Walking may be ideal exercise as we age

I was talking to someone yesterday regarding some changes in his biochemistry that suggest his adrenal glands are not functioning as well as they might. This is important, because the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) have a multitude of roles, including the secretion of hormones in response to stress. For many years this man had been a useful runner, and clocked up significant mileage at a decent pace each week. Because this is quite hard work on the body and the adrenal glands, I suggested he, among other things, pulled back a bit on the running. I suggested that he might think about substituting it for a less intense activity like brisk walking.

I also used to run a lot, and as a result of this and other old sporting endeavours (rugby, mainly) ended up with quite few joint-related issues including pain in my ankles, knees and sacroiliac joints (a joint in the back of the pelvis). Repeated cycles of running/injury/rest/running and ever-frequent visits to the osteopath convinced me that I needed to find another principle form of exercise. I chose walking, though it took me two years getting over the ‘shock’ of kissing goodbye to running before it occurred to me that walking might be a worthwhile and viable substitute.

For people used to running, walking can appear to be an exercise that just doesn’t cut it. But actually there is quite a lot of evidence (some of it detailed elsewhere on this site) that walking can have significant benefits for health. It is much easier on the body than running, and because of this is much more appropriate, I think, as we age.

One of the things I asked the gentleman I was talking to yesterday to consider was this: Can he see himself running in his 80s (assuming he makes it this far?). The reality is that while running in one’s 80s is possible, it is not, maybe, likely. That means that some time between now and then, this man is going to need to find a viable alternative to running if he wants to retain relatively high levels of activity and the benefits that come with this.

And on this subject of benefits, I was interested to read a recently-published study which looked at how much walking appears to be required for significant benefits for health in older adults [1]. In this study, Japanese researchers assessed physical activity using two devices: a pedometer to measure numbers of steps and an accelerometer to measure speed. Several hundred men and women aged 65 or over were assessed for 24 hours a day for more than 8 years.

The researchers involved in this study then looked at what levels of activity appeared to be associated with benefits for physical and mental health. What they found was that improved physical health was seen in individuals taking 8000 steps at an intensity of more than 3 ‘METs’. MET stands for Metabolic Equivalent of Task. One MET is the energy expended at rest. So if someone is engaged in an exercise that burns 3 times as many calories as are burned at rest, that exercise is 3 or more METs in intensity. 3 METs equates to walking at a speed of 5 km/hr (about 3 miles an hour or a mile completed in about 19 minutes).

The threshold above which there was an associated with benefits for mental health was lower: only 4000 steps a day at 3 or more METs.

The main issue with a study of this nature is that it is epidemiological in nature, and therefore only tells us that there are associations between physical activity and benefits of health. It does not assure that the physical activity caused the better health. It could be, after all, that individuals who are in better health are more likely to be active.

However, physical activity can induce changes in the body that we would expect to reduce the risk of chronic disease and enhance. All-in-all, the evidence suggests that walking has considerable potential in terms of improving and maintaining health, and this may be particularly important as we age when walking may end up being one of the forms of exercise we have the capacity to engage in with relative ease.


1. Aoyagi Y, et al. Steps per day: the road to senior health? Sports Med. 2009;39(6):423-38.

14 Responses to Walking may be ideal exercise as we age

  1. Rob 5 June 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Make sure with the walking that you keep some form of weight training to offset Sarcopenia! Look up Sarcopenia to find out more! Or you can find out more in my book on my website! Just click my name above!

  2. Paul Anderson 5 June 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    A thought provoking post.

    A lot of the evidence on the benefits of exercise appears to be contradictory. From my readings, it excessive aerobic exercise is damaging to the body. The defiinition of excessive being for more than 45 minutes duration. An alternative approach might be to use brief periods of very intensive exercise, maybe in tandem with an active lifestyle. The brief periods of high intensity exercise would improve insulin sensitivity and the active lifestyle would promote fat burning. Interval training combines both approaches.

    I think the Heriott Watt study showed big improvements in insulin sensitivity from short durations of sprint cycling interspersed by recovery periods. The principle of tabata sprinting relies on very brief but intense sprints – maybe as little as 4 minutes twice a week.

    The problem with jogging is not so much the activty itself but the duration. Once you get up to maybe 40 miles a week what are you actually achieving that you couldn’t achieve through shorter, more intensive runs? You are placing a great deal of stress on the body, and are potentially weakening the immune system. With running you are also not working the whole body, and you are channelling a great deal on pressure through your leg joints. Prolonged exercise won’t promote muscle growth or retention either. Cortisol realesed in reponse to excessive aerobic exercise can actually promote insuin resistance and weight gain – not to mention the effect on appetite.

    I can’t claim to have found an ideal balance but I do believe that continuous periods of exericse extending beyond 45 minutes offers little benefit to health and fitness levels over the longer term. I think that exercise is another case wher quality is more imprtant than quantity. I try to do some weights, some flexibility type exericses and some running and cycling and haven’t yet found the right balance for me.

    Walkingb I think is beneficial because its weight bearing, stress free, promotes fat burning and can be made to fit in to daily activity.

    If your exercise regime has variety, you can make subtle adjustments as you proceed (and age), without relying on one singular activity.

    Just a few thoughts.

    Paul Anderson

  3. Chris 5 June 2009 at 9:39 pm #

    Hi Paul, my personal experience would suggest that enthusiastic exercise is indeed helpful to counter the consequences of high BG or insulin load. From what I have read vigorous physical activity has the potential to break the cycle of muscle glycosylation and highlighting my own lack of formal tuition in this regard I would nonetheless subjectively say that I found that to be the case. Provided I was physically active on a regular basis I could consume lots of pies and beer and cope with the BG loading in my early stages of diabetes.
    Gycosylation, I believe, is the process that makes diabetics and IR types feel lethargic – it takes the spring out of my step. Sometimes, I see overweight folks going about their business almost as if in slow motion and I wonder if this is due to glycosylation.
    I agree, without knowing the detail, that the muscular end of the metabolic pathway is important. Particularly, in persons whose normal metabolic function is under stress.
    But I notice that some folks remain thin and healthy without especially engaging in exercise but nonetheless they lead active lifestyles through activities such as walking to local shops, playing actively with the kids, gardening, housework and the like. My observations are hardly likely to satisfy the stringent requirements for a satisfactory study, but I nonetheless think there may be some validity in suggesting that maybe the dietary habits of this group are different and that such physical activity is good enough for them?
    Perhaps the past and our evolution to the present day has something to tell us. Largely existing as folivores and frugivores our distant progenitors may not have been generally vigourously active, quite sedentary really, while moving on into a gatherer-hunter period it is accepted that activity levels, especially for males increases. Somehow I do not see those ancestors working out with weights of in a exercising in a structured, ‘interval training’ kind of way. Isolated modern humans that still live a subsistence lifestyle are physically active, but not running at pace for long durations. I guess that if folks are eating a balanced and healthy diet then walking is adequate exercise without the added strains associated with running.
    A lot of folks of advancing years seem to do nicely on a regular swim, combining resistance and cardio quite well.
    Thanks Paul, for supplying the link on intermittent fasting. Fascinating

  4. Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later 6 June 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    There seems to be an emerging view (e.g. the writings of Art Devaney and more recently Body by Science by Dough McGuff) that low impact, high-intensity, brief resistance weight training is the optimal exercise mode to promote health whilst protecting the joints and would therefore seem ideal as the exercise mode for older people, especially as it also supposedly promotes the production of hormones that normally start to decline in old age, like testosterone in men.

  5. Alannah 9 June 2009 at 5:57 am #

    Hi, Can anyone explain to me exactly what “low impact, high-intensity, brief resistance weight training” means? I REALLY don’t want to have to start going to the gym, are there any work-out-at-home alternatives? Thanks!

  6. John Adler 9 June 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    If walking is to be an effective form of exercise, it needs to be undertaken in a way that generates cardio-vascular activity. My approach, aged 65, is to walk briskly up a steepish hill, then rest to get my breath back, and then do it again. Walking on the flat – unless it is a considerable distance – does not achieve the desired effect of getting your system moving. As with all forms of exercise one should work up to a given level in stages.

  7. Paul Anderson 11 June 2009 at 9:47 am #


    There are a variety of exercises you could try without going to a gym. For example, press ups, squats and lunges – all essentially using your own body weight. If you can’t manage full pess ups there are modifications that you can try, for example, on your knees ratherthan toes.

    I am not sure what the term “low impact” refers to but the principle is to lift heavy enough to work, retain and possible grow the muscles, which tend otherwise to reduce with age.

    With regard to wlaking I suppose it partly depends on your personal goals. Walking will help to some effect with fat burning and it is a useful weight bearing exericse. I agree that hill walking is more challenging and probably more beneficial.

    Chris – some intereseting observations. Glad youenjoyed the link on intermittent fasting.


  8. Paul Anderson 11 June 2009 at 9:48 am #


    There are a variety of exercises you could try without going to a gym. For example, press ups, squats and lunges – all essentially using your own body weight. If you can’t manage full pess ups there are modifications that you can try, for example, on your knees ratherthan toes.

    I am not sure what the term “low impact” refers to but the principle is to lift heavy enough to work, retain and possible grow the muscles, which tend otherwise to reduce with age.

    With regard to wlaking I suppose it partly depends on your personal goals. Walking will help to some effect with fat burning and it is a useful weight bearing exericse. I agree that hill walking is more challenging and probably more beneficial.

    Chris – some intereseting observations. Glad you enjoyed the link on intermittent fasting.


  9. Chris P 17 June 2009 at 8:39 pm #

    I used to run in the 1980’s and completed a few half marathons.
    I would occasionally read magazines on the topic.

    I remember an article in one magazine headed “Pure, White and Deadly” and my faded memory suggests this was casting refined cane sugar in a bad light. This is an article I’d like to revisit. I think it appeared in a periodical simply titled “Running” and may have been circa 1983.
    If any one can offer any contribution to help me track down this article I would be very grateful, thanks.

  10. Dr John Briffa 17 June 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    Chris P

    Dr John Yudkin wrote a book with this title (first published in the early 70s), and it possible that the article was related to this. The book is out of print, though some second-hand copies are available. For example, see here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pure-White-Deadly-diabetes-completely/dp/0670808199/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244966002&sr=1-2

  11. Trinkwasser 18 June 2009 at 11:57 pm #

    Mark Sisson is the guy


    as an ex-athlete he knows whereof he writes

    “Move slowly a lot, move fast occasionally, lift heavy things . . .”

    IMO too many people do cardio to the point of needing to stuff extra carbs in their faces, which negates a lot of the benefits (certain of my relatives may be reading . . .) whereas I tend to walk a lot, do stuff like gardening and housework including walking up and downstairs twice when I could just go once, lifting the watering can at arms length a few times etc. and keeping to a level where I am largely fuelled by fats and not upsetting my funky glucose metabolism.

    My version of Tabata sprints is walking really fast with shopping, stopping for a chat, walking really fast, stopping to pet a dog . . . all of which serves to give me exercise within my daily life and appears to have major benefits to insulin resistance and associated BG and BP etc. Finding your own balance between activity and joint and other stress, glucose consumption etc. is important, your mileage may vary. Literally (grins)

  12. Chris P 1 July 2009 at 5:59 pm #

    Thank you John, while I was aware of a book by the same title it had not fully registered with me. (I just checked the index and Taubes references Yudkin several times – perhaps thats’ where I saw it)
    Can anyone suggest if it still carries pertinence 35 yrs or so after publication? It is not in my library service but I can extend the search.
    The amazon ‘also boughts’ that return with the link look interesting. ‘Bad Science’ is in with the pack.
    TW, the dailyapple looks interesting and I’ll give it a closer look b4 long. Cheers!

  13. Chris 1 July 2009 at 6:15 pm #

    Are there any fans of skipping? I’ve experienced that training with a local gym. 2 minutes on and 1 minute rest. It was normal to do between 6 and 10 ’rounds’. Works the bigger leg muscles hardest and is fairly low impact. Judging by the body heat generated it must get the circulation going.
    Ropes are cheap to buy and often come with guidance on ways to train.


  1. Walking in later life found to boost brain function | Dr Briffa's Blog - 30 August 2010

    […] For more information on why walking may be the ideal exercise while we age, see here. […]

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