Health benefits of walking

8 May 2016

Walking is one of the most underrated forms of physical activity, yet the benefits are plenty.
 
In this article, we take a look at the most frequently asked questions, answered by our expert team.

What physical benefits might I see from regular walking?

Walking, especially brisk walking (walking at a pace that gets your heart beating faster, but you can still hold a conversation) is a great health all-rounder. It burns calories, which can help with weight loss, and it works your heart and makes it stronger over time. Having a stronger heart can help lower the risk of heart disease, as well as other conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

Brisk walking also helps build strength in many muscles, including your legs and bottom. You might even find your core muscles become stronger, which is great for posture and preventing back pain.

As a guide, the NHS suggests that we do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week (brisk walking, for example). This could look like 30 minutes, 5 days a week, or you can even break it up into shorter bursts of 10 minutes.

What are the mental health benefits of regular walking?

There’s good evidence that walking can improve symptoms of depression and low mood. In fact, researchers have found that walking more than two times a week, for over 30 mins each time over ten weeks has real benefits for mental health.*

Dr Mark Winwood, psychological expert at AXA PPP, says that physical activity can help develop resilience, improve low moods and boost self-esteem. And walking is a great way to start.

“When you’re active, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which are known to improve your mood. It also reduces harmful changes in the brain caused by stress and can help us to see possibilities, instead of feeling defeated. In other words, it can help us get some perspective on life’s problems!”

Is brisk walking better than jogging?

Jogging results in heavier breathing, and harder work for your muscles, so is considered a more vigorous exercise, compared to brisk walking. Whether you choose to walk or jog mostly comes down to your preference and level of ability. Starting daily jogs if you’re fairly inactive will place a lot of strain through your muscles, which may cause tightness in the lower body and potentially stiffness in joints. Like any exercise, it’s always best to build up gradually, making sure your body is adapting well to the increases in activity.

Some people simply don’t enjoy jogging and would rather go for a brisk walk. It’s important to enjoy the exercise you do, so you should never force an exercise just because it’s potentially better for you.

Does it matter where I walk? Is walking uphill better for my muscles?

Different terrains will train different muscles. Uneven terrain, such as sand and rocky ground, will work your ankle muscles, while walking up hills will work your calf muscles more, and generally will be more challenging from a cardiovascular aspect.

I’m not very active, is there anything I should be aware of before I start walking a little more?

When you take on any new activity, especially if you haven’t been active for a while, you’ll not only be making your muscles work harder, you’ll putting extra stress on your heart and lungs, making them work harder too. With this in mind, it’s better to start slowly and gradually work your way up to moderate exercise. This may be a case of starting on a simple flat route, then gradually increasing the distance, picking up the pace, add in some hills on your walk, or simply increasing the time you’re out.

Keep an eye on your breathing. If you’re struggling to walk and talk, you’re probably working too hard! With brisk walking, you’ll be breathing heavier, but you should still be able to speak full sentences.

After any activity, in order to avoid the dreaded muscle soreness the next day, you can do some simple stretches for your calf, thighs, and hamstrings, which you can do when you get home.

Is brisk walking better than jogging?

Jogging results in heavier breathing, and harder work for your muscles, so is considered a more vigorous exercise, compared to brisk walking. Whether you choose to walk or jog mostly comes down to your preference and level of ability. Starting daily jogs if you’re fairly inactive will place a lot of strain through your muscles, which may cause tightness in the lower body and potentially stiffness in joints. Like any exercise, it’s always best to build up gradually, making sure your body is adapting well to the increases in activity.

Some people simply don’t enjoy jogging and would rather go for a brisk walk. It’s important to enjoy the exercise you do, so you should never force an exercise just because it’s potentially better for you.

If I miss a day walking, can I make up for it by doing an hour the next day, as long as I meet the 150 mins a week quota?

Yes, don’t worry! The name of the game is really to get those 150 recommend mins a week into manageable chunks, so if you’re not able to do much on one day, you can try to do extra the next day (as long as it’s not too challenging), or incorporate a few extra minutes here throughout your week. If you make walking more of a habit, building it into your daily routine, it should be easier to achieve.

Doing 30 mins of walking is tricky for me – will I benefit from 20 mins a day – is something better than nothing?

While we should aim for 150 mins of moderate activity a week, if it’s difficult for you at first, try setting yourself some realistic targets and then gradually increase the time you can do. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do 30 minutes of brisk walking a day. If you can only manage 20 mins a day, then it’s certainly better than nothing at all, and very much worth it. You might even be doing other activities already, without realising they count (such as gardening, housework, running around after children!)

The muscles in my feet feel a bit uncomfortable when I’ve been out walking but I wear trainers when I do it. Have you got any tips?

You might be wearing trainers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the correct footwear. The footwear you use can have an impact in different ways. If there isn’t enough padding in your shoes this can mean pressure being placed directly on places like your heel or the balls of your feet, and likewise if there’s poor support in your shoes (such as if your trainers are worn out) you may put extra load on some of the muscles and soft tissue structures in the foot, causing some minor strains. So best to check your footwear is providing support under the arches.

Ironically, brand new shoes can also cause pain, because your feet may not have had time to adapt to them before hitting the 30 mins brisk walking. To help avoid this, it’s best to wear the shoes in before hitting serious miles in them.

A good way to deal with some post walk pains in your feet is to make sure you stretch! It’s not just the sole of the foot that needs a stretch though, make sure the calf muscles are stretched too, as they can also play a role in causing stiffness and pain in the feet. Another good way to work out some of the tightness and aches in your foot is to roll a golf ball or tennis ball under your feet.

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Exercise and mental health benefits
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*Primary source: Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis (Robertson and Maxwell 2012)