Walking is ‘doable’ and beneficial

I am a fan of exercise, but recognise that not everyone is. The fact is, many of us have barriers to it. One major barrier relates to some people’s belief the fact that exercise, to be beneficial, needs to be hard work. Some simply don’t relish the uncomfortable sensations that exercise can bring. Also, to be frank, quite-intense exercise may simply be inappropriate for some people. People who are, say, very overweight should probably not be running up hills but be doing safer, more realistic forms of exercise, at least to begin with.

Over the years I’ve become an enthusiastic advocate of walking, at least in part because it’s generally safe and not off-putting to most people aiming to be more active. I used to have a withering attitude to walking, which came as the result of me being a (formerly) keen runner. I wasn’t a brilliant runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I could average about 6-minute miles for several miles at my peak. No World records were shattered, but for an amateur, recreational runner, this is a decent pace.

In comparison, I believed walking offered little or no health benefits. I’ve reviewed that opinion now, on the basis of the research. Some of my interest here was borne out of personal interest. I retired myself from running more than a decade ago after a long succession of running-related injuries affecting my feet, ankles, skins, knees, sacroiliac joints (in the pelvis) and lower back. It just wasn’t sustainable for me to keep running, and I wonder if I’d persisted what state I might be in now.

Somewhat reluctantly, I was forced to look for alternative forms of activity to ‘keep me going’, and ended up making walking my staple activity. I’m a naturally fast walker, but never imagined that it was likely to be doing me much good from a health perspective until I started looking at the research. But even before I was convinced that it had health benefits, there were things about walking that made it immediately attractive to me. Here are some of them:

1. I could schedule it into my day (e.g. walk to the tube/subway, walk between meetings in the centre of London, walk to a restaurant) in a way that did not make exercise something that appeared to interrupt my life or take ‘too much time’.

2. I didn’t have to get especially dressed for it. Though I have over the years invested in many pairs of work shoes that are rubber-soled, comfortable and durable. The two brands I’ve settled on, by the way (though there are many others), are Anatomical Gel and the Airflex range from Marks and Spencer.

3. No dread. I used to run to schedule, often come hell or high water. Sometimes I’d not feel like running, and it would be at least at the back of my mind and sometimes build up into a ‘big thing’ until I got it done. I don’t ever get that before a walk, however long.

4. No discomfort and no injuries. I haven’t had a walking related injury since I started. I now find myself very infrequently on the osteopath’s couch too (back stuff, mainly), in stark contrast to when I was running.

So, what of the health benefits of walking. I’ve documented these a few times on this site, both in terms of their effect on body and brain. Today, I’d like to share the results of a recent study which adds to this body of evidence.

A group of overweight and obese men (average age – 54, average BMI – 28) were randomised to a walking programme or nothing (control group). The men were asked to walk for 30 minutes on at least 5 days of each week, in bouts of at least 10 minutes. The intensity of walking was 65 per cent of maximum heart rate (MHR). 220 minus age is a rough approximation of MHR. So, for the average study participant, MHR = 220 – 54 = 166. And 65 per cent of this comes out at 108 (not particularly intense). The study lasted for 24 weeks.

At the end of the study, the walkers were estimated to have walked for an average of 156 minutes per week – just over 2½ hours.

Compared to the control group, the walkers saw significant change in the following measurements:

  • Waist Circumference (a loss of 2 cm compared to an increase of 1.3 cm in the control group) There was no significant difference in weight.
  • Total cholesterol
  • Insulin levels (lower levels in the walking group)
  • Insulin sensitivity index (improved insulin sensitivity in the walking group)

The end result, was that moderate-paced walking averaging about 30 minutes in total on most days of the week led to improvements that are associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Walking, again, turns out to be a form of activity is that is ‘doable’ and beneficial.

References:

1. Woolf-May K, et al. The effect of 24 weeks of moderate intensity walking upon metabolic syndrome risk factors in previously sedentary/low active men. Journal of Exercise Physiology online 2011;14(4):145-156

14 Responses to Walking is ‘doable’ and beneficial

  1. enid shaw 12 August 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Walking is the best medicine available – and its free. At 77 I do not own a car, live alone hence daily shopping helped with a solid well balanced trolley for heavy goods. Feeling down? put your coat on and walk and walk. Meeting people, even smiling at strangers soon evaporates these downers. Walking opens the mind to our locality – whats going on etc. When pregnant and in labour I walked and walked rather than be prodded by the medics! result? a quick birth on three children without anyones help except for a telling off for leaving it late! I think I will walk into my grave when the time comes. Its been my medicine both physical and mental all my life. My one dread is the day when I cannot escape walking through old age! After all that is what legs are for!!

  2. John Briffa 12 August 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    Enid

    You’re an inspiration. And you’ve also reminded me of something…

    When I’m talking to people ‘getting on a bit’ about activity, one of the pieces of advice I sometimes give is “do at least some things that you can imagine yourself doing when you’re 80.” In other words, look to finding realistic and sustainable forms of activity. I think walking is generally one of those things, and you’re living proof of that.

  3. Feona 12 August 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    I love walking and know the benefits well – now I know how quickly you can lose those benefits, too. For the past four weeks I’ve had to restrict my walking to almost nothing because of a knee injury (fat pad impingement) and my mood has gone downhill, plus my digestion and sleep are both suffering, as are my poor friends. Thanks to an excellent physio things are slowly improving and I’m looking forward to getting back to my usual levels of walking again in the coming weeks. I’ve never understood the current passion for cycling when walking is even cheaper and easier to do and far less dangerous – apart from the idiotic behaviour of so many cyclists in Central London, of course (but that’s a different subject altogether)!

  4. Trish Cherry 12 August 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    I agree that walking is the best exercise you can get, mentally and physically. I used to walk in a driven way thinking that it would make me lose weight, (but thats another subject) It didn,t! But I know that it is beneficial for my cardiovascular system and helps relieve stress, and depression.

    I notice that your report mentions that the men in the study above “did not lose weight!)

  5. John Walker 12 August 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Thanks to an active youth, football, tennis, swimming, I now have worn-out knees. (One replaced, the other in desperate need of replacement.) My one-time job involved walking most of the day, so at present I really cannot walk without the aid of a stick. Even at that, the ‘gammy’ knee keeps collapsing under me.

    So for the moment I am not able to exercise, except to perform push-ups against a wall or inclined pull-ups under a ‘low-bar’. What do I expect?
    Well, I am only 72, so I expect a lot more. But thanks to cut backs, I have to wait for my second knee replacement. Mysteriously this worn-out joint is not as bad as my surgeon told me it was, 24 months ago. Ah well, I must look for even more carbs to ditch! :)

    JW

  6. Jim Edgar 12 August 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    I started exercising relatively recently, at the age of 47. Now approaching 50, my routine consists of 1 or 2 20 minute runs a week at 8.5 km/hr (with a 5 minute warm-up and 15 minute warm-down, including stretching); 1 or 2 1 hour walks a week at 6.6 km/hr; and 2 rounds of golf (usually 18 holes on a Tues & 9 holes on Fri) – I always carry my bag rather than using a trolley.
    I have been fortunate to avoid injury, perhaps as a result of warming up/stretching etc. However in the last 6 months, since starting to play golf regularly and improving my running – and without significant alteration to my diet – I have gradually shed 6kg (from 108 kg to 102 kg).
    Possibly due to mild hypertension (treated) I do not enjoy resistance exercise, but although I enjoy my running and golf I also think that my walking has contributed to my weight loss and overall feeling of wellbeing.
    I look forward to shedding further kgs in the coming months – as I use I treadmill in my garage I don’t have the weather as an excuse!
    I would also be interested in your views on Tom Scott’s question about hypertension treatments. I am currently on 50mg/day of metoprolol tartrate – home readings average approx 135/80. My GP said beta blockers are no longer the favoured first course of treatment but, as it seemed to be working, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. I feel well on the treatment but is it true that it acts as a ‘handbrake’ on healthy physical activity?

  7. tom scott 12 August 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Do beta blockers, ace inhibitors, etc have any effect on MHR? Do they artificially depress the heart rate?
    Thanks & enjoy your emails.

  8. zephyr haversack 13 August 2011 at 1:15 am #

    I’m very happy to see Dr Briffa giving walking the thumbs up! While I also believe that the low-carb way to eat is the way to go for optimal health, I have also read a great many scholarly studies saying that exercise, even moderate, creates more mitochondria in the muscle cells and makes them more efficient at burning all forms of fuel. That, plus people who are ‘aerobically’ fit seem to respond with less insulin output to the same amount of carbs than do the less fit — this is excellent news, as one of the intents of keeping one’s carbs low is to keep one’s insulin levels low. Fitness seems to allow one some ‘wiggle room’ vis-a-vis having carbs safely. I walk, but when I find it difficult to do so due to underlying musculoskeletal conditions, I bike — less stress on the hip joints and big fun!

  9. Heather 13 August 2011 at 1:32 am #

    I am in my 60s and started using a rebounder a few years ago. At first, I could only walk on it holding onto a handrail (I was recovering from an illness). For many reasons, walking is not feasible here, unless one drives to a safe place to walk, and I don’t drive. We don’t have pavements and the locals drive like maniacs. However, I walk on my rebounder daily. I just thought I would mention that one can still get all the benefits of walking this way in case others have difficulties in getting out and about.

  10. Sherry 13 August 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    Glad to hear of the benefits of walking! I have walked most places all my adult life,and had a very active job.I was for several years a Health Walk leader. Now approaching my 60th birthday, I am very debilitated due to osteoarthritis and find I cannot walk more than a mile or so very slowly and only on the flat (and even then I pay for it the next day!) I wonder if I have actually “worn out” my knees.Nothing seems to help with the pain and mobility..fish oil, glucosamine, magnesium etc., all the usual remedies. And ,although I am terrified at the thought of knee replacement,I am not eligible yet according to my NHS Consultant. Your thoughts,please Dr Briffa.

  11. DanC 15 August 2011 at 1:39 am #

    “…injuries affecting my feet, ankles, skins, knees, sacroiliac joints (in the pelvis) and lower back.”

    From your personal point of view did you ever look into the effects that modern running shoes and orthotics (assuming you wore them) had on your lower extremeties?

    I followed a similar path as yours (but never below an 8-min mile). Last year (at age 70) I cast out my orthotics and am jogging (albeit very slowly) pain-free (hips and plantar) again.

  12. gill oliver 20 August 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    I get excrutiating pain in pad of my feet if i walk for more than 10 mins at a time, so have taken up swimming instead, i would like to walk aswell, can you give me some info as to what is going on in my feet. I am 64 yrs old.

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