This article was originally published on January 23, 2020.
To walk is to be human. We are the only species that gets around by standing up and putting one foot in front of the other. In the 6 million years humans have been bipedalism, our ability to walk upright allow humanity to travel long distances and survived changing climateenvironments and landscapes.
But walking is more than transportation—it happens, too really good for us. Countless scientific studies have found that this simple act of moving the legs can provide a number of health benefits and help people live longer. In fact, routine walking—if done right—can be the only aerobic exercise people need.
Many people have taken walks around the neighborhood and in nature to pass the time a pandemic — and there’s plenty of reason to keep it up, says Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney.
“Regular walking has all the standard benefits of aerobic exercise, such as improvements in the heart and circulatory system, better blood sugar control, normalizing blood pressure, and reducing anxiety and depression,” says Stamatakis.
The beauty of walking is that it’s free, doesn’t require a lot of special equipment, and can be done almost anywhere. Most people can maintain the practice of walking throughout their lives. Yet, in the age of CrossFit and high-intensity cardio, walking is perhaps an underrated way to get the heart pumping and the muscles working. It also happens to be one of the most studied forms of exercise.
Walking for Health: Do You Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day?
In general, walking is good exercise because it gets our large muscle groups working and has a positive effect on most body systems, says Stamatakis.
But in the name of efficiency – how much walking should be aimed for? Public health experts have drilled into us that we need 10,000 steps a day — or about five miles. But contrary to popular belief, this recommendation doesn’t come from science. Instead, it originated from a 1960 ad campaign to promote a pedometer in Japan. Maybe because it’s a round number and easy to remember, it stuck. Countries like the US have begun to include it in broader public health recommendations. Today, it’s often a standard number of steps to reach in smartphone walking apps and fitness trackers.
Since the 1960s, researchers have studied the 10,000 steps per day standard and found mixed results. While taking 10,000 steps or more per day is certainly a healthy and worthwhile goal, it’s not a one-size-fits-all fitness recommendation. When walking for health is the primary goal, there is more to it than simply counting a large number of steps.
“Several studies have consistently shown that significant health benefits accrue well below 10,000 steps per day,” says Stamatakis.
For example, recent Harvard study involving more than 16,000 older women found that those who took at least 4,400 steps a day significantly reduced their risk of premature death compared to less active women. The study also noted that the longevity benefits continued up to 7,500 steps, but leveled off after that number. Simply put, 7,500 is also an ideal daily goal with comparable benefits to 10,000 steps.
Stamatakis notes that 7,500 steps is also consistent with general public health recommendations, such as The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation is 150 minutes moderate physical activity per week for adults.
But picking up the pace might be a good idea. As with any exercise, the physical benefits of walking depend on three things: duration, intensity, and frequency. Simply put: walk often, walk fast and walk long. The goal is to walk fast enough to get your heart rate up—even if only for a short time.
“Any pace is OK, but the faster the walking pace, the better,” says Stamatakis. “It’s perfect for 3,000 to 3,500 [of those steps] to be completed at a brisk or rapid pace.’
Walk faster, live longer
In a recent review study involving about 50,000 pedestrians, Stamatakis and colleagues linked faster walking speed with a reduced risk of death from almost everything except cancer. How much you walk, not how fast you walk, may be more important in reducing cancer mortality, the review notes.
Similar longevity incentives have been found in other studies. Recent work published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings analyzes life expectancy of nearly 475,000 men and women who self-reported slow or fast walking. Faster walkers—about 3 mph (or a 20-minute mile)—could expect to live roughly 15 to 20 years longer than slower walkers, or those who clock 2 mph (30 -minute mile.)
Participants who thought they were walking fast had an average life expectancy of nearly 87 years for men and 88 years for women. An increase in life expectancy was observed in all weight groups included in the study.
What is considered a fast pace is related to the physical level of the individual, but usually falls somewhere between 3 and 5 mph. A cadence of 100 steps per minute or more is a generally accepted threshold for making walking a moderately vigorous exercise.
While we know that walking is good for the body, research is also beginning to reveal how it affects brain function. In particular, walking can be an effective way to slow or reduce the cognitive declines that come with aging.
A study of older, sedentary adults found that walking for six months improved executive functioning, or the ability to plan and organize. Studies have also found that walking and other aerobic exercise can increasing the size of the hippocampusthe brain area involved in memory and learning.
Researchers believe that exercise such as brisk walking can improve brain plasticity, or ability to grow new neurons and form new synaptic connections.
Can you lose weight by walking?
If walking can help you live healthier and longer, can it help you lose weight? Not exactly. A common misconception is that it works by itself can help someone lose weight. Diet is much more important part of the weight loss equation, research shows.
Despite the several health benefits of walking, at least one study shows that daily walks make little difference in weight management. Weight gain is common among first-year students. The researchers wanted to determine whether walking could keep the pounds off. Their study, published in Journal of Obesity, observed 120 college freshmen over six months. For 24 weeks, the students walked 10,000, 12,500 or 15,000 steps a day, six days a week. The researchers tracked their calorie intake and weight — and found that the number of steps didn’t seem to affect the number on the scale. Even the students who walked the most still gained about the same amount of weight.
Often, when someone increases physical activity, some of the body’s normal physiological responses kick in to compensate for the calories burned. A person may begin to get hungry more often and eat more without realizing it.
Even with strict control of daily caloric intake, it takes a lot of walking to build up a significant deficit. To put this into perspective, A 155-pound person would burn approximately 500 calories walking for 90 minutes at a speed of 4.5 mph.
However, walking does seem to affect a person’s body composition. Where a person carries fat can be a more important indicator of disease risk than body mass index. Avid walkers tend to have smaller waist circumferences. Waist measurements that are more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men are associated with a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
So a walk in the park might not get you “torn” — but it sure beats sitting. Still on the fence if walking is the best exercise for your busy routine?