Have you ever thought about going for a walk and then said to yourself, “why even bother? Will it even make a difference?” This happens to me most often when I’m sick or have an injury and can’t do my normal biking, running or lifting. There’s this imaginary Jillian Michaels in my head saying, “If you don’t break a sweat, it doesn’t count as a workout!”
Well fake Jillian, turns out walking is one of the best exercises that offer some of the same – if not greater – health benefits than other forms of exercise. It’s a serious underdog when it comes to providing a full-body workout with some added mental benefits. Let’s dig into the research!
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8 Mental and Physical Benefits of Walking, According to Science
1. Decrease Your Sensitivity to Stress and Pain
Ever heard of a runner’s high? Well, walker’s can get those too. Walking can release endorphins, which are responsible for making you “feel good.” According to research, endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Does this mean I should go for a walk before going to the dentist? Probably.
2. Increase Your Ability to Recall Information
Want to make sure you remember something? Go for a 10-minute walk. A study of 80 college students tested whether or not a brief bout of physical activity could help with memory performance. Students studied 30 English nouns and were then asked to remain seated or take a brisk, 10-minute walk. The study showed that those who walked and were asked to recall the nouns, performed 25% better than those in sedentary conditions. (Wish I had known this hack back in college…)
3. Grow Your Hippocampus
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that adults who walked for 40 minutes three times a week for a year had brain growth in the hippocampus. Want to know what happened to the control group who did stretching and toning? Their brains actually shrunk! The hippocampus plays a critical role in the formation, organization, and storage of new memories as well as connecting certain sensations and emotions to these memories. That’s why a certain smell can trigger a memory, or how you can remember people’s names and the last conversation you had—it’s all a part of the hippocampus’ job.
Scientists believe that walking helps our hippocampus create new neurons, resulting in better recall and cognitive functioning. This could all have resulted from our evolutionary need to remember where food was, what route we took, and where predators were. Even though we hopefully don’t have to deal with remembering where predators lurk today, a walking habit can make our brains stay sharp.
4. Be More Creative
There’s a reason why Beethoven and Charles Dickens were known for taking long walks—it can help inspire creative thinking. Walking not only increases blood flow to the brain, bringing along with it more oxygen and nutrients but it also helps us with divergent thinking, a thought process critical to brainstorming. Divergent thinking helps us come up with multiple solutions to a problem, often needed when trying to “think outside the box.” According to one study, “walking opens up the free flow of ideas and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.” Talk about a double-whammy!
5. Make Your Heart Healthier
Walking is an excellent aerobic activity that can improve your heart health. As reported by Harvard Health, researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31% and cut the risk of dying by 32%. These benefits were equally robust in men and women. Protection was evident even at distances of just 5½ miles per week and at a pace as casual as about 2 miles per hour. The people who walked longer distances, walked at a faster pace, or both enjoyed the greatest protection, so pick up the pace when you can!
6. Relieve Anxiety in 10 Minutes
Psychologists found that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout when it comes to relieving the symptoms of anxiety. This can have lasting effects on our ability to manage stress and the “worn-out” feeling that comes with it. A 2008 study conducted at the University of Georgia found that just twenty minutes of low-intensity exercise, like walking, can dramatically decrease fatigue. In short, a quick walk can actually make you feel more alert and relaxed at the same time. It’s the Matcha Tea of the exercise world.
7. Boost Immune Function
According to Harvard Health Publishing, a study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder. You know what they should say … a walk a day keeps the doctor away.
8. Reduce a Sweet Tooth
A pair of studies from the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk can curb cravings for chocolate, and reduce the relationship between stress and wanting to eat. Walking can not only help us take our mind off the thing we’re craving, but it can help re-wire that call-and-response signal between stress and sugar.
Tips to Get Your Steps in Anywhere
According to the Mayo Clinic, the average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps per day, or roughly 1.5 to 2 miles. Compare that to the fact that health professionals urge us to walk at least 10,000 steps per day. Before throwing in the towel altogether, it’s important to remember that just moving in any way possible, for any amount of time is key. A new study shows that teenagers are getting less exercise than the average 60-year old—our lives are becoming more sedentary and we need to work hard to get moving. Here are a few quick tips and small reminders to sneak in more steps, anywhere.
- Park as far away as possible from your destination. Bring shoes you can walk in and change once you’re inside.
- Take the stairs (yes, we’ve heard this one a million times but it makes a difference).
- Set a timer to get up from your desk every 30 minutes for a small loop around the office.
- Walk to the grocery store, drug store, you name it. Invest in a backpack or this adorable market cart to make carrying things easier.
- Get a dog. Seriously. According to this new study, dog owners walk 22 more minutes per day than non-dog owners! The furry cuddles are a bonus.
- Try having a walking meeting. Bring a small notebook to jot down notes or use your smartphone to record audio notes.
- March in place while watching TV—extra points for jumping jacks.
- Take extra trips from the car to your house. I know it’s a quest of glory to try and bring in your latest Target run in one trip, but save your back and nab a few extra steps by bringing things in one. bag. at. a. Time.
Hopefully, all of this information proves that walking is NO joke, and even squeezing in 10 minutes here and there can make a big difference in your health and wellness. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some walking to do.