How Going For A Walk Makes You Healthier

I yammer about walking a lot on my blog, newsletter, and in my social media posts. I am sure you are probably kind of sick of hearing about it. I realized the other day though, that with all my yammering about the benefits of walking I have never consolidated all the benefits into one spot to point people at. This blog post is going to solve that problem. Before I get into the specifics though, I wanted to talk about why walking is unique when it comes to movement and exercise.

Walking is the most ancestral form of movement. Our ability to walk upright has given us a huge evolutionary advantage over the years and allowed us to populate the planet we live on. Walking is also something that nearly everyone can do from the time they are a few years old. Once a child can walk, it’s a huge milestone, even today when walking is not required to survive. We have even developed amazing technological innovations to allow people who can’t walk or for who walking is extremely tough, to once again walk!

Unfortunately, when we don’t or can’t walk, we usually see a very rapid deterioration in health. This graph illustrates the association between walking and all-cause mortality (dying from anything) nicely. This study showed getting less than 5000 steps a day increases your risk of dying from anything [1].

 

A separate study showed similar results among adults who met the physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate to physical activity through walking [2]. It also showed that if you get more than 150 minutes a week through walking your risk of dying went down even further. Amazingly, even if you added in other physical activity like exercise on top of just walking your risk of dying didn’t decrease that much more than if you just walked!

https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30460-9/fulltext

I unfortunately have seen the detrimental effects of not being able to walk in members of my own family. My 80+ year old grandfather suffered a spinal bleed several years ago. Up until that point he was the most vibrant, active 80+ year old man I had ever seen. He was still working full time at a very cognitively demanding job and played golf nearly everyday. When he suffered the spinal bleed he lost the motor function in the lower half of his body and was confined to a wheelchair. From that moment forward I saw a rapid decline in his health until his passing in 2020.

Did his death certificate say he died from his inability to walk?

No.

But I personally believe it was the downstream effects of not being able to walk and all the benefits that are associated with it that contributed greatly to his passing.

What are those benefits?

I thought you would never ask! Let’s dive in!

Sleep

I don’t care what your goal is, fat loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, or just general health, if your sleep is terrible it’s going to make obtaining your goal nearly impossible.

Unfortunately sleep problems are not the easiest to fix. Sleep is as much about routines and consistency as it is about the things you do day to day. For example, you can buffer things that affect your sleep acutely, like a stressful day, and sleep pretty well. However, if that stress occurs all the time your sleep will begin to suffer. If you then have a very relaxing day, your sleep might not improve immediately because your body has been conditioned to be on alert due to the constant stress.

Adding walking into your day is no different, just because you walk one day does not guarantee good sleep, but it can help contribute to your goal of getting a good night’s rest and when done consistently it can make a big difference.

Here is a good example of the type of consistency I am talking about.

In a study done on young adults, 1 hr of walking, 7 days a week for 4 weeks in the afternoon/evening showed improved sleep quality and duration while decreasing sleep disturbances [3].

I am willing to bet if the walk was done 3-4 days a week that the results may not have been as good.

I actually wish they had these participants do their walk outside in the morning, particularly early in the morning as the sun is rising.

Why?

Because getting sunlight into your eyes first thing in the morning can help entrain your sleep/wake cycle (your circadian rhythm) [4] and further help ensure a good night’s sleep.

https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/circadian-rhythms.aspx

For hundreds of thousands of years our sleep/wake cycle was aligned with the rising and setting of the sun. Now with artificial light we can extend that sleep wake cycle artificially, and this can often disrupt our sleep. Light has a major impact on our bodies production of key hormones that affect sleep.

When we awake in the morning and get light in our eyes, particularly from the sun, it will suppress the hormone melatonin which makes us sleepy, and in turn raises cortisol levels which makes us feel awake. When the sun sets and light is minimal the opposite hormone cascade occurs, cortisol begins to fall and melatonin begins to rise making us fall asleep.

Getting up and going for a walk in the morning and getting some natural sun in your eyes can help ensure your body stops producing cortisol and starts producing melatonin at the right time at night for you to get a good night’s sleep.

Eye Workout

We are tied to our smartphones, computers, and TV’s for most of the day and that means our eyes are at most only looking a few feet in front of us. Prolonged periods of staring at screens close to our faces has been shown to increase eye strain [5]. I am sure you have experienced this yourself after a marathon period of time staring at your computer screen working on a project. Eventually it can become hard to focus, and some people develop headaches.

By getting outside and taking a walk it allows your eyes to gaze further off into the distance and work the muscles that need to focus on objects far away from you and gives those muscles used to focus close up a break.

Stress Relief

When I am really worked up, like ready to “blow my top” worked up, I head right for the door. Partially because if I am that stressed, removing myself from the situation causing me stress is probably a good thing for everyone involved, but also because going for a walk is a form of stress relief for me. It gives me time to think about something else, calm down, think about the problem that is stressing me out from a more calm state of mind, and ultimately maybe see the situation from a different perspective.

Science has quantified these stress relieving benefits of walks, particularly in nature, by measuring heart rate variability, a measure of how stressed your body is. A study showed that office workers who took a walk in nature during their lunch break showed improvements in heart rate variability the next day. Basically what this says is that taking a walk in nature can help relieve stress [6].

Connect With Others

One of the hardest problems to solve from a lifestyle perspective is improving social connection.

Telling someone to go out and make friends or having meaningful social interactions with others is not as simple as telling them to eat more protein.

I have found one of the easiest ways to interact with your fellow humans, outside of social media, is to meet people in your local neighborhood. A good way to do that is to be out and about and be visible to your neighbors by going for a walk. Unsurprisingly the more walkable a neighborhood is the more socially connected people feel [7]. If a neighborhood is less walkable, due to traffic concerns, lack of places to walk, steep hills, etc, then people feel less connected with their neighbors.

I also find walks are an opportunity to connect with the ones you love. I regularly go for walks with my wife and kids either all together or just one on one. This gives us distraction free time to talk about different things or spend time as a family outside. It is not often today that we get distraction free time with the ones we love the most, so leave the phones at home and go for a quick walk.

Recharge Your Batteries

When I am feeling run down, either due to life, or because I have recently completed a tough workout, my favorite thing to do to “recharge my batteries” is to go for a walk. The reason why is hard to pin down, I am going to guess that it is a combination of the benefits I listed above. There is also research beginning to emerge that shows that bright light exposure can cause a release of a hormone called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with the feeling of pleasure, and who doesn’t like that feeling!

All I know is that if I am tired, sore, worn down or anything else, a quick walk seems to give me the extra boost I need. It is certainly better than reaching for another cup of coffee.

Better Digestion

For those of you that have digestive issues or have a sensitive stomach, you might want to try going for a walk after you eat.

One study showed that walking improved the time for half a meal to be digested from 123 minutes to 107 minutes [8].

Why might this be?

Well it appears gravity might help move things through the digestive tract. When you are upright, your body moves your food along through the digestive tract quicker than if you are sitting or lying down [9]. When your digestion moves quicker it gives less of a chance for the food to cause digestive issues like gas and bloating.

Get More Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a very important nutrient that can be very hard to get from food alone. It is one of the few nutrients that we can’t get from eating a whole foods diet, even if you are consuming things like organ meats, lots of vegetables, and fish and mollusks. As you can see in the table below the whole food sources and options are quite limited (I consider cod liver oil a supplement, unless you are eating whole cod livers).

 

Food

Micrograms

(mcg) per

serving

International

Units (IU)

per serving

Percent DV*

Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon

34.0

1,360

170

Trout (rainbow), farmed, cooked, 3 ounces

16.2

645

81

Salmon (sockeye), cooked, 3 ounces

14.2

570

71

Mushrooms, white, raw, sliced, exposed to UV light, ½ cup

9.2

366

46

Milk, 2% milkfat, vitamin D fortified, 1 cup

2.9

120

15

Soy, almond, and oat milks, vitamin D fortified, various brands, 1 cup

2.5-3.6

100-144

13-18

Ready-to-eat cereal, fortified with 10% of the DV for vitamin D, 1 serving

2.0

80

10

Sardines (Atlantic), canned in oil, drained, 2 sardines

1.2

46

6

Egg, 1 large, scrambled**

1.1

44

6

Liver, beef, braised, 3 ounces

1.0

42

5

Tuna fish (light), canned in water, drained, 3 ounces

1.0

40

5

Cheese, cheddar, 1 ounce

0.3

12

2

Mushrooms, portabella, raw, diced, ½ cup

0.1

4

1

Chicken breast, roasted, 3 ounces

0.1

4

1

Beef, ground, 90% lean, broiled, 3 ounces

0

1.7

0

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/

The best source of vitamin D is the Sun, we absorb it via the Sun’s light on our skin. By getting out in the sun for 5-30 minutes between 10AM-4PM just twice a week can maintain adequate vitamin D levels [10].

By going for a walk outside, you can easily meet those requirements, no supplementation necessary!

Better Aerobic Fitness

In 2018 I decided to do a 50K ultra-distance obstacle course race. The biggest obstacle in this race was going to be the distance and the endurance to keep moving for more than 10+ hours while marching up and down a ski mountain. My 2-3 daily walks, in addition to a large running volume, contributed greatly to me being able to complete that race.

This is also reflected in research and has been quantified via measuring heart rate and VO2max.

When individuals were asked to walk 1.6km as fast as possible most people, regardless of their age or gender, were able to reach heart rate thresholds that can elicit aerobic adaptations [11].

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9181668/

In 20-24 year old women who were asked to walk just under 3 miles a day 5 days a week saw improvements in VO2max (a measure of aerobic fitness) when compared to the sedentary control group [12].

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9181668/

Yeah, walking is not as sexy as running, biking, swimming, rowing and many other aerobic fitness modalities, but that doesn’t mean it can’t contribute to your overall aerobic fitness. Even serious endurance athletes, can benefit from an easy walk!

Get Shit Done!

I am a huge advocate of going for a walk with little distractions as that helps with the benefits of stress relief, your eye health, your ability to connect with others, and giving you a better boost of energy. However, I also think it’s OK to try to do multiple things while you walk from time to time.

For example, if you have a work call that you don’t need to be in front of the computer for, grab your phone and go for a walk while you listen in, it’s better than sitting down at the computer and not doing anything.

Personally, I am a huge fan of listening to audiobooks and podcasts when I walk, which are almost always educational in some way. Sometimes I will even work on a tough work problem I am trying to figure out while I go for my walk.

I generally try to take one walk where I have zero distractions and just enjoy the walk. The other walks I do I am listening to something educational, answering emails or messages for clients, or allowing my brain to work on a tough work problem without it being right in front of me.

Better Metabolic Health

This is probably the one benefit of walking that people are most interested in.

Can walking make me healthier and lose weight?

Yes.

But this is not unique to walking, whereas some of the other benefits we talked about above are quite unique to walking as opposed to other exercise modalities. For example, doing bodyweight squats or push ups can elicit similar metabolic health results, but will not necessarily get you all the other benefits we talked about already.

So while the metabolic benefits of walking are important, they are not unique.

That said, one of the best ways to control your blood sugar is to go for a walk. You could eat nearly any food that would normally send your blood sugar sky high, but if you eat that food and then go for a walk, the detrimental effects of that food are greatly reduced from a metabolic health perspective. That doesn’t mean you have a free pass to eat whatever you want, but it does mean that if you occasionally indulge in your favorite food, walking after you eat can help you keep your blood sugar in line.

This was nicely illustrated in a non-scientific study done by Levels Health. They had several of their users wear a continuous glucose monitor and then drink a can of Coke. On one occasion they consumed the Coke and were sedentary afterways and in the other occasion they went for a walk. Using the continuous glucose monitor they could see the effect the walk had on their blood sugar response from drinking the Coke. What they saw among their users was improvements across the board when consuming the Coke and going for a walk [13].

  • Average glucose spike was 28% lower with a walk (+56.2 mg/dL vs. +40.4 mg/dL)
  • Average glucose peak was 10% lower with a walk (145 mg/dL vs. 131 mg/dL)
  • Average time out of range was 21% lower with a walk (56 minutes vs. 45 minutes)

https://www.levelshealth.com/blog/what-a-can-of-coke-with-and-without-a-walk-after-does-to-your-blood-sugar

More proof of the metabolic benefits of walking can be seen in a meta-analysis (a study of studies) done on walking which showed that moderate walking can reduce body weight, reduce BMI, reduce body fat percentage, and improve blood pressure [14].

Walking is the only movement/exercise that can elicit all these benefits AT THE SAME TIME, particularly when walking outside. In addition walking is accessible to nearly everyone. Sometimes there are barriers in place, but for most people, in most places, going for a walk is something everyone can do…for free.

You might be wondering what the right dose is to elicit many of these benefits? What I recommend to most clients is to target 8-10 thousand steps a day. Yes I know the 10 thousand step rule is pretty much a myth. However, if we look at modern hunter gatherers, like the Hazda, men walk around 6 miles a day and women walk around 3 miles a day. If you translate that to steps, it comes out between 7-13 thousand steps. Turns out 10 thousand steps falls nicely in the middle of that range, so it is safe to say we evolved walking about 10 thousand steps per day.

I hope this article illustrates the benefits of one of the least sexy, most accessible, ancestrally natural movements out there. To get more actionable information you can apply to your own life to achieve your own goals sign up for my newsletter using the form below to get everything you need delivered directly to your inbox.

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Bonuses

Want to take your walking game to the next level?

Try chewing some gum. Apparently chewing gum improves walking distance, speed, step count, heart rate, and energy expenditure [15]!

Has your butt been glued to a chair for a while?

If so check out this beginners walking protocol on Mark’s Daily Apple.

  1. (2021, May 18). Abstract 069: Sporadic Step Accumulation And All-cause Mortality In …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/circ.143.suppl_1.069
  2. (2017, October 19). Walking in Relation to Mortality in a Large Prospective Cohort of …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30460-9/fulltext
  3. (2020, December 24). The effect of daily walking exercise on sleep quality in healthy young …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11332-020-00702-x
  4. (2019, August 20). Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and … – NCBI – NIH. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071/
  5. (n.d.). Viewing distance and eyestrain symptoms with prolonged viewing of …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27716998/
  6. (n.d.). Viewing distance and eyestrain symptoms with prolonged viewing of …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27716998/
  7. (n.d.). Viewing distance and eyestrain symptoms with prolonged viewing of …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27716998/
  8. (n.d.). Postprandial walking but not consumption of alcoholic digestifs or …. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18392240/
  9. (n.d.). Effect of body posture on radionuclide measurements … – SpringerLink. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01535951
  10. (2021, March 26). Vitamin D – Health Professional Fact Sheet. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
  11. (n.d.). Walking to health – PubMed. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9181668/
  12. (n.d.). Walking to health – PubMed. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9181668/
  13. (2021, June 11). New study shows immediate and lasting benefits to that post-meal …. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://www.levelshealth.com/blog/new-study-shows-immediate-and-lasting-benefits-to-that-post-meal-walk
  14. (n.d.). The effect of walking on fitness, fatness and resting blood … – PubMed. Retrieved August 5, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17275896/
  15. (n.d.). Gum chewing while walking increases walking … – ScienceDirect.com. Retrieved August 6, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1728869X21000162

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