Michigan Association of Health Plans

5 Health benefits of walking: 20 minutes a day makes a difference

This story appeared in Priority Health’s ThinkHealth Blog. Read more here. 

Walking is one of the simplest ways to increase your physical activity and improve your health.

Getting outside of the house to go for a walk can be a great way to break up the day and relieve some stress. Whether alone or with the whole family, the great thing about walking is that almost anyone can do it and it doesn’t require a gym, expensive equipment or a ton of extra time. All you need is a comfortable pair of walking shoes and you’re on your way to improving your overall health and well-being.

As the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates said, “Walking is man’s best medicine.”

He was right. Even today with countless medications and drugs available for every ailment, there is no pill that can impact our total health like a daily walk. Adding as little as 20 minutes of walking to your daily routine has been shown to improve health.

Here are five reasons to lace up your comfortable shoes and walk your way to better health:

1. Protect your heart.
Just like the rest of the muscles in our bodies, our heart needs to be strengthened through regular activity to remain healthy and strong. Thankfully, the simplest of physical activities — walking — can make a big difference.

Some may believe that you have to get on the treadmill or hit the pavement for at least an hour to make it worthwhile. However, this might seem out of reach if you have a busy schedule or are not in the routine of regularly exercising. The good news is you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete or marathon runner to experience the heart-protecting benefits of exercise. Two long-term Harvard studies found that simply walking 20 minutes a day may reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent.

Set a goal to walk 20 minutes at least five times a week and experience all the health benefits that a brisk walk can bring you.

Even more surprising is that when it comes to heart health, walking is equal to, and in some cases better than, running. A study published in the AHA journal, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, found that brisk walking provides similar benefits as running for reducing three key risk factors in the development of heart disease—blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.

2. Slim down.
Regular brisk walking, when combined with healthy eating, is hugely effective for weight loss and regulation. Walking also helps to reduce visceral fat, also known as belly or abdominal fat which is especially dangerous to our health.

If you don’t have time to get out for a walk, you can simply add in extra steps to your daily routine. Wearing an activity tracker is an excellent way to track progress and help keep you motivated. To start, go about your daily routine as normal for the first couple days to establish a baseline. From there, you can set small goals to increase your daily steps. You may surprise yourself with how quickly these small changes can add up.

3. Keep your memory sharp.
One of the best things you can do to keep your brain in shape is head out for a brisk walk. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the hippocampus—the part of the brain that is key to memory—can be expanded through regular walking.

It is known that the hippocampus begins to shrink as we age, usually around age 55 or 60. After a year of walking three times per week, brain scans in the study showed that the hippocampus had increased in size about two percent in the walking group—a significant increase which reversed age-related loss by one to two years. The walkers also showed improvements on a memory test and increased levels of a protein in the brain responsible for learning.

4. Improve your mood.
Exercise helps release endorphins that instantly improve your mood and trigger a positive feeling in the body. When performed regularly, exercise helps ease stress, anxiety and has even been shown to be as effective as psychotherapy at relieving moderate depression.

A California State University study found that the more steps people took during the day, the better their moods were. The release of endorphins creates feelings of happiness and euphoria. For extra mood-boosting benefits, take a stroll outdoors. All that Vitamin D from soaking up the sun (while wearing sunscreen, of course) can also lessen the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of depression.

5. Sleep better.
Exercise such as walking boosts the effect of natural sleep hormones such as melatonin, helping you doze off faster and sleep more soundly. Researchers at Harvard University School of Medicine conducted a study on the effects of exercise on sleep. It was found that those who engaged in 20 to 30 minutes of moderate exercise every other day fell asleep 50 percent faster and stayed asleep up to one hour longer.


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