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Why walking is the new wonder drug ?

It’s true, a brisk walk can cure many ills. Numerous studies show that walking reduces the risk of certain cancers, heart disease and stroke, lowers blood pressure and aids in weight loss. Walking can also alleviate arthritis pain, stave off osteoporosis, improve energy levels and make people happier.

“Walking is the number one exercise in North America, and just about everyone can do it,” says John Stanton, founder of the Running Room, which hosts walking clinics across the country. The benefits of walking and running are the same: The fundamental differences are that walking takes a bigger investment of time and there are fewer injuries, since there’s less impact on muscles and joints. “We used to consider walking the gateway to running, but we found lots of people just wanted to walk,” says Stanton.

Kim DeLisle knows the power of walking. The retired military veteran from Barrie, ON suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and began walking with a Running Room clinic three years ago. She is now one of the leaders of the Barrie Walkers, a group of women between the ages of 48 and 65 who meet three times a week for exercise and group “therapy.” “Before I joined I was haphazard in my physical activity, but now I am consistent, disciplined and stronger. I also feel more confident and empowered – two things that were severely impacted by my mental health struggles and the loss of my career. The simple movement of walking is so powerful: When I am out of the house, I am engaged in the world and supported by a group of amazing women.”

If you need more excuses to get fitted for walking shoes, read on:

Walk away from disease

You can walk your way to better health: In the 2013 National Walkers’ Health Study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers looked at 15,045 walkers and found that brisk walking can lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. And, according to researchers, the more people walked, the more their health benefits increased. 

Walking is also a proven cancer fighter.
 The American Cancer Society reported that an hour of daily walking may reduce a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer by 14 percent, while a study published in the British Medical Journal showed that physical activity reduces the risk of colon cancer in both men and women. And, according to the American Heart Association, walking briskly for up to 30 minutes can prevent and control high blood pressure that can lead to stroke, reducing your risk by up to 27 percent. All of these huge health payoffs are just the beginning – and they’re no big surprise to many medical experts.

Walking also keeps you mentally sharp: According to a University of California study of 6,000 women aged 65 and older, age-related memory decline was lower in women who walked more. There have also been several studies that show that walking lowers the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Toronto sports physician Dr. Ira Smith says his profession has been prescribing exercise for years. “We don’t know why walking prevents certain diseases, but we know it moderates blood pressure,” he says. Walking helps to relax the smooth muscles responsible for contracting blood vessels, thereby improving circulation. “Exercise is a great preventive measure for many diseases,” he says.

That includes Type 2 diabetes, one of the fastest growing diseases in Canada, with more than 60,000 new cases annually. The good news? Type 2 diabetes is preventable, and walking can make great strides in that prevention.

“Exercise lowers insulin resistance, which allows your body to use glucose more efficiently, thereby helping to manage Type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. Smith.

Walking can also help achy joints: Nearly 4.6 million Canadians have been diagnosed with arthritis and, though exercise might be the last thing on the mind of someone with stiff joints, it is exactly what the doctor ordered. Walking supports the joints by bringing oxygen and nutrients to the joint regions. “I have arthritis in my knee from a teenage injury and it really used to bother me,” says Suzanne Graham, one of the Barrie Walkers. “Now that I walk regularly, I seldom experience pain anymore.”

Walk for weight loss

Nearly 40 percent of Canadians are either overweight or obese, but for some, the solution to weight loss may be right outside their front door. Walking is the low-impact, do-anywhere fitness activity that everyone can try, no matter how long they’ve been neglecting exercise. “I encourage anyone starting out to just get out and walk,” says Lee Scott, a fitness trainer who has been coaching clients for over two decades and founder of WoW Power Walking in Toronto.

Although a simple walk can do wonders, the addition of high-intensity intervals, such as walking fast in short bursts, like you are late for an appointment (i.e. 30 seconds), followed by walking at a moderate pace, increases the calorie burn and health benefits of walking.

Dr. Hiroshi Nose at the Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Matsumoto, Japan, set out to measure the benefits of faster walking intervals mixed in with moderate-paced walking. In their study, one group walked at a continuous, moderate pace while the other completed five sets of intervals. The aerobic fitness, leg strength and blood pressure readings for the interval walkers improved significantly.

“The good news is that everyone can incorporate intervals into their training,” says Scott. “High intensity is your high intensity: Both a 90-year-old and a 20-year-old can walk speed intervals while experiencing a Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion of anywhere from six to nine out of 10. Their speeds may differ at these RPEs, but any age and fitness level can incorporate six minutes of intervals  each day to reap the benefits.” This is the equivalent of 12-to 30-second bursts, where you would walk at a moderate pace, then pick up your speed for 30 seconds so you are pushing hard.

Scott encourages beginners to focus on the heel-toe strike, engaging the gluteal muscles as you swing the leg back around to get the full benefits for your legs. “Shorten the lever of your arms by bending at the elbow joints, focus on the horizon and try to maintain a shorter, faster stride and cadence,” says Scott.

Start small – 10 minutes out and back – and then gradually add distance or time (the Running Room walking clinics suggest adding 10 percent weekly). And remember, healthy eating is key. “More than half the battle for weight loss is diet and nutrition,” says Scott.

Walk to improve mental health

Although the physical benefits of walking are numerous, one of the greatest payoffs is the positive effect on mental health, says Dr. Amanda Beaman, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto and Vaughan, ON.

“The cycle that maintains depression often involves a pattern of withdrawal from activities that provide positive reinforcement – like socializing and exercising,” says Dr. Beaman. “This creates a vicious cycle that strengthens depression. Increased activity, such as walking, is something I highly recommend to fight depression.”

For those who are new to fitness, they benefit from the satisfaction of improving their walking speed and distances. From a psychological standpoint, “achieving any goal, big or small, is likely to be positively reinforcing.”

Getting out and walking also offers opportunities for productivity (for example, walking to post a letter) and sociability (such as walking with a friend), which can also have positive psychological effects, says Dr. Beaman.

With anxiety, walking and exercise take on an even more specific role in treatment: “People who suffer from anxiety go into a ‘fight or flight’ mode,” says Dr. Beaman. “They react to stressors in their lives – jobs, marriage, kids – as ‘threats,’ leading to physiological symptoms such as sweating, increased heart rate, dizziness and numbness. Physical activity, such as walking, buffers the effects of stress and anxiety in two ways. If people have higher levels of fitness, their fight-or-flight response may not react to stressors as much. And if they are used to getting their heart rate up, they won’t notice the elevated heart rate as much when anxiety strikes.”

Walking for mental health is a great script doctors can write: “Exercise is known to release chemicals in your body called endorphins. Endorphins can reduce pain and stress and trigger a positive feeling in the body,” says Dr. Smith.

Wendy Noseworthy, another member of the Barrie Walkers, started her journey into walking in 2013 to rebuild strength and self-confidence. “I started out on a four-kilometre walk, afraid I wasn’t going to make it. The group was so inspiring, the social benefits are enormous. Three times a week, we meet with people who have become lifelong friends. We share goals, dreams and sometimes sadness, but we are always there for each other.”

At the end of her first clinic, Noseworthy completed a 10K walking event. She is now training to walk the same route as the Boston Marathon in September. “You never know where that first step will take you,” she says.

Ready to walk? Here’s how to start safely:

Moderation is key when it comes to any new fitness regimen. “People who are new to fitness often go too hard, too soon,” says Stanton. “They start walking, get that endorphin high and get a new lease on life, but then they get a little too aggressive and get injured,” he says. To avoid this common misstep, Stanton recommends being gentle and progressive with your program and incorporating rest into your routine. “Also, know the difference between residual soreness and the sharp pulling pain that goes along with an injury,” he says. If you’re experiencing severe or lingering soreness and unsure about how serious it is, see your doctor.

The most common injuries among walkers are in the calves, quads and ankles, and they can be easily treated with ice and self-massage: “Fill up an old winter glove with ice cubes and massage the sore areas when you come in from a walk,” suggests Stanton.
You can help prevent stiffness and injuries by stretching gently after every walk.

Best Health magazine, September 2015