Ready to get walking again? Doing so can be crucial for your health, not to mention helping you to take off the weight you put on during stay-at-home restrictions (the not-so-charmingly dubbed quarantine 15). For a little extra motivation, here are eight reasons to get started with regular walking — whether you choose to do so with one of our indoor walking workouts or out in the fresh air.
Add years to your life
Want to keep adding candles to that birthday cake? A major study, published this past March in JAMA, found that the more steps participants over age 40 took, the lower their mortality risk from all causes.
Taking into account factors such as the subjects’ health status, researchers discovered a 51 percent lower mortality risk for those who took 8,000 steps a day, compared with those who took 4,000. And the more the subjects walked, the greater the benefit. In fact, extending a stroll to 12,000 steps a day was linked to a 65 percent lower risk of death. Even better, a rigorous walk wasn’t required to see these benefits; low-intensity strolls appeared to be just as effective as higher-intensity power walks for the nearly 5,000 study participants.
If you think it’s too late for you to reap such benefits, know this: A study published in the International Journal of Stroke showed that those who became fit later in life cut their risk of a potentially deadly stroke in half.
Bolster your brain
It’s not a stretch to say that just a little walking (or other aerobic activity) grows your brain. Researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory. And the benefits can be pretty immediate. A University of Maryland study of people ages 55 to 85, for instance, showed that a single session of exercise increased activation in the brain circuits associated with memory.
Getting out there regularly may even help those already experiencing memory problems. According to a Neurology study, just 35 minutes of continuous walking or stationary biking three times a week, combined with a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, improved the scores on thinking tests of subjects who had “verified cognitive concerns,” such as remembering or concentrating.
Trim those extra inches
As we get older, fat that used to primarily land on our hips and thighs can start to shift to our bellies. That spare tire is stubborn, but regular cardio sessions may reduce it. “You don’t lose a ton of weight exercising, but what you do lose tends to be centrally located,” says Tim Church, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge. “A disproportional amount of weight is lost in the abdomen through physical activity.”
In a small study of 27 obese women, researchers from the University of Virginia found that power walkers were able reduce abdominal fat (not just the outer flab but dangerous visceral fat, which surrounds the organs and puts you at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease). What’s more, they did so without dieting.
Walking can also help you stick to your diet. In a study published in the journal Appetite, stressed-out office workers, after breaking away from their desks for a 15-minute walk, ate only half as much chocolate as they normally would.
Save your vision
Hold the carrots. Moderate walking, it turns out, may be even better for our eyes. A Swedish study, published in the journal Ophthalmology, examined the possible link between specific types of physical activity, including walking, and the risk of age-related cataracts in more than 52,000 participants. Walking or bicycling more than 60 minutes a day, versus hardly ever, was associated with a decreased risk of cloudy lenses, particularly in the long term.
Another eye-opener: According to research from UCLA, brisk walking may also lower your risk of glaucoma, with the most active people having a 73 percent lower risk than the least active.
The benefits may be threefold. First, exercise is believed to decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure — all of which can contribute to cataracts. Cardio may also lower intraocular pressure (the pressure in your eyes), which can cause distortions in the retina, lens and cornea and wreak havoc with your vision. Further, being active increases the blood flow to the optic nerve in the retina.
Get a good night’s sleep
If you’re among the 50 percent of people over age 65 with chronic sleep problems, walking could be your ticket to more quality shut-eye — which is important for everything from preventing heart disease to staying sharp as you age.
In 2017 researchers at the Morehouse School of Medicine analyzed data from 4,000 older adults and found that those who were socially active and walked for exercise were 50 percent less likely to have trouble falling and staying asleep.
If you can walk first thing in the morning, so much the better, as exposure to early light appears to help you reset your natural circadian rhythm. Indeed, a study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 75 who walked briskly for 30 minutes in the morning were 70 percent less likely to have trouble falling asleep.
Chill out more easily
You’ve heard that meditation is good for calming your mind and fending off depression, but if you’re the restless type, know this: An afternoon of mindful walking may offer many of the same stress-busting benefits. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, for instance, found that an aerobic-walking exercise that incorporated Buddhism-based meditations was more effective in reducing depression in the participants ages 60 to 90 than a traditional aerobic-walking program.
This comes as no surprise to Mary Maddux, cofounder of Meditation Oasis. “Mindful walking clears your mind and helps you reconnect with your body,” she says. To try it, breathe in a relaxed, natural manner and walk at an unhurried pace. Take in what’s going on around you and what you’re experiencing through your senses. Listen to the birds chirping, leaves rustling or children playing. Feel the cool breeze across your face. Concentrate on what’s going on with your body — your breathing, the sensation in the soles of your feet as they touch the ground. “Let it all go, and you can come back refreshed and be able to see things with new eyes,” Maddux says.
Ward off depression
Joggers love to talk about the “runner’s high.” But can you get a psychological boost going at a slower pace? Looks that way. According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, walking for an hour a day (or 15 minutes of running, if you’re so inclined) can reduce your risk of major depression. What’s more, study authors found that you can lower your chances of becoming depressed by a whopping 26 percent for each major increase in physical activity (say, swapping one hour of couch time for an hour of brisk walking) when you record that increase with a tracking device.
Keep yourself moving for the long term
If all the recent news about walking’s powerful link to longevity doesn’t grab you, newer studies showing how it can preserve your mobility and independence might.
The thing is, walking isn’t just good for those who can do it easily. Beyond mobility benefits, studies show links between walking and faster recoveries from heart surgeries and from chemotherapy for breast cancer.
One of many studies to back up the connection between forcing yourself to walk and being able to keep walking recently came from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Doctors there found that just one hour of brisk walking a week — or less than 10 minutes a day — was enough to reduce the risk of disability in adults who already had osteoarthritis.
In a similar vein, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found big pluses for sedentary seniors who started exercising regularly (moderate walking being the main activity). Not only did they cut their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness, but those who did develop a physical disability were one-third more likely to recover from it, compared with seniors who remained inactive.