Why is walking so good for you? Here's what studies show.

Research shows the more you walk, the more health benefits you'll experience.

An illustration shows a hiking boot print with white tread similar to the cross in the Red Cross logo.
Walking has many health benefits and is one of the best ways to achieve the recommended daily exercise goals. (Illustration: Blake Cale for Yahoo News)

It can be a bit daunting trying to get in the recommended amount of exercise each week, which for adults is at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Everyone should do daily activity and exercise for at least 30 to 40 continuous minutes” to improve both physical and mental health, Dr. Jay Lee, an internal medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente, tells Yahoo Life.

But something as simple as walking can help you reach those exercise goals. “Walking can be one of the best ways to achieve this daily exercise,” says Lee. It doesn’t require any special equipment, can be done indoors or outdoors, and can be performed alone or in a group. It’s also easy to change the intensity of your exercise simply by changing where or how fast you walk. Unlike other forms of exercise, it’s possible to combine walking with other activities, such as running errands or participating in a work meeting by phone.

Although most people have heard that they should walk 10,000 steps a day, many experts don’t think it’s necessary to walk that much. Dr. Ann Hester, internist and author of Patient Empowerment 101, tells Yahoo Life that “aiming for at least 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day” can help meet the WHO’s guidelines for physical activity. However, other studies show that some health benefits start to accrue with as few as 4,000 steps or 10 minutes of walking.

What do studies say about walking’s impact on health?

  • It may reduce the risk of dementia. A study published in JAMA Neurology found that taking 9,800 steps may be “optimal” to lower the risk of developing dementia. However, the study found that taking as few as 3,800 steps per day may lower the risk of dementia by 25%.

  • Walking may help you live longer. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that older women taking about 4,400 steps per day had a 41% lower risk of dying. Another study, this one published in JAMA Network Open, found that taking 7,000 steps a day was linked to a 50% to 70% lower risk of mortality. Yet another study, this one published in Nature, found that walking briskly for as little as 10 minutes a day may lower your biological age by 16 years and help you live up to 20 years longer.

  • It can reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that taking up to 10,000 steps a day may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and that there was no clear benefit to taking more than 10,000 steps.

  • It may help with high blood pressure. According to a study published in PeerJ, walking 300 minutes a week reduces high blood pressure.

  • Walking may help you sleep better. A study published in the Sleep Health Journal showed that taking an additional 2,000 steps a day can improve the duration and quality of sleep.

  • It can improve your mental health. Walking can reduce anxiety and depression, relieve stress and lessen negative emotions, according to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

  • It can help strengthen your bones. Taking a brisk walk for at least 30 minutes a day as little as three days a week can help improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis, according to a study published in PLoS One.

  • Walking can help lower type 2 diabetes risk. A study published by the American Diabetes Association found that the risk of developing type 2 diabetes went down with every additional 2,000 steps taken.

Taken together, studies show that “there is no magical number of steps that everyone should aim for. The benefits of walking are additive, so the more you walk, the more benefits you’ll experience,” Dr. Marie Kanagie-McAleese, a hospitalist physician with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health and an active member of Walk With a Doc, tells Yahoo Life.

Hester adds that while any form of walking is beneficial, “walking briskly and consistently” as well as “choosing varied terrains and considering the duration and frequency can optimize the health benefits you receive.”

How to get the most out of walking

Lee recommends walking for at least 30 to 40 minutes without interruption. He also suggests walking briskly enough to raise your heart rate and breathing rate. “If you want to raise your level of exertion, then you can walk for longer durations of time or you can specifically walk uphill or over rougher terrain,” he says. “You can also carry a weighted pack to add to the level of your exertion if you wish.”

While it may be ideal to take a long, intense walk every day, that’s not feasible for everyone. If you have to choose, Lee recommends taking shorter daily walks over longer, more intense walks a few times a week. “The regularity is more important than the intensity or duration,” he says.

Find ways to get more steps in

Kanagie-McAleese recommends to her patients that they start by assessing how much walking they are currently doing by using a smartphone, smartwatch or an inexpensive step counter. Then they can figure out how to incorporate more steps into their day. “Taking an extra lap around the block, parking your car farther away and taking stairs instead of the elevator are easy ways to get more steps in,” she says.

For those who already have a solid walking routine in place, Kanagie-McAleese recommends focusing on increasing your step goal, starting to walk more briskly and taking a more challenging route, such as going uphill, to increase the health benefits of walking.

“The long-term goal I recommend is 4,000 to 7,000 steps per day and 20 to 30 minutes per day,” she says. To get there, “make short-term goals each week or so to increase your step goal by 250 to 500 steps and add one or two more days a week,” she suggests. Once you get to 7,000 steps and 30 minutes a day, “keep going — the health benefits will continue to increase with more activity.”

Lee agrees that when it comes to walking, “more is better.” However, he also recognizes that these goals might not be feasible for everyone. Ultimately, Lee says, “just get out and do what you can and enjoy it. Have fun and be safe.”