As a podiatric physician and walking instructor at FloWalking.com, I am always reading new research on walking. People ask me why I bother: hasn’t it all been said?
No, it has not. In fact, some of the findings about walking are vexing, perplexing and downright mystifying. Other research is fascinating and motivating.
One constant seems to be that every research team sets out knowing great things can happen for walkers.
In fact, many of the studies are based on the premise that bare minimums of walking can do amazing things for your health and increase your lifespan (more on that later). But in every case, walking remains the winner.
I’d like to use this space to summarize the most enlightening (and some surprising) studies from the latest walking research.
The Basics: Just Minutes of Walking Can Add Years to Your Life
When people tell me they don’t have time to walk (too many texts to send, I suppose), I jump out of my chair to tell them about this study by the U.S. National Cancer Institute. It wasn’t a casual headcount, either – over 650,000 people were involved in their research, which covered decades of statistics.
Those who walked just 10 minutes a day added an average of 1.8 years to their life spans; those who walked 25-40 minutes a day ended living 3.4 years longer (over those who did nothing).
I love how elemental this study was. They seemed to be asking, “What’s the minimum?”
Another study (again by the NCI) involved people who never left the house. They were overweight and mostly watched TV in their free time. Researchers tried the only thing left – asking them to stand up and walk in place during commercial breaks.
Again, walking won: These TV watchers watched their body-fat percentages move in favorable directions. They not only began to eat less, probably because it is hard to down ice cream when you are walking, but more interestingly, these people also began to watch less TV!
Moving the Needle: What Walking Can Do for YOU
Most avid walkers are looking to improve their physique and improve their health. As a walking teacher, I realize this group is my main audience.
There is plenty of good news in this department as well. Whether you are counting steps or extending the amount of time you spend walking, you should pick up a pedometer (a device that counts steps and calculates distances covered).
Japanese researchers in Nakanojo released the results of a study in which they counted the steps of over 5,000 participants for the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.
When walkers hit the target of 4,000-5000 steps a day, they showed improved mental health functions and relief from depression; at the 7,000-8,000 mark, walkers were less likely to get arteriosclerosis and osteoporosis (and had improved functions in everyday life); after 8,000-10,000 steps (just under 8 km), they had relief from high blood pressure and could manage diabetes more efficiently.
These walkers were making the most of every step, and I recommend you wear a pedometer throughout the day, just to see where you stand in terms of total counts by nightfall. You might end up pushing yourself to get to those high counts. The benefits of walking are truly remarkable.
The Big Winner: The Benjamin Button Effect for Walkers
You don’t have to be a Brad Pitt fan to like the idea of a man aging backwards a la The “Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
A team of researchers led by University of Illinois scientists recently discovered that the brain can regenerate essential cell networks when the body gets its exercise in through walking.
Walking actually beat out toning and general flexibility exercises when it came to our brain. That’s not a placebo effect – the brain cell connections had improved. In other words, the brains of the participants were actually getting younger.
Can 2 Minutes of Walking Make a Difference?
The research says it can. When sedentary people walked for a mere two minutes every twenty minutes, profound changes occurred at the genetic level. In fact, two minutes of walking in these people had positive, significant changes in seventy-five genes related to diabetes, cancer, heart, circulation and other vital health functions.
So even if the scale does not move and your pants do not loosen, walking—even for just minutes—is doing your body good.
Does New Research Trump the Old?
Of course, the old research on walking hasn’t expired. We are better off in our fight against the big threats – heart disease, diabetes, stroke – when we are walking every day. That research hasn’t changed. You’ll still find walking is a winning formula.
Research also proves that people walk more when they have company, when they plan their walks and when they have a picturesque spot to go walking. In other words, a walking vacation is the ideal way to have fun, get fit and turn back the clock. I hope you pick a nice spot.
Dr. Michael Nirenberg writes about the amazing benefits of walking at FloWalking.com.
Steeves J et al. Can sedentary behavior be made more active? A randomized pilot study of TV commercial stepping versus walking. Int J Behav Nutr Phy Act. 2012; 9: 95. Published online 2012 August 6.
Latouche C et al. Effects of breaking up prolonged sitting on skeletal muscle gene expression. J Appl Physiol. 2013 Feb;114(4):453-60.
Voss MW et al. Plasticity of brain networks in a randomized intervention trial of exercise training in older adults. Front Aging Neurosci. 2010 Aug 26;2. pii: 32.