A happier, healthier life is out there somewhere, and many health experts say walking just might be the best way to get there.
Walking is “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit global public health advocate.
It’s easy to see why, according to fitness experts like Gina McDonald, a senior health coach at Capital Blue Cross. “It’s the heart, lungs, brain, muscles and joints – all of that comes into play when we walk.”
Mountains of peer-reviewed research suggests walking can help reduce stress, ease mild to moderate depression, help control weight, stave off high blood pressure, and reduce risk of stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and more – conditions that if ignored end up costing employers billions in excess medical costs and lost productivity.
Those aren’t the only benefits.
Post-menopausal women who walk 30 minutes each day face a lower risk of hip fractures, according to research published in the . Another study published in the found that people who walk about 20 minutes per day during cold and flu season report fewer sick days than their more sedentary counterparts.
The improved blood flow that contributes to so many of these benefits is due in large part to the constant pumping of the calf muscles or what the medical world often refers to as the second heart. These muscles play a critical role in pumping blood from your lower legs back to your heart.
All walking, even slow walking, has benefits, McDonald said, “but if you want to boost your benefits, increase your speed.”
McDonald said there are useful physiological indicators that can help people determine the right level of exertion during exercise, including sweat, increased heart rate, and increased difficulty speaking – or what she calls the talk test.
“If you can sing while you’re walking, pick up the pace,” McDonald said. If, she added, you are winded and too short of breath to string a few words together, slow down. “Listen to your body. You don’t have to run to get fit. Just challenge yourself walking.”
McDonald urges anyone seeking better fitness through walking to be consistent with the activity and patient with the results.
“If you don’t have one, you won’t have the other,” she said. “If you want a quick fix, it’s not going to happen. So the best advice is just to get in and have fun.”