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October 2022 Issue
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The amazing benefits of walking 1200km

Sport and exercise sciences lecturer Lara Vlietstra says improving your walking routine will boost the gains.

With benefits like these, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start Walk1200km sooner.

You’ll undoubtedly have noticed how much better you feel after a walk; but what’s the science behind these positive effects on the body and mind?

Walking gives the cardiovascular system a workout but it’s of lower impact than running or cycling, so there is less chance of injury, says University of Otago sport and exercise sciences lecturer Lara Vlietstra.

It can be done more often and for longer periods and can provide the same health benefits as more intense exercise.

Vlietstra says that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week is the accepted guideline – 30 minutes on five days. And, the pace should be one “which means you can talk, but singing gets a bit difficult and you may be puffing”.

If you can’t manage 30 minutes straight away, do shorter walks while building up your fitness.

“The best benefits we see are when someone has been inactive for a long time and they start walking three times a day for 10 minutes,” Vlietstra says.

As fitness improves, it’s important to switch up the walking routine.

“Our bodies tend to get used to physical activity quite quickly, at which stage those benefits plateau.”

Vlietstra recommends walking uphill and increasing speed and distance to boost the gains.

Here’s her guide to the benefits of walking:

Improve your circulation and heart rate

When walking, blood begins to flow faster through your arteries delivering more oxygen to your muscles, which, in turn, helps arteries retain elasticity. Regular walking reduces the build-up of fatty plaque on arteries’ inner walls that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Your resting heart rate will decrease because, with less plaque and flexible arteries, your heart doesn’t need to work as hard to pump blood through your body.

Walking increases blood flow and reduces the build-up of fatty plaque.

Maintain strength and stop falls

Use it or lose it. From your mid-thirties, bones and muscles are more quickly broken down than built up. Walking can turn the tide on this process and prevent osteoporosis and sarcopenia (muscle loss). Walking is a weight-bearing activity: you’re on your feet and muscles and bones are working against gravity. This activates cells that repair and build muscle and bone. Muscular strength in your legs and body core helps you stay upright and avoid falls.

Burn fat and prevent disease

Walking can also help keep you slimmer. Too much body fat can lead to chronic inflammation and a raft of conditions, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Glucose is produced from food which powers our cells, but if we’ve eaten too much and there’s an excess of glucose in our blood, it can be converted into fat. 

Walking uses glucose and promotes its storage so it doesn’t end up as fat. And if you’re taking in fewer calories than you’re burning, you’ll lose fat as it’s converted into glucose for energy.

Walking can prevent disease.

Boost your mood and memory

Walking prompts the release of endorphins – those feel-good hormones that reduce the perception of pain. Striding out and increasing blood flow to the brain also helps to reduce anxiety and depression; it influences stress response, mood and motivation systems. Memory formation is helped too, which is why walking reduces the risk of dementia.

Rest easy

And, don’t forget, walking literally tires you out. It increases the pressure to sleep that naturally builds throughout the day. That makes it easier to fall asleep, and can reduce wakefulness in the middle of the night. A good night’s sleep supercharges the benefits of walking, giving your body time to restore and improve its function.