The health benefits of walking, especially for people over age 50

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Walking is healthy. It’s a fact, backed up by research and people who are in the habit of walking. What’s surprising is just how powerful a medicine a daily or near-daily walk can be. New studies find new benefits all the time: preventing heart disease and diabetes, relieving back pain, reducing anxiety, and improving quality of life.

walking_couple“Walking is the single best exercise we can recommend on a large scale,” says Bob Sallis, MD, physician-spokesperson for Everybody Walk!, a national public health campaign created by Kaiser Permanente. “Exercise is like a medication we should be prescribing for our patients,” he says. “And the simplest exercise prescription is walking.”

Here are six new health benefits for regular walks:

1. A mere 15-minute walk after dinner lowers blood sugar
At George Washington University School of Public Health in Washington, D.C., researchers studied inactive men and women over 60. Their blood sugar was a little elevated (105 to 125 mg/dL), but they didn’t have diabetes (yet). Walking 15 minutes at a moderately brisk pace—a little under 3 miles an hour—helped control their after-dinner blood-sugar spike for the next three hours. The group that had after-dinner walks also had lower 24-hour blood sugar levels. “Walking burns up the sugar that’s in your blood, and it strengthens muscles so you use blood sugar more efficiently,” says Dr. Sallis. “It’s helps your insulin work better. The benefit is almost instantaneous.”

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2. When it comes to your heart, walking is as good as running
When researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory looked at long-term studies of runners and walkers, they found a surprise: If you cover the same distance, the heart health benefits were about the same. Both walking and running led to similar reductions in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and even coronary heart disease. “Walking has the same benefits as running—it just takes a little longer,” says Dr. Sallis.

3. Lower back pain? Walking’s as good as specialized rehab exercises
When you have lower back pain, it can help to strengthen your abdominal and back muscles. You can go a clinic to do back-strengthening exercises on special equipment under professional supervision. walking_backOr you can take a walk for 20 to 40 minutes, three times a week—it strengthens the same muscles. When Tel Aviv researchers studied 52 patients of varying ages with lower back pain, they asked half to do strengthening exercises, half to walk. After six weeks, both groups had improved equally—and the walkers were fitter and healthier. Every back pain patient is different, so by all means see your doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor, or masseuse. Just keep moving, too. “When you have back pain, bed rest beyond a day or two is counterproductive,” says Dr. Sallis. “Sometimes my patients have pain that’s so bad they can’t get out of bed, can’t walk. The sooner I can get them walking, the better they will be.”

4. Walking reduces anxiety, especially in women going through menopause
A regular walk is a reliable way to lower stress and anxiety and boost your mood. At Temple University, researchers studied 380 urban women over eight years as they went through menopause. Average age at study start: 42.The more they walked, the less stress, anxiety, and depression they experienced during and after menopause. The moderate group hoofed it for 40 minutes at four miles per hour, five days a week. The highest tier put in 90 minutes. “We’ve always assumed the biggest effect of walking was on the heart, but the most powerful effect turns out to be on the brain,” says Dr. Sallis. “When we walk, we’re less anxious, less stressed, and we feel better. For treatment of depression, a walking or biking program leads to lower remission rates than Prozac.”

5. For men over 55, the more daily steps, the better the quality of life
Canadian researchers gave pedometers to men over 55. walking_shoesThe more steps, the better the physical and mental health, which added up to a better “quality of life” profile. The men averaged 8,539 steps a day—a little less than two miles. But even those who walked more moderate distances were healthier and felt better than those who walked fewer steps. “Small bouts of exercise are additive,” says Dr. Sallis. “Three 10-minute walks have the same health benefits of one 30-minute walk. The goal is to accumulate 150 minutes of moderate intensity walking a week, but you’re still getting benefits if you don’t achieve that.”

6. If you walk fast enough, you’ll never die
Well, not exactly. But the ability to walk at a moderate pace as you age is a good indicator of how long you’ll live. If you want to avoid the Grim Reaper, aim for a walking speed of at least 3 mph, found researchers at Concord Hospital in Sydney, Australia. They studied 1,705 men aged 70 or older for five years. Those who went on to pass away were slow walkers—averaging just 1.8 miles per hour. But among those who walked 3 miles an hour or faster, no one died. That’s walking a mile in about 20 minutes.

[Editor's note: A good iPhone and smartphone app to map your walks is MapMyWalk.]

4 Comments

  1. Great article! My wife and I (late sixties) have been exercise-walking for many decades, and we can attest the benefits described in this article.

    In addition, I often pump hand weights when walking. All the experts, I know, advise against this, but it works for me.

  2. Totally agree with this! I started to play golf when I turned 34 and have never stopped since…which means a lot of walking, it really helps to control back pain and it also has a psychological effect: it’s very relaxing – you tend to forget your problems when you walk (especially if you walk fast) and even if you think about them, you get a different, new perspective on them. Benefits all around!

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