10 Health Benefits of Walking and How to Get Started

Three women go for a walk together

Moving your body is good for you no matter how far or fast you are going. While walking is often viewed and used as a stepping stone to progressively building the endurance needed to start running, there is no minimum effective dose in the movement-as-medicine world. And that’s one of the best things about walking: There are very few barriers to entry.

Whether you walk 10 minutes every other day or an hour seven times a week, at a casual pace or a brisk clip, the benefits of walking far transcend the simple increase in fitness you get from the activity. Getting in shape is typically why you might start a walking routine, but the benefits extend much further than a lower resting heart rate or a few inches off the waistline.

Physiological Benefits

A man and woman go for a walk outside on a greenway

Improved cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory fitness

Simply put, walking helps both your heart and your lungs become more efficient organs due to the increased demand.

Reduction in the risk of heart disease and stroke

Side effects from high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol and diabetes can all be mitigated by regular walking.

Weight management

Not only does walking help with weight loss due to calories burned, but it also counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes, lowers blood sugar and suppresses appetite.

Strengthens bones, joints and muscles

Your heart and lungs aren’t the only things getting a workout when you walk. Walking strengthens your musculoskeletal system as well, due to the repetitive impact on your body. Think about every single step you take outside as the same thing as doing one repetition in the gym. Not only does walking strengthen your joints, but it can also help alleviate existing joint pain by stimulating the production of lubricants and strengthening the muscles around the joint.

Boosts immune system

Walking increases the amount of white blood cells circulating in your system, which are the ones responsible for fighting off illnesses. A study of 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day for at least five days a week were 43 percent less likely to get sick than their sedentary counterparts, and, if they did fall ill, it was typically for a shorter duration with milder symptoms.

​Psychological Benefits

A man and woman walk together along a greenway path

Improves clarity, creativity and memory

A Stanford University study found that participants on average had a 60 percent higher “creative output” when walking as opposed to sitting. In regular exercisers, the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are simply larger in volume. If you need a good brain boost, head out for a walk!

Reduces stress

Not only can a walk take your mind off things and provide a welcome distraction from the stressors of life, it has also been shown to reduce the negative impacts caused by those stressors.

Boosts energy levels

It might seem counterintuitive that expending energy though a brisk walk can actually make your energy levels seem higher, but it’s true. On top of an increase in endorphins (and other “feel good” brain chemicals) during exercise, consistent walking can also improve the quality of your sleep and give you sharper focus in your day-to-day activities.

Prevents brain tissue deterioration

A new year-long study showed marked improvement in both middle-aged and older populations with early signs of memory loss. It was hypothesized that the regular, repeated increase in blood flow helped stall cognitive decline and could also potentially help combat symptoms of Alzhiemer’s and related diseases.

Helps combat depression

A meta-analysis led by King’s College in London reviewed forty-nine studies and found that 20 minutes of exercise a day could reduce your risk of depression by up to a third. A study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26 percent. Regular physical activity can also help treat mild to to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressants.

So now you may be convinced to start or keep walking, but what are the best ways to go about it? You might have a sedentary job that keeps you in a chair at a desk all day, or you might be standing for your entire shift without the ability to move around. There are a few simple techniques you can use to make sure you keep your legs moving as much as possible.

How to Start Walking

Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.

This is one you’ll hear a lot, because it is so simple to start doing. All it takes is giving a second thought to your usual routine, and before long it will become a habit.

Don’t use the closest parking spot you can find.

We have all been indoctrinated for convenience, which sometimes means circling the parking lot waiting for someone close to the entrance/exit to vacate their spot. Instead, park further away than you typically would and use it as a chance to get in a few extra steps.

Get off the bus/train one or two stops earlier.

Unless the weather is really bad, you can add a few blocks of walking into your commute pretty easily. It’s not enough that you’ll show up to the office sweaty and out of breath, but just enough that all those little things will ultimately add up.

If you’ve already embraced a regular walking routine, you might already be taking these steps. You might also have set aside dedicated walking time into your morning, lunch break, or post-dinner routine. But everyone goes through some lapses, and you might find yourself falling off the wagon due to a stretch of bad weather, a huge project at work or maybe even taking some time off to nurse a sore knee. In this case, it’s important not to let a slight hiccup derail such an important part of your life.

Three women on a walk together in Miami

How to Incorporate Walking Into a Running Routine

Use walking as your warm-up or cool-down for a higher intensity workout

Walking primes the body for action before your run, and allows for a gradual “reset” after the workout. In fact, movement is required to circulate the blood back to the heart so a post-run walk helps kick-start your recovery.

Jumpstart your recovery

Using a brisk walk as a recovery mechanism not only helps kick-start the recovery process from a workout, but can help enhance the benefits you’ve gained from that workout. Try a twenty-minute walk later in the day after your morning workout, or head out for an hour-long walk on your rest day.

Use the “Run Walk Method.”

Use walking intervals between periods of harder efforts. Interval training is one of the most scientifically validated types of training, and there’s no shame in taking walking breaks during your run in order to distribute the workload. Your gait cycle is different between walking and running, so a short walk break can help give overloaded muscles and joints a quick break and make the rest of your workout more enjoyable. You can do shorter intervals like a minute on and a minute off, or change the ratio and do four minutes of running with one minute of walking.

How much walking should you do?

While there is no “minimum effective dose” when it comes to walking, and any movement is good movement, there are some metrics that you can keep in mind.

  • First, the 10,000 step “rule” is based off of a marketing strategy for fitness trackers and not off of hard science and real data. While it’s a good metric to remember, and a reasonable goal for most people, studies have shown benefits from walking just 75 percent of that. Completing 7,500 steps is do-able for most people, and can help eliminate some of the stress of reaching the 10K mark.
  • Brisk walking is more beneficial than casual walking, but that doesn’t mean you should always power walk. The idea is that once in a while you should stop to smell the roses, but for the most part you should be moving at a pace that is about 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate or level of effort. You won’t be close to breaking into a run (or even breaking a sweat!), but a brisk walk is a bit faster than your “usual” walking pace. Think of it as you’re a few minutes late to a meeting and have to hustle down the hall at work.
  • Shoot for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day, at least five days a week. You’ll reap exponential benefits by hitting 150 to 300 minutes of light-to-moderate physical activity each week. If you only have 10 minutes, definitely utilize it, but if you can block off half an hour for a daily walk, you will be in the sweet spot.

How to Keep Walking

Don’t let weather get in your way

If you live in an area where inclement weather holds you back, you can join a gym or invest in a treadmill. Although you won’t reap the added benefits of walking outdoors, this will help you stay consistent during the colder winter months or the spring rainy season.

Make movement your default setting

Whenever you have the opportunity, go walk around the block on your lunch break or when you need a brain boost at work. Get out for a walk around your neighborhood after dinner, instead of automatically turning on the television. We have seen that any amount of walking can have extraordinary health benefits, so even if you only have a few minutes to spare you can still use it wisely.

Creating long-lasting habits

When getting up for a walk before work is routine, it becomes something you “just do” and the amount of mental energy required is at a minimum. Making walking a habit simply makes walking easier.

By Timothy Lyman. Timothy Lyman is the Head Coach and Director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. He is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise and a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Keep Reading