Walking is one of the simplest ways to become more active, lose weight and improve overall mental and physical health, and it’s free!
It doesn’t have to be overly strenuous either, a brisk 10-minute walk each day is all you need to start noticing positive changes, and it contributes to the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.1 Although often overlooked as a form of exercise, walking can have all sorts of health benefits. This article looks at what those benefits are, who can benefit from walking, and how to do it safely.
Health benefits of walking
The health benefits of walking are numerous and include benefits for both your mental and physical well-being. You can do it on your own, with friends, or by joining a local walking group. By walking alone you can be more mindful of your surroundings, take in the scenery or wildlife or give yourself time and space to think and reflect. As part of a group - or with friends - you will benefit from the social aspect of walking, talking to others, making new friends (or catching up with old friends), and reducing loneliness.
Walking itself is a form of aerobic exercise, and the way in which you engage in this exercise can have a huge benefit for your mental health. There’s also the feeling of achievement once you’ve completed a walk, and when you start to notice positive changes.
- Improve cognition, mood, and sleep
- Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke
- Improve your blood pressure
- Increase stamina
- Reduce the risk of depression
- Reduce the risk of dementia
- Increase bone strength, which can reduce the risk of osteoporosis
- Help prevent obesity by reducing body fat
Studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in JAMA Neurology and JAMA Internal Medicine show that walking around 10,000 steps a day can reduce your risk of developing dementia by up to 50%.2 Additionally, it can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease and reduce the risk of 13 types of cancer.3 Walking even 2000 steps per day could reduce the risk of premature death by 8-11%.3
Walking can be better for you than running. It has the benefit of being less impactful on your joints, but also, Nordic walking, for example, has been shown to use 80-90% of your muscles, when done properly, compared to running, which uses around 40% of your muscles. In its simplest form, Nordic walking involves using poles to work the upper body. It also has the benefit of the poles reducing your risk of falls.
Walking for specific populations
Walking for arthritis patients
Walking is known to release endorphins; these are naturally occurring painkillers that your body releases. As well as relieving discomfort experienced from arthritis-related pain, endorphins can improve your mood. Walking also improves muscle tone and range of motion, helping to improve your overall mobility. Walking also improves cartilage health. Cartilage has no blood supply and gets its nutrients from the joint fluid that circulates when we move. This brings oxygen and nutrients to the cartilage. Another benefit to those with arthritis is that walking can help to lose weight, which reduces the strain on joints, which in turn can reduce discomfort.4
Walking for seniors
Walking improves mobility and strengthens bones and muscles, which is especially important for an aging population as it reduces the risk of falls. Falls are a greater risk over the age of 65 and can result in hip fractures and head injuries, both of which can potentially be life-changing and require ongoing care. Therefore, it’s important to increase bone density and muscle strength to avoid these falls.5 Another issue faced by an aging population is loneliness. Walking with friends or as part of a group can significantly reduce feelings of isolation, improve mental health and maintain a routine that involves leaving the house on a regular basis.
Walking while pregnant
During pregnancy, you may feel more tired and experience back pain from carrying the extra weight. Despite this, you can still engage in some form of activity during pregnancy (unless instructed not to by your doctor). In fact, for most healthy people assigned female at birth (AFAB), doing moderate exercise for 30 minutes on most days is recommended, and has been shown to have benefits such as:6
- Reducing backaches, constipation, bloating, and swelling
- Boosting your mood and energy levels
- Promoting better sleep
- Preventing excess weight gain
- Improving muscle tone, strength, and endurance
Walking for children
The benefits of walking for children are many and promote a strong platform for their overall development; physically, mentally, and emotionally. The British Association for Early Childhood Education highlights multiple specific benefits, including:
- Health benefits
- Promotes self-confidence and independence
- Can be a fun and sociable activity
- Walking anywhere, but especially through woods, fields, or hills can be calming and be great exercise for children
Incorporating walking into daily life
Incorporating walking into your daily life will help to maintain a routine of walking and increase motivation. There are several ways in which we can incorporate walking into our daily lives. Consider what will work best for you, for example, where can you swap car journeys for a brisk walk?
Below are some ideas for incorporating walking into your daily life.
- Walking to your local shops
- Using stairs instead of a lift
- Walking your children or grandchildren to school
- Walk as part of your trip to work
- Going for a walk after lunch or dinner
- Join an active walking group that does regular walks
Risks and precautions
Avoiding overuse injuries
Overuse injuries can occur when you engage in any new activity and try to take on too much, too quickly. Common overuse injuries can include stiff, sore muscles, and blisters. Other overuse injuries can occur over time such as shin splints. Shin splints are described as an inflammation of the muscle, tendon, and bone tissue around the tibia (shin bone).
In many cases, with walking, overuse injuries can be reduced or avoided altogether by:
- Wearing appropriate footwear
- Keeping a healthy pace. You should be able to hold a conversation when walking and not experience breathlessness
- Don’t do too much too soon. If you are struggling, slow down the pace. Most walking groups will only go as fast as the slowest person
Walking safety tips
There are several safety tips for many different situations when walking, such as when walking at night, when walking in remote areas, or when walking in high-crime areas. So when thinking about keeping yourself safe, consider where and when you are walking and take appropriate precautions.
Below is a list of general safety tips for walking:
- Walk as part of a group or with a friend if possible
- Be mindful of traffic. Don’t assume that vehicles on the road can see you walking
- Make sure you use paths or pavements (sidewalks) when possible
- Wear bright and/or reflective clothing to make sure you can be seen by others
- Take your mobile phone in case of emergencies
- Avoid distractions. Although it might be nice to listen to music or a podcast whilst walking, it is safer to hear the world around you, such as a car approaching you. Definitely keep your eyes on the path or road ahead and don’t be looking down at your phone whilst walking
- Make sure that you’re in a fit state to make your intended walk. Do not attempt a brisk walk if injured or experiencing chest pain or breathlessness. If you experience these whilst out walking, summon for help
- Do not walk under the influence of drugs or alcohol
A more exhaustive list of safety tips can be found here, which covers a range of safety tips for various situations.
Consulting a doctor before starting a walking program
If you walk or exercise regularly, you generally do not need to see a doctor before you start a walking programme. Most people can take up walking safely without consulting a doctor.
It is advised that you speak to your doctor before taking up walking as exercise, if:
- You are unsteady on your feet
- You experience dizziness
- You take medication that causes dizziness or drowsiness
- You have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease
- You have asthma or another respiratory condition
- You have diabetes
- You have osteoporosis
Walking as part of an exercise routine involves walking briskly, for a minimum of 10 minutes daily, contributing to the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week. Everyone can benefit from brisk walking, from children to adults, and through to seniors. Walking is important in maintaining physical and mental well-being and optimising your health throughout your life and into older age, reducing your risk of chronic diseases and conditions. It’s simple, free, and available to anyone, with no downsides when done properly. It is important to walk safely, taking precautions to avoid injury, so that you can do this exercise regularly. If you have a pre-existing health condition it is advisable that you see your doctor before starting a walking programme.
- Bull FC, Al-Ansari SS, Biddle S, Borodulin K, Buman MP, Cardon G, et al. World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Br J Sports Med [Internet]. 2020 Dec [cited 2023 Jul 25];54(24):1451–62. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7719906/
- Del Pozo Cruz B, Ahmadi M, Naismith SL, Stamatakis E. Association of daily step count and intensity with incident dementia in 78 430 adults living in the uk. JAMA Neurol [Internet]. 2022 Oct 1 [cited 2023 Jul 25];79(10):1059. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/2795819
- Del Pozo Cruz B, Ahmadi MN, Lee IM, Stamatakis E. Prospective associations of daily step counts and intensity with cancer and cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality and all-cause mortality. JAMA Intern Med [Internet]. 2022 Nov 1 [cited 2023 Jul 25];182(11):1139. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2796058
- Guglielmo D, Murphy LB, Theis KA, Boring MA, Helmick CG, Watson KB, et al. Walking and other common physical activities among adults with arthritis — united states, 2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep [Internet]. 2021 Oct 8 [cited 2023 Jul 25];70(40):1408–14. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7040a3.htm?s_cid=mm7040a3_w
- Bai X, Soh KG, Omar Dev RD, Talib O, Xiao W, Cai H. Effect of brisk walking on health-related physical fitness balance and life satisfaction among the elderly: a systematic review. Front Public Health [Internet]. 2022 Jan 31 [cited 2023 Jul 25];9:829367. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8841590/
- Connolly CP, Conger SA, Montoye AHK, Marshall MR, Schlaff RA, Badon SE, et al. Walking for health during pregnancy: A literature review and considerations for future research. Journal of Sport and Health Science [Internet]. 2019 Sep [cited 2023 Jul 25];8(5):401–11. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2095254618301029