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‘My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where she is.’ ˜Ellen DeGeneres
According to Hippocrates, walking is the best medicine. Walking is one of the least expensive and most broadly accessible forms of physical activity. Studies have shown that walking has higher levels of adherence than other forms of physical activity, possibly because it is convenient and overcomes many of the commonly perceived barriers to physical activity: lack of time, lack of fitness and lack of skill. You don’t need to concentrate on the walking itself, leaving you free to enjoy your surroundings, chat or think. At the same time, you can enjoy a variety of surroundings as you walk in different places and different seasons.1
GENERAL BENEFITS OF WALKINGToning and weight controlWalking strengthens muscles and especially tones the leg and abdominal muscles. When you walk regularly, you will also lose weight. A brisk walk of 30 minutes can burn 200 calories, and as calories burn, the weight drops.
Joint supportWalking supports your joints. The majority of joint cartilage has no direct blood supply. It gets its nutrition from synovial or joint fluid that circulates as we move. Impact that comes from movement or compression, such as walking, squeezes the cartilage thereby bringing oxygen and nutrients into the area. If you don’t walk, the joints are deprived of life-giving fluid, which can speed up deterioration.
BreathingWhen we walk we also improve our breathing rate, which causes oxygen to travel faster through the bloodstream, helping to eliminate waste products and improve our energy level and the ability to heal.
Improved sleepRegular walking will improve your sleep. Women between 50 and 75 years who do a one-hour walk in the morning have fewer signs of insomnia. Walking can ward off heart disease by increasing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and strengthening the heart. By walking five kilometers a day in 24 weeks blood pressure can drop by as much as 11 points. Various studies on mice and humans have shown that cardiovascular exercises (walking hills or steps) can create new brain cells and improve overall brain performance.2
Walking can help to prevent osteoporosis. By walking 30 minutes a day the rate of hip fractures in older women can be reduced by as much as 40%. To benefit osteoporosis, walking must be carried out at a high intensity such as a faster pace, for long duration or incorporating terrain such as hills.
WALKING AND MENTAL HEALTH Walking has the benefit of lightening the mood by encouraging the release of the feel-good hormones, endorphins. This means the more steps we take during the day, the better our mood. This is just one of the emotional benefits of exercise.
Studies have shown that exercise can also alleviate symptoms among the clinically depressed. At the same time it reduces physical symptoms of anxiety which is associated with minor stress and increases self-reported energy levels and cognition. Walking can also elevate affective response and encourages better cognitive performance in schoolchildren. Walking can lead to a longer life – if you exercise regularly in your 50s and 60s. Walking slows down mental decline: A study of 6 000 women aged 65 and older, performed by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that age-related memory decline was lower in those who walked more.3 A study from the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville found that men between the ages of 71 and 93 who walked more than a quarter of a mile per day had half the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.4 Regular walking strengthens the brain’s memory circuit and can help reduce memory loss over time. Walking was found to increase the size of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, potentially beneficial for memory.
THE BENEFITS OF WALKING FOR CHILDRENA safe route to school where children can walk or cycle is a highly effective way of addressing future chronic illness such as obesity, osteoporosis and depression. Most teachers will tell you that children who walk or cycle to school are more alert and ready to learn than those who travel by car. There is a direct link between fitness levels and academic scores, especially in English and Maths. Those in the fittest category had scores on average twice those of the least fit.5 Children who emerge from their school years feeling confident about their physical skills and bodies and who have had positive experience of physical activity are more likely to be active through adulthood.
NORDIC WALKING Nordic walking (walking with poles) was developed in Scandinavia and introduced in central Europe nearly 20 years ago. It proved to be a simple and feasible form of physical activity that can be done by nearly everybody everywhere and almost at any time.
Patients with progressive neurodegenerative movement disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease) have been shown to benefit from Nordic walking. It improves motor skills, impaired functional mobility, walking speed, distance and possibly leads to a reduced rate of falls and an improved quality of life. Nordic walking will improve conditions such as diabetes, obesity, coronary artery disease, COPD, fibromyalgia and chronic pain.6
WALKING IN NATUREA good prescription for feeling down is to take a hike. For an extra boost of self-love, take that workout outside. Hiking can improve vitamin D levels, acquired from soaking up the sun. If you walk 90 minutes in a natural area, as compared to a traffic-congested, urban setting, you will experience a decreased activity in the region of the brain that is associated with depression. Walking in nature is vitally important for mental health. The neural activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that focused on negative emotions decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.7 This means walking in nature has a positive effect on the mood and aspects of cognitive function, including working memory.
CONCLUSIONFeeling uninspired? The solution might be just a short walk. Walking is far more preferable to running or jogging because it creates less stress on your joints, including hips, knees and ankles. Do warm up before and cool down after every walking session. Just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive. On average every minute of walking can extend your life by 1.5 to 2 minutes. Try to walk 30 minutes a day to maintain good health. And walking is the most accessible form of physical activity. You can do it almost anywhere. It is easy – all you have to do is lace up with a good pair of shoes – and walk.
References1. Ramblers. Get Walking Keeps Walking: Free Exercise From Your Doorstep; 2007.2. Breene S. 13 mental health benefits of exercise. Huffington Post; March 27, 2013. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/mental-health-benefits-exercise_n_2956099.html3. http://clubindustry.com/studies/health-news-5 4. http://www.badns.org/Info/benefits.htm5. California Department of Education. State study proves physically fit kids perform better academically. New Release 12 Oct 2002.6. Tschentscher M, Niederseer D, et al. Health benefits of Nordic walking: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med 2013;44(1):76-84.
DR FRANCES LE ROUX, BSC, MSC, PHD.
She is a registered physiotherapist in Fish Hoek, Cape Town, South Africa. She has a special interest in music/medicine based on her research regarding music and pain, immune systems and spiritual well-being. She is a member of the International Music in Medicine Association and on the International Editorial Board of Music and Medicine Interdisciplinary Journal. Her books Music is Healing and recently published Music and Babies are available from: email@example.com
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