Walking is widely recommended for its health benefits. According to a recent U.S. Surgeon General report on physical activity and health in America, more than half of the U.S. population does not participate regularly in any type of exercise. That physical inactivity can lead to poor health.
The Surgeon General urged Americans to "get in shape," encouraging everyone to get at least one-half hour of moderately vigorous activity (such as brisk walking) each day. The latest recommendations suggest that you should try to walk two miles at a brisk pace of three to four miles per hour nearly every day.
It is increasingly obvious that one of the best ways to maintain good health is through physical activity. Regular participation in exercise has been shown to be helpful in the prevention of such killers as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Exercise also helps to control weight. (According to the latest research, one out of three Americans is obese.)
And because exercise helps to strengthen muscles and bones, it can even decrease your risk of developing diseases such as osteoporosis and arthritis.
Some of the most interesting and overwhelming evidence supporting the need to be physically active is from the research being conducted at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, known as the "father of aerobics," founded the Cooper Clinic in the early 1970s to investigate the effects of physical activity and fitness on health and longevity and to help people develop healthy lifestyles.
In July 1996, research from the Cooper Institute showed that participating in moderate to high levels of physical activity reduced the risk of dying from any given cause. This held true regardless of other risk factors. In other words, even if an individual suffers from high blood pressure or obesity, the chances of dying are lessened by maintaining at least a moderate level of fitness. This is remarkably good news, especially for individuals who have hereditary risk factors such as a family history of heart disease.
In 2007, Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, published an updated report on physical activity and public health. In order to make a recommendation on the amount of exercise necessary to benefit America's health, an expert panel of scientists, including physicians, epidemiologists, exercise scientists, and public-health specialists reviewed research on physical activity and the impact of exercise on health.
Their conclusion was the same as the plea issued by the Surgeon General: "Every U.S. adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, or preferably all, days of the week." The researchers determined that intermittent as well as sustained activity can be beneficial. In other words, on days when you can't fit in a 30-minute walk, you can still garner fitness benefits by taking two or more shorter walks squeezed in throughout the day. This may seem somewhat confusing to those of you who are well acquainted with previous recommendations to exercise for a sustained period of 20 to 60 minutes. The Surgeon General's report is not meant to overshadow or replace these previously recommended exercise guidelines.
Exercising for a sustained period of time is still the best way we know to make improvements in your cardiorespiratory fitness. But for many, exercising for long periods of time can be intimidating. And most of us experience days when unforeseen events throw off our schedules and prevent us from having a solid block of time for exercise.
Significant health benefits can be realized by simply ceasing to sit and starting to move. The risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, and colon and breast cancers can be reduced just by becoming more physically active.
In the next section, learn more about the link between walking and heart disease.
Walking and Heart Disease
Walking can help ward off a killer: heart disease. Heart disease is the number one threat to America's health. In fact, 50% of all deaths occurring in the United States each year can be directly attributed to this killer. Scientific evidence suggests that participation in regular physical activity results in a lower risk of developing heart disease.
In addition, regular exercise helps individuals recovering from heart attacks and bypass surgery and lowers their risk of suffering a second heart attack.
Heart disease is caused by the build-up of plaque in the coronary arteries. When too much plaque accumulates, blood flow to the heart is decreased. Without enough blood supply, the heart muscle may not get enough oxygen to do its work. Chest pain caused by lack of oxygen to the heart muscle is called angina.
People who have angina sometimes use a medication known as nitroglycerin that causes the coronary arteries to dilate, thus increasing the blood flow to the heart and reducing chest pain.
When ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart) is caused by a complete blockage of an artery, part of the heart muscle can die. (Complete blockages are often the result of a blood clot that gets caught in a narrow space in an artery that already has a large build-up of plaque.) This is called a myocardial infarction, also known as a heart attack. Sometimes blockages occur in blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. An infarction in the vessels feeding the brain is called a stroke.
Reducing the risk of heart disease may be your motivation to exercise regularly, particularly if you have risk factors you cannot control. Age and family history of heart disease are both strong risk factors, neither of which are preventable. So if you have had a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, who developed heart disease before the age of sixty, you too are at increased risk. Becoming more physically active and increasing your physical fitness will improve your chances of living a longer, healthier life.
Physical inactivity is also a risk factor for coronary heart disease. When lack of exercise is combined with overeating, excess weight and increased blood cholesterol levels can result -- and these conditions unquestionably contribute to the risk of heart disease as well.
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce your resting heart rate, thus decreasing the overall workload on the heart. Some studies show that exercise, combined with a low-fat diet and stress management, can even reduce plaques that have built up in the vessel walls.
Regular aerobic exercise plays a significant role in preventing heart and blood vessel disease. The American Heart Association recommends moderate-intensity aerobic (endurance) physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes, five days a week, to promote cardiovascular fitness. Such activities could include aerobics, jogging, running, and swimming and sports such as tennis, racquetball, and soccer.
Even modest levels of low-intensity physical activity are beneficial if done regularly and long term. Such activities include walking for pleasure, gardening, and housework. Middle-aged or older people should seek medical advice before they start to significantly increase their physical activity.
Everyone needs a certain amount of cholesterol to build cell membranes and maintain health. But too much of these blood lipids -- especially the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) variety -- can raise your risk for heart disease and stroke. Too little "good" cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL), which helps remove fats from the bloodstream, can also pose a problem.
The risk of coronary heart disease rises as blood cholesterol levels increase.
If you smoke cigarettes or have high blood pressure, your risk for heart disease increases even more. A person's cholesterol level can also be affected by age, sex, heredity, and diet.
Nearly everyone can lower their cardiovascular disease risk by eating foods low in saturated fat and adopting an overall healthier lifestyle. Based on large population studies, total blood cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter) in middle-aged adults seem to indicate a relatively low risk of coronary heart disease. A level of 240 mg/dl and over approximately doubles the risk. Blood cholesterol levels from 200-239 mg/dl indicate moderate and increasing risk.
High blood pressure is another risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Read the next section to learn how a regular walk can help reduce high blood pressure.
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Walking and High Blood Pressure
Regular exercise, like walking, is a proven way to reduce high blood pressure Because you can go for years without knowing you have the condition, high blood pressure has been called the "silent killer."
If you have high blood pressure, and you don't control it, your heart has to work progressively harder to pump blood through your arteries. Your heart may enlarge, and you'll be at an increased risk for heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure, and atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in the arteries).
Men have a greater risk of high blood pressure than women until age 55, when their respective risks become about the same. At age 75 and older, women are more likely to develop high blood pressure than men.
People who have high blood pressure should work with their doctor to control it. Eating a proper diet, losing weight, exercising regularly, restricting salt (sodium) intake, and following a program of medication may all be prescribed to lower blood pressure and keep it within healthy limits.
Your blood pressure is a measurement of the pressure of the blood flow in your arteries. Your systolic blood pressure, the higher number, tells you the pressure in your arteries when your heart is contracting and pumping blood out into the body. Your diastolic blood pressure, the lower number, is the pressure in the arteries when the heart is relaxed.
During exercise, your systolic blood pressure increases to improve blood flow, thus increasing available oxygen to the working muscles. Your blood vessels may also become more relaxed, or dilated, to allow for the increased blood flow. This may mean a slight lowering of your diastolic blood pressure.
Right after exercise, your blood pressure is probably a little bit lower than before you started. This is a very positive response of the body. Regular exercise has been shown to result in a reduction in blood pressure for those who may be hypertensive.
It is interesting to note that when you stop exercising regularly, your blood pressure will return to its prior level, usually within a week. Therefore, you cannot "bank" your exercise, building up an account, so you can take time off. The benefits of exercise are reduced when you cease to partake of it on a regular basis. A small dose of exercise done over a long period of time has a much better result than a large amount done irregularly.
Just like you wouldn't want to overdose on medicine, neither would you want to overdose on exercise. If you miss a day or two, don't try to make up for it by overdoing it. Just start your routine again, perhaps even cutting back a little at first, depending upon how much time you took off.
So far we've looked at how walking can help prevent cardiovascular problems. But it can also lower the risk of contracting certain diseases. Get the details in the next section.
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Walking and Disease
The simple act of walking can decrease your chances for contracting diseases like diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis.
A regular walking program can help you reduce your chances of developing Type II, or non-insulin-dependent, diabetes. Because a program of regular exercise is extremely helpful in weight management, by reducing the risk of obesity, you also reduce the risk of becoming diabetic.
Exercise improves your muscles' ability to respond to insulin and take up more glucose. It can help you reduce your risk of developing diabetes, as well as manage the disease if you already have it. In addition to regular exercise and proper diet, careful monitoring of blood glucose levels is important to diabetes management.
Because of the positive impact of exercise on the immune system, exercise can reduce your overall cancer risk. For site-specific cancers, exercise may have a different impact on cancer development.
Regular physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of both breast cancer and colon cancer. The mechanism for reduction of breast cancer risk may be due to hormone level changes and reduced body fat that result from exercise. Colon cancer risk may be lowered due to reduced intestinal transit time, thus decreasing the time that possible carcinogens may come in contact with the colon wall.
Osteoporosis is a relatively common disorder characterized by a decrease in the calcium content of the bones, which leaves them thin and susceptible to fracture. The causes of osteoporosis are largely unknown. However, the chances of acquiring the condition seem to increase dramatically with age, especially for women.
One prevailing theory maintains that osteoporosis results from a loss of the female hormone estrogen, which affects the calcium content of the bones. Menopause (cessation of menstruation) may lead to osteoporosis because the body's production of estrogen is greatly reduced after that time. Almost one-third of all women over the age of 60 experience osteoporosis to some extent.
People who are inactive, either by choice or due to confinement because of illness, seem more susceptible to the disorder. A diet deficient in calcium (which promotes bone development) may also contribute to osteoporosis.
Physicians urge their female patients to engage in regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, and resistance exercise (such as weight training) throughout their lives; in these exercises, the bones and muscles must work against gravity or another force to support the body (as opposed to swimming, in which the water supports the body), so they help to build and strengthen bones as well as muscles and thus help prevent the frailty caused by osteoporosis.
Likewise, patients who suffer from osteoporosis are typically encouraged to follow an exercise program that will strengthen the muscles supporting their weakened bones; such individuals, however, need to seek the advice of their doctor and perhaps an exercise physiologist before beginning any exercise program and should avoid certain activities, such as lifting heavy objects, in order to protect the bones in the spinal column.
Walking and other exercise can affect your total quality of life, too. Read on to discover how walking can help you sleep -- and give you more energy.
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Walking Effects on Sleep and Energy
Walking can improve sleep, increase energy, and improve the overall quality of your life. Health-care professionals use the term "health-related quality of life" to refer to how your health, sense of satisfaction with life, and overall sense of well-being impacts your daily life.
People who are physically active obviously enjoy better health. It is also important to note that physically active individuals report feeling better about themselves and have a more positive outlook on life.
Physical fitness and increased health are not the only payoffs of starting and maintaining a lifelong fitness walking program. Various types of aerobic exercise, including walking, have also been found to promote mental health -- boosting energy, improving sleep, relieving tension and stress, and combating anxiety and depression. Mastering a walking program can give you the true sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something good for your body.
A few years ago, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) convened a panel to examine the effects of exercise on mental health. The panel noted a real, proven link between physical fitness and mental health and well-being. Exercise was deemed generally beneficial for the emotional health of people of all ages and both sexes.
Many people suffer from a type of chronic fatigue that isn't caused by illness or disease. They endure the blahs during the day and then toss and turn at night -- only to wake up the next morning feeling groggy and drained. These individuals might be surprised to learn, however, that a great way to increase their daytime energy levels is to expend energy on regular exercise like walking.
In a recent study conducted at the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, aerobic exercises, including fast walking, were found to combat chronic fatigue in 400 men and women who were initially out of shape but who boosted their physical fitness over a two-and-a-half year period.
The researchers favor the following scenario to explain this energy rise: Through routine aerobic exercise, the study participants increased their physical fitness, which improved their self-esteem. They felt better about themselves and developed a more optimistic, energetic frame of mind.
In addition, the exercisers enhanced the strength and endurance of their muscles and developed the ability to move more efficiently, thus making their daily activities easier to perform -- and approach.
Other studies have also supported a link between aerobic exercise, enhanced physical stamina, and a more energetic frame of mind.
Several explanations have been proposed for the association between aerobic exercise and increased alertness. Exercise may act by improving circulation and increasing the availability of oxygen to the brain. Increased alertness may also be a side benefit of the raised metabolic rate that occurs during--and after--a bout of exercise. Exercise also causes the body to produce several chemicals, including adrenaline, which promote mental alertness.
Walking can also boost your daytime energy levels by helping you sleep longer and sounder at night. When the President's Council on Physical Fitness asked seven medical experts to rate the sleep-promoting abilities of a whole gamut of physical activities, walking beat out many popular sports, such as handball, squash, basketball, calisthenics, tennis, downhill skiing, softball, golf, and bowling.
The only activities that garnered better ratings than walking were jogging, swimming, bicycling, skating, and cross-country skiing.
Some people do find, however, that performing intense exercise just before bedtime revs them up so much that they have difficulty falling asleep. So if you intend to walk at a brisk pace, you may need to schedule your walks for at least an hour before you plan to retire for the evening. On the other hand, an easy-paced, late night stroll may be just the thing to relax your body and clear your mind so you can fall asleep.
Stress often interferes with sleep, and with everyday life. Next, learn how you can keep stress levels low by walking.
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Walking and Stress
Is there a connection between walking and stress reduction? Consider this scenario: You're at work. Your boss calls. You have to hand in that big report two weeks early. Your blood pressure surges. Your pulse races. You start seeing red. What are you going to do?
Before you blow up and give the boss a piece of your mind, try going for a stress-busting, lunch-hour walk. Taking time out to pursue an activity like walking can get your mind off distressing concerns and give you a feeling of detachment from daily pressures. By relaxing and giving your mind the room to wander, you may be able to see the situation in a new light. You may even come up with a solution to your dilemma.
Stress can be thought of as the need to adapt to a change. But stress is not always negative. With strong coping strategies, you can handle stress and use it creatively as a call to positive action. Stress-related problems arise when you cannot figure out how to adapt to a stressful situation.
When you feel threatened by a stressful situation, your body automatically prepares you for action. It produces hormones that quicken your pulse, tense your muscles, raise your blood pressure, and sharpen your senses. This "fight or flight" mechanism was a lifesaver in earlier times when humans had to cope with physical danger every day.
Even today it comes in handy when you're forced into a situation that requires quick action. Unfortunately, most of the stressful situations you're faced with in modern life probably don't require a physical fight or flight. Instead, all this physiological commotion builds up -- putting you on edge and keeping you there.
Unless you find a way of coping with the situation and relieving the pent-up energy, you leave yourself open to a variety of stress-related psychiatric symptoms, like anxiety, aggression, and depression, not to mention physical ailments such as high blood pressure, tension headaches, and digestive disorders.
At some time, we all need a constructive method of releasing physical energy and emotional stress. Exercise can provide that safety valve. In particular, walking can help relieve stress, thus improving your mood and mental outlook. The NIMH panel on exercise and mental health concluded that exercise can help relieve muscle tension and reduce hormones that serve as messengers of stress. Exercise may also reduce stress-related emotions, including anxiety, anger, aggression, depression, and tension.
A study conducted at the University of Kansas found that people who were physically fit were better able to cope with stressful life changes that had occurred during the previous year. Despite such stressful situations as divorce, death of a loved one, or starting a new job, the study participants who were physically fit complained of fewer health problems and symptoms of depression than did the participants who engaged in little or no exercise.
There are several stress-busting approaches to walking. It can be regarded as a social activity, offering an opportunity to enjoy the company of friends or family. Conversely, it can also be done alone, allowing you the freedom to sort through your thoughts.
Another approach: If you're stressed-out and plagued by negative, unproductive thoughts, try concentrating on your walking technique and breathing. When you combine walking with taking long, deep breaths, your mind tends to become more aware and alert. You can then choose to invite into your conscious mind only those thoughts that are positive and uplifting. In this way, you can change your whole outlook -- easing the way for confidence and peace of mind to replace stress, fear, depression, and anxiety.
To help relieve the myriad aches and pains associated with stress, such as stiff shoulders and cricks in the neck, special massages and exercises are useful additions to a walking program. Tension-relaxing massage should involve firm but gentle circular strokes, with extra attention to knots and tender spots, especially in the stress-storing shoulders and neck. Stretching exercises such as neck rolls and shoulder shrugs can also help loosen tight muscles.
Walkers can even concentrate on relaxing their muscles as they walk. To do this, simply focus on a particular muscle or muscle group -- such as in your shoulders, neck, or jaw. Tense the muscles for a few steps as you walk, then slowly release the tension. As you do this, you'll feel the tightness slipping away.
Depression is another disease whose symptoms can be alleviated by walking. Learn more about depression and its link to exercise in the next section.
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Walking and Depression
Exercise like walking has been shown to relieve the symptoms of depression. Clinical depression is defined as sadness that is greater and more prolonged than is warranted by any objective reason. It is characterized by withdrawal, inactivity, dullness, and feelings of helplessness and loss of control.
For many people suffering from clinical depression, regular exercise (three times a week or more appears to work best) has been shown to act as a mood elevator.
Doctors, it seems, are convinced by the evidence in favor of using exercise to treat depression. In a survey of 1,750 doctors, 85 percent reported that they prescribed exercise -- including walking -- for treating depression (and 60 percent prescribed exercise to treat anxiety).
The NIMH panel on the effects of exercise on mental health concluded that long-term exercise reduces depression in people who are moderately depressed. In those who are severely depressed, exercise appears to be a useful addition to professional treatment, including psychotherapy, medication (combining exercise with antidepressant medication demands close medical supervision), and electroshock.
In a University of Wisconsin study, exercise even appeared to be as effective as psychotherapy at relieving moderate depression. People with moderate depression were randomly assigned to either psychotherapy or exercise programs. After a year, over 90 percent of the people who had been assigned to the exercise program were no longer depressed. Half of the patients in the psychotherapy group, however, had come back for more treatment.
Why is walking helpful in the treatment -- and perhaps even the prevention -- of depression? Following any exercise program, including walking, gives participants a sense of self-reliance, self-mastery, power, and control because they are getting out and doing something for and by themselves, says Robert S. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., clinical associate professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Exercise gives people a real opportunity to set and achieve goals and to see and measure personal improvement. One way to enhance this effect and visualize walking accomplishments is to use a daily log or journal. By writing down the speed of each walk and the distance covered, the walker can keep track of personal improvement.
Walking may also promote feelings of pleasure, tranquility, and well-being and help relieve the pain of depression by encouraging the production of the body's natural opiates, called endorphins. These chemical cousins of morphine are responsible for the feeling of euphoria called "runner's high."
Exercise can help distract depressed people from their feelings of sadness. Simply going through the motions of confident striding may be enough to build a walker's confidence. Also, since regular aerobic exercise is an important aid in losing weight and toning muscles, exercisers may feel the general sense of well-being that stems from knowing they look better and feel healthier.
And unlike some more strenuous exercises, walking feels good while you're doing it, not just when you stop.
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Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer