I’ve spent the last several years exploring how to live my healthiest, happiest life, experimenting on myself, diving deep into the science of wellness. I started from a place that pretty much resembled rock bottom—Donald Trump elected president, my marriage in shambles, my entire world turned upside down. My diet was shit, I wasn’t moving, I gained weight—the unhealthy kind, the stuff around the waist that increases risk of cardiovascular disease. I was a frazzled mess, mentally, my sympathetic system broadcasting a perpetual “fight or flight” message to my overstressed body. I doubt I was very fun to be around.
This series will be, in many ways, the story of my last four years, healing my mind, my body, and my soul. As data driven and hyper-analytic as always, I’ve remained firmly rooted in science, but I also learned that everyone is different, and the way we react to stimuli is as varied as the number of people on this planet. So I will talk about what the science says, but I will also talk about what worked and didn’t work for me, and will be ever cognizant that when talking about these things, there are rarely any absolutes. So you won’t get me proselytizing for, say, a specific diet like keto, or a specific workout. This isn’t my marching orders, this is me offering a menu of options, and hopefully you finding something that works for you, that makes your life just a little bit better.
Except today. Today I am talking in absolutes. This is the one thing you need to do no matter what, because it is the single-most important thing you could do for yourself.
I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. -John Muir
Nothing delivers more health and mental benefits than walking. Period. Here’s just a sampling of the proven benefits:
- According to one meta-analysis (a study aggregating other studies), aggregating almost 300,000 participants, walking just 30 minutes a day reduces your chance of coronary heart disease by 19%. This is important to stress: You don’t need to run or jog or do anything sweaty and strenuous to get the heart-healthy benefits of exercise. All you need is to walk.
- Walking burns calories, but the numbers are small—a couple hundred calories an hour. For weight loss purposes, that’s minimal. But there’s a better way walking can help with weight loss—one study found that a 15 minute post-meal walk lowered blood sugar levels. That’s great for diabetics, sure, but also for everyone else. Lower blood sugar levels means lower insulin levels—a hormone that impairs the mobilization of fat for energy.
- Walking in a fasted state (in other words, before breakfast) can accentuate that burning of fat. There is no food in your system to spike insulin levels, and the low level of exertion from walking means the body can fuel the effort directly from fat stores. A meta-analysis of 27 studies found that “[t]here was a significant increase in fat oxidation during exercise performed in the fasted, compared with fed, state.”
The last two bullet points might seem contradictory, but they’re not—walking in a fasted state burns more fat, but walking after a meal limits the amount of energy from that meal that might be shuttled off into fat stores. Walk 15-30 minutes before breakfast and after dinner, and you have a pretty potent 1-2 punch.
- Genes aren’t hard-coded into our system. The way we live and other external stimuli can alter how those genes “express.” So by walking, you are literally instructing genes to behave in a more healthy fashion. “Qibin Qi of the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues say that walking for about an hour a day can reduce the weight-promoting effect of certain genes by 50%,” reported Time. “What’s more, the scientists say, sedentary activities like watching TV can trigger the weight-gaining effect of the same genes.”
- Women over 70 who walk live longer. A study of 13,535 women found that “Physical activity is associated with reduced risks of chronic diseases and premature death.” Importantly, the study’s lead author, Harvard’s Qi Sun, said that “In terms of magnitude, walking and other moderate activities were almost equivalent to the benefit gained from more vigorous physical activity.” In other words, you don’t need to do anything tougher than walking to get the health benefits gained from exercise.
- Perhaps related to the above, women who walk seven or more hours a week have a 14% lower risk of breast cancer than those who didn’t—and this reduced risk existed even with women with increased risk factors, like obesity or the use of supplemental hormones. The 17-year study tracked 74,000 postmenopausal women. “The longer women walked, and the more strenuously, the lower their risk dropped. It’s not clear exactly how exercise might reduce breast cancer risk, but researchers say physical activity helps regulate hormones like estrogen, which can fuel breast cancer growth.”
- A simple 30-minute walk boosts your immune system. As one study found, “Walking caused modest and short-lived changes in immune parameters, most notably for neutrophil and natural killer blood cell counts.” The “short-lived” part matters, as the lead author told Time: “[W]e found that, about three hours after exercise, these immune cells retreat back to the tissues they came from. If you have a housekeeper come in and clean for 30 minutes every day, by end of the month, your house will look a lot better. I think the same thing that happens with the immune system and pathogen clearance in the body.” Another study found that 7,000 steps might be the optimal target for older people. Oh, and walking reduces the negative effects of menopause on the immune system.
- A Mayo Clinic study of 868 people between the ages of 70 and 89 found that those who performed “moderate physical exercise two to five times per week during the ages of 50 to 65 [had] a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.” Walking helps keep your brain sharp.
- A 2013 study of 91 older adults with mild cognitive impairment found that the further participants were able to walk in six minutes, the better their memory function and the maintenance of gray matter volume.
- Walking is a powerful pain reliever, mobilizing many of your body’s prime movers, sending blood and triggering recovery to painful muscles and joints. It is particularly effective if you suffer from back pain, as blood is driven to the psoas and quadratus lumborum—deep stabilizing muscles that integrate the lumbar spine with the hip and pelvis complex.
- Walking 10 minutes a day can prevent arthritis in the knees, hips, ankles, or feet.
- Get even more benefits, including stress relief and a boost to your immunity system, by walking in nature (aka “hike”). And, as a bonus, people who hike regularly suffer fewer falls when they reach old age. Walking on uneven ground helps strengthen the same stabilizer muscles that keep you upright. No one wants a broken hip.
I could seriously go on and on, but you get the point—walking is good for your heart, it’s good for your brain, it’s good if you want to control your weight. It boosts your immune system and reduces the risk of serious disease. It helps you live longer, do so with less pain, and with a much higher quality of life.
It is meditative and can connect you to the world around you. Get to know your neighborhood, your neighbors, your presence on the street can deter crime. All the great thinkers did some of their best work while walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” said Henry David Thoreau. Walking is proven to boost creative thinking, “[Albert] Einstein’s daily walk was sacred to him,” wrote the BBC on an article on Einstein’s “quirky habits.” “While he was working at Princeton University, New Jersey, he’d walk the mile and a half journey there and back. He followed in the footsteps of other diligent walkers, including Darwin who went for three 45 minute walks every day.”
The best part about walking? it’s so easy.
The health benefits start at 10 minutes, and you get most of them at 30. I don’t care how busy you are, you can carve 30 minutes for a walk. If you can do 30 before breakfast, and 30 after dinner, that’s the best, but not required.
You can find creative ways to fit walking in your life. If you’re going to the store, park at the furthest end of the parking lot. Let others circle endlessly for that spot closer to the entrance. It takes 20 minutes to walk a mile, so if possible don’t drive anywhere closer than a mile away. Take walking breaks, even five minutes here and there add up. If you have a treadmill, great! Use it for more than hanging your laundry. Again, you don’t need to run! Set it at 3-4 MPH and read a book or magazine, or watch a show, or catch up on Daily Kos on a tablet. Thirty minutes will fly by.
Get a dog. Walk the dog. Take the stairs. If you commute by public transportation, don’t use the nearest stop to your destination. Walk to or from a more distant one. Do walking meetings. Hang out with friends on a hike (which is especially smart during the pandemic, as long as you’re masked). At the grocery story, do an extra lap of the store before you check out. Not only can that add another 600 steps (depending on the size of your store), but maybe you’ll remember something you had forgotten.
Don’t use the bathroom nearest you when it’s time to go. Walk to the furthest one in your house or office. Go window shopping. Catching up with friends? Call them while on a stroll. Walk in place while watching a show, or at least while the commercials are on. Spend family time strolling the neighborhood (some of the best quality time with my kids because … NO SCREENS!).
And given that this is Daily Kos, walk precincts, door knock, and just generally be out and about your neighborhood helping drive political change!
If it helps to motivate you, get an Apple Watch or Fitbit or other fitness tracker to count your steps. Your iPhone counts steps, and you can get the Google Fit app for Android phones. The generic target is 10,000 steps, which is around 5 miles, or around one hour and 40 minutes of walking. That’s great if you get there! But you don’t need to. One hour is great! But thirty minutes—or 4,000 steps—is your low-end goal.
Seriously, this one isn’t optional. Please, for the love of any and all (or no) deities, start a daily walking practice. The benefits are wide-ranging, critical to a healthy life, and so easy to integrate into our schedules, no matter how busy they might be.
Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. -Jane Austen