While many modes of exercise are beneficial, walking is considered the most accessible and cheapest way to get your daily dose.
The Ministry of Health says regular walking can help reduce the risk of a wide range of health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and even certain cancers. Walking also helps improve your bone strength, heart rate and circulation. It reduces the risk of osteoporosis and helps you reduce and maintain a healthy weight.
The benefits are so vast that doctors have begun prescribing walking like you’d prescribe medication as part of a Green Prescription.
University of Otago emeritus professor of sport and exercise medicine David Gerrard was a pioneer of New Zealand’s Green Prescription programme in the 1990s and says the benefits of regular walking are “irrefutable”.
“People who walk regularly will find this will help their ‘general constitution’,” Prof Gerrad says. “It keeps up circulation and it’s not just the heart and lungs that are benefiting, but also the digestive system and it can help you sleep better as well.
“Walking is also generally something everybody can do. People can conduct the exercise at their own pace and in the company of others, which has a social benefit that’s also good for health. You don’t have to pull on lycra and go to a gym and prance around with a lot of other like-minded individuals looking at themselves in the mirror. It’s a very easy, adaptable and acceptable form of exercise for everybody and anybody.”
So how much walking do you need to get the benefits? Prof Gerrard says any walking is better than no walking, but people should aim for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. He says having a goal like walking 1200km in 12 months and keeping yourself accountable can help you stay motivated.
“Don’t be too shy about tracking your progress and setting goals. It can be fun to graph this and keep a record of what you’re achieving.” (Use the Walk1200km Progress Tracker with this issue).
He says more vigorous walking can result in greater benefits, but people shouldn’t over-exert themselves. The sweet-spot is being able to feel the burn, but still be able to hold a conversation.
“There’s no doubt that the benefits to your heart and lungs relate to your energy expenditure and the rate at which you’re exercising. If your pulse is getting up a little, to the point that you can feel the effort, then the benefits will accrue accordingly. But it’s not a straight line relationship – the rule of thumb is that you should be walking at a pace that allows you to still have a conversation and if you’re out of breath and can’t join the conversation, you’re probably pushing yourself a bit too hard.”
The Ministry of Health’s nine tips for regular walking:
- Make it a habit by choosing a time that suits you – then you are more likely to stick to it.
- Start slowly and increase the length and intensity of your walks as you feel more comfortable.
- Be flexible. If you miss a walk, don’t worry – just walk again when you can.
- Be safe. Be sun smart, wear appropriate clothing and walk in safe, well-lit areas.
- Avoid boredom by changing your routine. Try walking tracks, parks and hills.
- Breathe deeply and rhythmically. Try breathing in for four paces and out for four.
- Tracking your progress may help you stay motivated.
- Walking with friends, family, partner or a dog may help you stay focused on walking.
- Be patient. It may take up to six weeks to feel the benefits of regular walking.
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