'We were built to walk, not sit'

It requires no gym subscription, no legwarmers and is an activity to which even the most fitness-phobic individual might not be averse. So what is the latest exercise trend that we are being encouraged to embrace for the good of our health? A daily stroll.

Lucy Knight, author of Walking for Weight Loss (Kyle Cathie), says that the benefits of walking are countless.
You use pretty much the same muscles as you do in running but the activity is far kinder to the joints. ‘It is not a high-impact activity,” she says. ‘So, while it strengthens and stabilises the muscles around your major joints, it reduces the wear and tear on the cartilage and minimises the risk of joint injury.”

Researchers, too, are in no doubt that the resurgence of a daily stroll to boost health is much needed. ‘Humans were designed to walk,” says James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic college of medicine in Minnesota, who has studied the benefits. ‘We spent seven million years of our history walking and now, all of a sudden, we are sitting down. That is having a profound effect on our health.”

A daily walk has been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes. And studies have shown that a broader set of disorders—from sexual dysfunction to cognitive decline—can also be aided by a brisk walk around the block. Indeed, JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard University, goes as far as describing a daily stroll as being ‘as close to a magic bullet as you’ll find in modern medicine. If there was a pill that could lower the risk of chronic disease like walking does, then people would be clamouring for it”.

Dawdling along while window shopping will not help you walk your way to fitness, says Knight. Instead, she suggests perfecting your power-walking technique.

‘A common mistake is to allow the arms to swing from side to side rather than backwards and forwards,” Knight says. ‘Walking with straight, rigid arms is another bad practice.”

Using your old running trainers for walking will do you no favours, says Knight. ‘Running shoes are generally high at the heel to control the motion of the rear foot,” she explains. Instead, she recommends a walking-specific trainer or shoe with a flexible sole ‘that has more bend in the toe than a runner’s shoe” with cushioning at the heel and breathable upper. Walking boots and sandals are unsuitable for power walking.

There is growing evidence that by striding out more often you will improve not just your physical but also your mental health and brainpower. Last week researchers from the University of Exeter reported that just five to 10 minutes of walking a day can significantly cut cravings for cigarettes among people trying to kick the habit.

At the University of Illinois, researchers compared the effects of a walking programme to a toning and stretching regime in elderly subjects and found that walkers performed far better in tests of mental agility. Like other forms of aerobic exercise, it increases oxygen supply and blood flow to the brain, helping it to stay more alert and work more efficiently.

Researchers have linked brisk walking to the prevention of a plethora of diseases, from cancer to diabetes. Being a weight-bearing activity, it is recommended by the National Osteoporosis Society as a great bone-strengthener. Nicki Cooper, head of education and medical information at the British Heart Foundation, says ‘the cardiovascular benefits of walking make it the ideal activity for protecting against heart disease”.

Indeed, researchers at the University of Colorado have found that it lowers cholesterol and prevents peripheral artery disease (which impairs blood flow in the legs and causes leg pain in one-fifth of elderly people). A daily walk can even prevent colds.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh recently revealed that overweight people who walked briskly for 30 to 60 minutes a day lost about 3kg in about 18 months even if they didn’t change any other lifestyle habits.—

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