after a year of walking on average about 20,000 steps a day, I can say with complete conviction that walking is one of the best exercises, or even hobbies, you can do and it has changed my life profoundly. Call me a psychopath if you wish, but waking up at 5:00am and going for a walk as the sun rises, listening to an informative podcast and strolling the streets is my favourite part of the day (besides every single meal and snack I consume, obviously).
This dismissive attitude of walking doesn’t appear to be limited to my own experience. It seems as though exciting and new forms of exercise are cropping up everywhere. Whether it’s the aforementioned heart-racing HIIT class, a challenging yoga session, or an f45 group training workout, there’s never been such a vast array of exercise options to keep us fit. Instagram is full of users posting various forms of these new exercises, spruiking them as a fun and interesting way to lose weight. Many of the exercise programs i’ve seen focus heavily on resistance training or HIIT/tabata workouts with the intention of promoting fat loss within a relatively short period of time. Whilst encouraging any type of exercise is a positive thing, arguably traditional forms of movement such as walking have been replaced by exercises that appear visually appealing on social media, or exercises that only require a small amount of time to complete them. Just like my previous attitude, walking as a form of exercise has a reputation for being tedious, time-consuming, and an ineffective means of losing fat.
It’s true that the amount of calories we burn by walking is negligible when compared with a high intensity workout or going for a run, so you might be asking what the point of strolling in the sun is when you can just go for a few sprints or do 20 burpees. The physical health benefits of walking may not be as significant as consistent vigorous workouts, but there are a plethora of reasons as to why people should be lacing up their joggers and stepping out into nature. Moreover, the focus of exercise shouldn’t always be about losing weight or burning calories, and cultivating physical health habits that are based on genuine enjoyment and psychological well-being will go a long way in helping maintain the habit long-term. So here are four reasons why walking is one of the most underrated forms of exercise.
- It has many physical health benefits
The benefits of general physical activity are well-documented, and it would be difficult to find someone who wasn’t aware of it’s advantages on our overall health. In relation to walking specifically, studies have shown a link between walking and a reduction in mortality from all causes. This reduction in all-cause mortality can be seen with minimal amounts of walking, with as little as 15 minutes of brisk walking a day having a positive impact on this relationship. The risk is even further reduced the more steps you take, with studies suggesting that 20km a week of walking is linked with a significant reduction in mortality.
Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death in Australia, and include conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Lifestyle factors such as physical activity and diet can often play an important role in their prevention. Regular walking has been shown to significantly reduce the chance of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as impacting the development of cardiovascular disease and some cancers, such as breast cancer. It seems as though the strength of the relationship is dose-dependent, meaning that the more walking that an individual engages in, the less likely they are to develop these conditions. In relation to cardiovascular health, walking has been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease body fat, increase muscle endurance, and increase maximum aerobic capacity.
- There are mental health benefits
For me, developing a consistent walking routine in my life has benefited my mental health significantly. Whilst I have no doubt that my mental health has improved as a result of a combination of factors (better diet, no alcohol, resistance training and my new self-care routine), I am also equally certain that walking has played an important role in this change. Even though I work in an office job 9-5, I always ensure I go for an hour walk on my lunch break, and often before or after my working day as well. I listen to a podcast every time I walk, and these always providing me with motivation, education or just pure entertainment. It has also provided me with a lot of mental clarity, helped me come up with solutions to my life problems (of which I have quite a few, i’ve discovered), and has given me simple pleasure and appreciation of everything I have in my life. Previously, my mental health always seemed to be tenuous, and I lacked general direction and purpose in life. The simple act of walking for an hour each morning has radically changed my life and is something I passionately recommend to all those feeling lost, overwhelmed or uncertain.
Beyond anecdotal evidence, walking has been shown to mitigate the symptoms of anxiety (in relation to minor stress), improve quality of sleep, improve cognition, and increase overall psychological well-being. Studies have also shown walking to be a protective factor against the development of depression, and a potentially effective treatment option. Further, it appears as though these benefits are amplified when people walk in nature, as opposed to purely urban areas or on the treadmill. As I always say, however, mental health issues are complex and are the result of a multitude of factors and i’m not going to contend that depression will be cured by a simple walk every week. Furthermore, whilst there have been many studies demonstrating the benefits of general physical activity on mental health, it appears as though the research is limited in relation to walking specifically. Regardless, it seems safe to say that walking does have positive impacts on our mental health and from this point of view it’s certainly something I would recommend for those experiencing any psychological problems or who simply want to enhance their life.
- It’s cheap, easy and accessible
Unless you’re planning to use the Louvre as your regular route, walking is a fantastic form of exercise because it is cheap, easily-accessible and rarely causes injury. People of all ages and demographics can enjoy the benefits of walking, and you don’t need to splash out on expensive gym memberships or group classes to reap the rewards. In order for us to maintain a habit, the science suggests that our environment needs to be set up adequately to make it easy for us to stick to the particular behaviour. If your gym is a twenty minute drive away, or your yoga classes require you to expend a significant amount of your weekly pay cheque, then arguably you will be less motivated (whether subconsciously or consciously) to continue this fitness habit. Walking, on the other hand, requires you to change very little about your environment and doesn’t require you to expend much effort, time, or money. Moreover, unlike running which requires high impact on the body, walking is obviously risk-averse and you’d be pretty unlucky if you managed to significantly injure yourself whilst casually strolling along the sidewalk.
- It provides an opportunity for social connection
Often as we age, our interest in late nights and alcohol consumption diminishes. One moment you might be at a random party at three am dancing on a table with liquid spilling out of the coloured cruiser in your hand, and the next moment you’re 26 and reading a book on meditation next to a candle at 9pm on a Saturday. When our interest in the party scene goes, so too does out opportunity to hang out with friends and we may feel as though we are losing social connection. Walking provides a perfect opportunity to fill this gap and be in the company of your friends whilst still aligning with your desires of early nights and days devoid of crippling hangovers. Walking outside with a coffee in-hand may also be a more conducive environment for people to discuss meaningfulness things going on in their lives, especially for those who might feel awkward in the standard face-to-face setting. Having a regular catch up with friends through inexpensive and healthy means is an excellent way to maintain social relationships, and research highlights the importance of social connectedness on promoting an individual’s sense of wellbeing.
I know what you’re probably thinking, “geez this girl has a lot to say about something that is about as interesting as watching Antiques Roadshow as a kid”. But I would not be banging on about such a mundane exercise that is as innate and simple as breathing if I didn’t truly believe it could benefit your life. From personal experience, the combination of early-morning walks and podcast-listening has been life-altering. I know you might find it difficult trusting someone who uses that many hyphenated words in the one sentence, but if you’re committed to getting the most out of your life, or simply just improving it in any way, then I do recommend instilling a regular walking routine.