One of the ways the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our lives is that it has deprived many of us of our customary forms of exercise, such as gym workouts and group sports. To maintain fitness, health, and indeed sanity, many people have turned to walking (along with running and cycling)—which is fine to do outside as long as you keep your distance from others by observing the 6-foot rule (even in states where lockdown restrictions are being eased) and wear a face mask if you can’t avoid passing too close to other people on your walk.
If you are still staying home, just walking around your house or yard (if you have one) can help reduce the adverse health effects of being sedentary. And if it’s rainy and you happen to have a treadmill, you have no excuse not to get walking. Or perhaps your local mall has reopened, where you can get in a good walk on a rainy or hot day, as long as it is not crowded.
Of all the ways to stay fit, walking is the easiest and safest, and is a great way to enjoy nature or city streetscapes. And after your walk, you know you’ve done yourself some good. A brisk walk (usually 3.5 to 4 miles per hour, depending on the length of your stride) burns nearly as many calories as running the same distance at a moderate pace and confers similar health benefits. Many studies in people with a variety of conditions, notably heart disease, diabetes, and prostate or breast cancer, have linked walking (and physical activity in general) with better health outcomes. Even slow walking and short walks may provide some benefits. Here’s a small sampling of research about walking from the past few years:
Metabolic benefits. Mile for mile, brisk walking can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease as much as running, according to a large observational study in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. The farther people ran or walked and the more calories they burned, the greater the reduction in risk. Of course, it takes much longer to walk a mile than to run it, so you need to spend more time walking to get the same benefits as you would running.
Reduced risk of heart failure. Walking at least 40 minutes two or three times a week at average or brisk pace was associated with a reduced risk of developing heart failure in postmenopausal women over a 10-year period, according to a 2018 observational study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which analyzed data from almost 90,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative.
Healthier arteries. Sitting for long periods has many adverse effects on the body, including endothelial dysfunction—a reduced ability of arteries to relax and contract, which decreases blood flow and may increase long-term cardiovascular risk. Walking can help counteract that, as was seen in a small study of 15 people, average age 36, in Physiological Reports in 2019. Participants sat at desks for four hours on three days, under three scenarios in random order: sitting without getting up; taking a two-minute walk every half hour; or taking an eight-minute walk every two hours. Uninterrupted sitting resulted in reduced blood flow in a main artery in the leg, while the longer walks prevented this (the shorter walks helped less).
Better blood sugar control. Increased daily walking may help control blood sugar in sedentary overweight or obese people with elevated levels, according to a small Thai study in Diabetology International in 2018. Over three months, the middle-aged participants increased their walking to at least 10,000 steps a day, which resulted in lower blood sugar as well as reduced blood pressure and waist circumference (though there was no control group).
Less low back pain. A review and meta-analysis of randomized trials in Disability and Rehabilitation in 2017 found that walking was as effective as other forms of exercise (including back-specific workouts) at reducing pain and disability and improving quality of life in people with chronic low back pain.
Improved knee osteoarthritis. People with knee osteoarthritis often avoid exercise, thinking it will make their condition worse, but exercise can be one of the best treatments. Among many studies that have shown this, a 2019 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine of 1,560 people with lower extremity (mostly knee) osteoarthritis found that moderate physical activity (including walking) for at least one hour a week over four years was associated with a significant reduction in disability, compared to being relatively inactive.
Enhanced brain function. A clinical trial from Duke University, published in Neurology in 2018, found that among 160 older adults with cognitive impairment, those who walked briskly (or cycled) for 35 minutes three times a week for six months had significant improvements in executive function (the ability to plan and prioritize), compared to those who did not exercise.
Better mood and stress reduction. Studies show that both walking and mindfulness (heightened attention and nonjudgmental awareness) can improve mood, and combining them (mindful walking) can have a synergistic effect, according to a study in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2018. What’s more, a study in Health Promotion Perspectives in 2018 found that brisk walking can improve mood as much as a short bout of meditation, compared to just sitting. And walking in a scenic locale may improve mood and reduce stress (as measured by blood levels of cortisol, a stress hormone) more than indoor treadmill walking or simply watching a video of outdoor scenery, according to a 2020 study in Environment and Behavior.
Increased creativity. A series of four studies appearing in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, entitled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs,” found that students experienced a boost in creative thinking during and right after walking, compared to sitting. Walking, especially outdoors, “opens the free flow of ideas,” presumably via both physical and psychological mechanisms, the researchers suggested.
BOTTOM LINE: Other types of exercise may be as beneficial as walking, and more strenuous workouts may yield additional benefits, but the simplicity of walking makes it a great option, especially these days. You need no equipment or special clothing, and you can do it just about any time, alone or with family or friends (keeping at least 6 feet from others until social distancing is no longer needed).
Start by adding several short walks (even just five minutes) to your daily routine. If you need more encouragement to walk, check out the U.S. Surgeon General’s 72-page report “Step It Up.”. If you’re interested in what makes walking good for thinking, there’s some more food for thought from a past issue of The New Yorker.