You can do it: fitting in walking has so many benefits

By Alpa Patel, PhD

I just got in from taking a walk with friends on a picture-perfect day with blue skies and the feel of autumn in the air. Let me start by telling you how rejuvenating it is to begin working on a blog after a dose of fresh air!

Last week, the U.S. Surgeon General published a Call to Action to specifically promote walking. I was pretty excited about this because my research largely focuses on physical activity and health, and well, because I personally love walking. But not everyone knows how beneficial physical activity is to your overall health so I wanted to share some of that evidence through this blog.

The notion of regular physical activity being good for us is not new information. In fact, more than 60 years of scientific evidence supports that engaging in regular moderate to vigorous physical activity has a wide range of health benefits, including lower risk of early death overall and prevention of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. As a result, our American Cancer Society Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. However, most U.S. adults do not reach this minimum recommended level of physical activity.

Why aren’t people exercising?

There are many reasons that contribute to why the majority of Americans are not exercising regularly. Most of our daily life routines do not include much movement, so physical activity must be intentionally sought out. If you are anything like me and you think of your daily routine, you are probably driving to work, sitting at your computer for most of the day (although I started using a standing desk), driving home, and watching television on the couch in the evening. Some days you are motivated to stop at the gym on your way home, and some days you are just too busy dealing with errands, cooking dinner, and juggling life. And if you are a parent, you may be spending even more time driving your children to their various activities, leaving you with even less time to consider exercising! This leaves many of us feeling like there is just not enough time to exercise or find it is inconvenient to fit in going to the gym.

Some people may also be hesitant to begin an exercise routine because they lack confidence in their knowledge of what constitutes moderate or vigorous activity, or do not feel they have the necessary skills to perform these activities, or simply don’t have the money needed to join a gym.

Why should I walk for exercise?

Well, you should consider walking for exercise because you may not know that walking at a 3 mile per hour pace (that is about 20 minutes per mile) on a level street constitutes moderate physical activity. It’s true! And, it really is that easy to meet recommended levels of physical activity! Walking is the most common exercise performed among adults because it is free, can be performed nearly anywhere, and does not require any special equipment or training. And the health benefits are vast.

As baby boomers age, the U.S. population that is over the age of 65 years is expected to nearly double by 2050 (from approximately 44 million today to 84 million in 2050). Walking is a great exercise because it is something you can do at any age, and many studies have shown that it is never too late to start engaging in moderate physical activities like walking for your overall health.

In fact, studies have shown that walking (just over 3 hours per week at a pace of approximately 3 mph), is associated with an 11% lower risk of dying early from any cause. Numerous studies have also shown similar benefits from walking in relation to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes risk. While total moderate or vigorous physical activity has been linked to lower risk of certain types of cancer (colorectal, breast, and endometrium), walking specifically has not been extensively examined in relation to cancer. A recent American Cancer Society study (published in 2013) did report that moderate-paced walking (approximately 3 mph) for an hour per day was associated with a 14% lower risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.

Not only is walking good for your physical health as you age, but evidence supports that walking lowers stress and reduces age-related memory decline. While you can walk by yourself, studies have also shown that walking with friends further improves mood and positively effects mental health and that you tend to be more motivated to exercise because it deepens social connections.

So think about easy ways to fit in walking throughout your day. Take a walk after eating your lunch because you will come back to your desk feeling refreshed. Or walk with another parent while your kids are at their after-school practices. Or go for a family walk in your neighborhood after dinner. However you choose to walk, know that you are doing something good for your body and mind!

Dr. Patel is strategic director of the Cancer Prevention Study-3 for the American Cancer Society.

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