9 of the Most Surprising Ways Walking Benefits Your Health, According to Doctors

·7 min read
Photo credit: Erik Isakson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Erik Isakson - Getty Images

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Every step you take does more for your health than you probably realize. Walking benefits every part of your body from your brain down to your ankles. The best part? You don't have to do laps around your neighborhood for 45 minutes to boost your health and feel better mentally and physically. In fact, just a short ten-minute walk every day can lead to big improvements. In case you need more reason to lace up your sneakers and get moving, here are the biggest research-backed health benefits you'll get from adding a little more walking to your daily routine (just don't forget to pick up a pair of good walking shoes before you get started!).

1. Walking lowers your risk of heart disease.

“The heart is a muscle and the best way to strengthen your muscle is through training and getting out and being active,” says Shirley Rietdyk, Ph.D., professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University. That’s probably why research abounds on the potential heart-health benefits of exercise and walking in particular. In one study of more than 80,000 postmenopausal women, those who walked the most had a 11% lower risk of high blood pressure than those who walked the least and the women who walked the fastest had a 21% lower risk than those who walked the slowest. But you don’t have to walk distance marathons to reap the benefits. “People that are concerned about their risk for heart disease should be aware that increasing their daily walk by 1,000 steps can produce a 5 to 20% reduction in risk for cardiovascular illness and death,” says Joaquin U. Gonzales, Ph.D., associate professor in kinesiology at Texas Tech University.

2. Walking can stabilize your blood sugar.

“For people worried about diabetes, walking has the ability to improve glucose regulation and lower 24-hour blood sugar levels,” says Gonzales. One George Washington University study found that people who walked for just 15 minutes after each meal saw a healthier dip in blood sugar than those who strode for 45 minutes consecutively. The reason stems from the fact that walking stimulates many areas of your body at once. “When all these tissues are active (neurons, the heart and muscles), blood vessels that supply each tissue with nutrients dilate, resulting in elevated blood flow,” explains Gonzales. “The rise in blood flow provides the dilated arteries with a stimulus to stay healthy and deliver glucose to the brain, heart and muscle to utilize as fuel. That is why walking, even in short bouts of two minutes every 20 minutes, can help the body lower blood sugar after a meal.” Stable blood sugar levels can help prevent diabetes as well as keep sugar cravings at bay.

3. Walking can help you live longer.

Studies that track people for years show that those that walk regularly (five or more days per week) live up to four years longer than their sedentary peers,” says Gonzales. “Recent research in U.S. women show that as little as 4,400 steps per day lowers risk of death, with greater step counts producing greater benefits to health.” This may be because physical activity puts demands on your heart, respiratory system, brain, muscles and bones, Rietdyk says. Unlike machines that break down the more you use them, our bodies benefit from that movement, she explains.

Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images

4. Walking can improve your sleep.

Higher-quality sleep might not be the first benefit that comes to mind when you think about walking, but it really does help — even if you squeeze it in at the end of the day. In fact, people who walk in the morning or evening often report sleeping better compared to when they don't walk at all, according to research. Rietdyk often works with older adults who struggle to stay active and touts superior snooze as motivation to get walking. “One of the things that I’ll talk about is the short-term benefit, which is that you’re going to feel better when you’re done exercising and then at night you will sleep better, which means you’ll have an improved mood tomorrow, which means you’re more likely to exercise again,” she says. “With repetition of exercise you start to see these more long-term benefits like cognitive ability and balance and the whole cascade of things like heart health.”

5. Walking burns calories.

If you're interested in walking for weight loss, note that like other forms of physical activity, walking burns calories — and research shows that walking for 150 minutes per week can help reduce abdominal fat. If you’re short on time, you can up your calorie burn by incorporating high-intensity intervals into your walk: Warm up for a few minutes and then alternate between periods of brisk walking and periods of walking as fast as you can. Another option is to use ski-like poles to tone your arms at the same time. You might feel a little goofy at first, but one study found you’ll burn 20% more calories than you would without poles. You’ll also increase your upper-body strength and lower-body flexibility. Not sure what equipment to get? Spring for Nordic-walking poles, which have no-slip tips. Just remember, as with any other exercise equipment, it’s smart to consult a professional before you use them to prevent injuries. “I would caution a person to talk to an expert like a physical therapist about whether or not that would be useful for them and then get proper training on how to use them,” says Rietdyk. “Even with canes and walkers, if they’re not used properly, they can actually result in falls.”

Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images

6. Walking boosts brainpower.

“More attention has been given recently to the benefits of walking and brain health with studies showing regular walking increases brain size in older adults, improves cognitive performance, and is effective at treating some mental illnesses like depression,” says Gonzales. A study from Stanford University even found that walking increases creativity by 60%. One theory is that exercise improves blood flow to the brain, which helps it function better. Rietdyk also points out that when you’re walking, your brain gets to practice making a lot of decisions that you may not even realize you’re making — like where to place your feet when you come to a curb, whether you should walk around other walkers, which path to follow and if you need to speed up to cross a street. “These may not seem like difficult decisions, but there does seem to be some benefit to making them,” says Rietdyk. Along those same lines, she says some research suggests that walking with a partner can help you solve conflicts together. 

7. Walking can help maintain mobility.

“Since quality of life is arguably more important than length of life, it is also important to note that walking also extends the time older adults live free of using walking aids or suffering from a disability,” says Gonzales. Even if you already experience mobility issues, walking can sometimes help keep them from getting worse. Research from Northwestern University actually found that people with osteoarthritis of the knee, hip, ankle or foot who did 60 minutes of brisk walking every week had a significantly lower risk of being sidelined by a disability compared to their more sedentary peers.

8. Walking supports your immune system.

If there’s anything we’ve learned during the pandemic, it’s how important a strong immune system is. It turns out that walking (and moderate-intensity exercise in general) helps build up the immune cells in our body that target and destroy pathogens. As a result, people who walk regularly have a lower risk of becoming seriously ill from infections and spend less time in the hospital if they do come down with something.

9. Walking improves balance.

Balance is something we tend to take for granted when we’re younger, but it becomes increasingly important to prevent falls as we age. Fortunately, walking is an excellent way to keep your balancing skills strong. That’s because as you walk, “you’re getting sensory information from your inner ear, your vision, your muscles, your joints and your touch receptors about where you are in space and you have to respond to that,” explains Rietdyk. “Your balance in more challenged when you’re upright doing something versus, say, on a stationary bike or doing exercises in a seated position.” 

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