Your ancestors did it all the time. More than half of your muscles are designed for it. It can lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes as much as running can, but it’s low impact, and the risk of injury is incredibly low.
It’s walking, and it could save your life.
Walking daily reduces the danger of developing certain types of cancers, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. It even improves mental health. Just 10 minutes at a time of brisk walking can provide benefits.
Perhaps the most startling benefit of walking is how it affects our brains.
Boosts ‘brain vitamins’
According to Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a professor and research director with a focus on aging, mobility and cognitive neuroscience, when you engage in physical activity like walking, your body naturally produces what scientists call “neurotrophic factors.”
“These factors are akin to ‘brain vitamins’ as they facilitate neuronal cell growth, differentiation and survival,” Liu-Ambrose says.
Regular physical activity also reduces many chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, that have negative consequences on your thinking abilities.
“Even a 15-minute walk per day at moderate pace (still able to carry a conversation with a bit of effort) may decrease your risk of developing dementia plus reduce the amount of shrinkage that occurs in the brain over a 10-year span,” Liu-Ambrose says.
Walking can also regulate how our body responds to psychological stress. “When we are stressed, we release cortisol, which over time can be quite toxic for our brain,” Liu-Ambrose says. “Research has found that those individuals who engage in physical activity, such as walking, release less cortisol in response to stress compared with those who are less active.”
Liu-Ambrose’s research has shown walking two times a week for 40 minutes at a moderate pace not only improves memory performance, but can also maintain the volume of the hippocampus, a brain region critical for memory and highly vulnerable to diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Build walking into your day
Kelly Scott, a physical activity specialist, says, “People are really busy. Setting aside time for leisure walking can be challenging, so you have to build it into your everyday life.” Bouts of 10 minutes or more of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week quickly add up. “This is the cumulative effect. It adds up to how people reach their goal of 30 to 60 minutes a day.”
Scott recommends starting with short trips. You can incorporate the benefits of walking into your day by
- walking to and from a bus stop
- walking to work
- walking your kids to school
- parking at the far end of the parking lot during the daytime and walking from there
- taking the stairs rather than the elevator
- walking over to speak to a colleague instead of texting or emailing when you’re in the office
- getting up for a stretch break every hour
- joining or creating a lunchtime walking group
- holding walking meetings with your colleagues
- walking with a friend regularly after work