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The surprising benefits of walking

The Surprising Benefits of Walking

Al Waller: Hallelujah – Spring is here! Longer periods of sunlight are now in play, flowers in bloom, and people are beginning to gather outside more – so this may just be a very opportune time to improve your health by getting outside and walking more.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth SM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With me is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert of nonprofit Transamerica Institute® and she's here to talk about the benefits of walking and how it can improve your health.

Mihaela, good to have you back!

Mihaela Vincze: It’s great to be here, Al.

Al Waller: Now Mihaela, walk us through – no pun intended – what walking can do and why it's so important?

Mihaela Vincze: Walking is a great tool for many people to become more active. It's wonderful because walking is really low impact, especially compared to other forms of exercise. It also requires minimal equipment, and you can do it any time of day that works for you.

Walking is also a great form of physical activity for people who haven't exercised in a while, and it has many health benefits. However, always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any new form of exercise.

Al Waller: Absolutely, you want to make sure you're up to the rigors but also properly prepared – performing those upfront stretching exercises to avoid potential cramping and straining of those unused muscles.

As a matter of fact, walking actually became a pretty important part of my daily routine when the pandemic hit – and not just for the physical exercise but also for mental health release – as it prevented me from climbing the walls by getting outside, catching some rays, and just by moving the body for that matter.

Could you share some insights on how walking can benefit our health?

Mihaela Vincze: Beyond the obvious of getting exercise, walking has all sorts of benefits that you might find surprising. Walking can stabilize your blood sugar. A George Washington University study found that those who walked for just 15 minutes after each meal saw a healthier dip in blood sugar in comparison to those who did so for 45 minutes in the morning or afternoon, consecutively. Walking, even in short bouts, can really help the body lower blood sugar after a meal – and stable blood sugar levels can help keep our cravings for sugar in check, as well as prevent diabetes.

Walking can even improve your sleep. I know better sleep probably doesn't come to mind when you think about walking, but it really does help, even if you squeeze it in late in the day. One study points out that people who walk in the morning or evening often report sleeping better compared to those who don't.

Al Waller: I hadn't quite put that last point of yours together – but now that you mentioned it, when I've gone away on vacation with my better half, whether it be on the beach or out in the woods or just walking off a nice brunch or dinner afterwards, I really do tend to sleep a lot better at night. So, I'm thinking you may definitely be onto something there, Mihaela.

Did you find any other ways walking might help improve our health?

Mihaela Vincze: It may also help boost your metabolism. If you're trying to lose a few pounds, walking really can be the key to helping you be successful in that area.

Research shows that walking for 150 minutes per week – that's about 20 minutes every day – can help reduce abdominal fat by boosting your metabolism. Now, if you're short on time and want to rev up the numbers of calories burned, you can do so by incorporating high intensity intervals into your walk – alternate between intervals of slower walking, followed by faster.

Walking can even improve brain power. A study from Stanford University found that walking may increase creativity by 60 percent. This could be because exercise improves blood flow to the brain. When you're walking, your brain gets to also practice making lots of decisions without you even noticing it or being conscious of it – this includes where to place your feet, where you should walk, and how to tread around others. Although they're not difficult choices, having to make these little decisions can really help your brain get a boost.

Al Waller: That's good to know. Who of us couldn't benefit from a little cerebral boost, right? And I did notice that I began to feel and look – I might add – a lot leaner thanks to the walking.

Are there any other surprising benefits of walking that you came across?

Mihaela Vincze: I was really happy to learn this – a study showed that postmenopausal women who walked approximately 1 mile each day had improved bone density compared to those who walked shorter distances. This can contribute to healthy aging as we get older since our bone density may go down with age.

Al Waller: That's pretty significant. Does walking lead to a healthy aging in other ways as well?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, research suggests that frequent brisk walking may improve memory and physical capabilities in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It can even lead to living longer.

A review of studies published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that walking for nearly 3 hours a week was linked with an 11 percent lowered risk of premature death, compared to those who did little or no activity.

Al Waller: That's great intel well worth sharing with our family and friends. For those novices not acquainted with walking as a form of exercise — what should they be aware of?

Mihaela Vincze: As I mentioned earlier, walking is considered low impact. However, you still want to make sure that you start off slow and allow your body to warm up before you pick up the pace.

You also want to make sure you have the proper footwear that's comfortable – with appropriate support for your heel and arch. And whenever possible, try to walk on grass rather than concrete to help absorb the impact.

Also, be mindful of your surroundings – try not to wear headphones so that you can hear oncoming traffic and quiet cars that are around you.

Al Waller: That's a good point. You put those air buds in your ears and it's incredible…with music or just listening to podcasts, you won't hear anything coming – a car or a cyclist – and that's not good for your health.

How about those who want to walk but don’t want to run the potential risk of injury — should they avoid walking altogether?

Mihaela Vincze: No, but it is a good idea to always assess your risk for injury before beginning a new form of exercise. However, walking is considered really safe.

In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services scientific report noted that walking is the most popular aerobic activity and has one of the lowest injury rates of any form of exercise. This is really great news for those who might be new to walking as a form of exercise.

Al Waller: Great points. Mihaela. As you've noted, it's very affordable and just a convenient way to get the body moving. I'm pretty fortunate I live a mile or so from the market and the pharmacy or a local park – I can get that walk in and accomplish something at the same time. With that said, what about those who live in neighborhoods that may not be walkable?

Mihaela Vincze: That's a great question. If for some reason walking is not an option in your specific neighborhood, there are other ways to be active – by walking in your daily routine. You can park further from your destination. You can take the stairs instead of an elevator – as well as just walking around your house. Those small adjustments really help you get those extra steps, which really do add up.

Al Waller: That’s right – every step counts! What I found over the years is that sometimes just taking the stairs not only gets you some exercise, but it may get you to that floor quicker than waiting for an elevator. Mihaela, as always, great to have you with us.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes, including the upcoming episode on the power of hope. Also, in case you missed it, check out recent episodes on breaking the bias in the gender retirement gap, and getting better sleep for good health.

We’d love to hear from you if you have comments, feedback, or topics you want to learn more about. Contact us at [email protected].

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.