According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity every week. Sadly, almost half of Americans don’t meet those recommendations. Moreover, a new study shows that sitting for prolonged periods of time raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
So what’s the solution to these problems? Walk, says a growing number of health experts. While activities like jogging, swimming, tennis, and basketball are terrific forms of exercise, not everyone can withstand the rigors of those sports. But brisk walking—and even small breaks away from your desk to walk around a bit—can make a significant impact on your health if you make it a habit.
Some new scientific evidence strongly endorses regular walking:
- One recent study found that a brisk, 20-minute daily walk appeared to lower the risk of premature death. The study looked at more than 334,000 people and found that burning about 90 to 110 calories a day, accomplished in a 20-minute walk, cut the risk of premature death by 16 to 30 percent. “This is a simple message,” says Ulf Ekelund, an author of the report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive.”
- Walking can be used to counter the problem of spending way too much time at a desk, in the car, or on the couch, according to another recent report. In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers in Toronto calculated that more than one-half of the average person’s waking life is spent being sedentary. The harmful effects of too much sitting are worse for people who don’t do much exercise.
- Likewise, a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that the harmful effects on your leg arteries caused by sitting for hours can be easily reversed with five-minute walks. Muscles slacken when sitting and hinder blood from traveling back to the heart. When blood pools in the legs, it eventually damages those arteries. But, in an experiment, men who sat for three hours and then walked on a treadmill for five minutes (at just two miles per hour) showed signs of healthier arterial function in their legs. “American adults sit for approximately eight hours a day,” says study leader Saurabh Thosar, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon Health & Science University. “The impairment in endothelial function is significant after just one hour of sitting. Light physical activity can help in preventing this impairment.”
What’s great about walking is that it can be done anywhere. You can walk around your neighborhood or even up and down the halls of your house or apartment building in poor weather. You don’t need special equipment (just comfortable shoes). And, walking is something almost everyone can do, making it a great social activity.
Evidence suggests that walking with a group of people may be especially beneficial. Researchers in the United Kingdom analyzed data from 42 studies on walking and health benefits. They found that people who joined walking groups had sizeable reductions in blood pressure, body fat, body mass index, resting heart rate, and total cholesterol. In addition, they had improved lung capacity, better general fitness, and lower rates of depression. Also, the authors note, walking rarely results in any injuries or adverse side effects.