If you think exercise always means intense cardio workouts, such as running or busting a sweat at Zumba, here’s a surprising fact: Walking, one of the simplest and most overlooked exercises, may matter the most to your overall health.
The Dangers of Sitting
Back when physical activity was a natural part of work duties and other daily habits, most people took enough steps each day to preempt the damaging effects of too much sitting, says Ronesh Sinha, M.D., an internal medicine doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Today, many jobs involve sitting at a desk and driving or bussing everywhere. This sedentary lifestyle significantly worsens health. Negative effects include packing on excess pounds, which in turn triggers inflammation—now considered the root cause of premature aging and chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you’re like many Americans, you may have a desk job, which means you may not get enough non-exercise physical activity each day for good health. That’s one reason federal guidelines now advocate four to five deliberate exercise sessions a week.
But according to Dr. Sinha, everyday activities like walking, climbing stairs, squatting down to pull weeds and bending over to pick up objects directly influence your health. “It’s tragic that we now have to create a separate term for this—non-exercise physical activity, called NEPA—and make a deliberate attempt to restore these movements into our daily, unnaturally sedentary lifestyles,” he says.
If you look at countries where people live the longest, you won’t see classes filled with intense daily cardio, cycling or CrossFit participants. “They simply walk, stand, bend and squat more throughout the day, and they do much of it outdoors,” Dr. Sinha says.
As Dr. Sinha points out, several studies show that walking in particular:
- Lowers blood sugar and triglycerides after meals
- Tames inflammation
- Modestly lowers body fat
- Reduces stress
- Boosts immunity
- Prevents falls among the elderly
- Lengthens lifespan
“You can quantify activity through daily steps using a pedometer or activity-tracking device,” he says. The bare-bones daily minimum is 5,000 steps a day, he says, but the optimal goal is at least 8,000 to 10,000 daily steps. “I encourage you to know your number,” Dr. Sinha says. “A 20-minute walk at lunch is better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough to get you to your goal.”
Step to It
Get Good Shoes: Proper-fitting shoes with a sturdy heel and comfortable insoles are critical for protecting your feet, legs and back from injury.
Dress Smart: Wear comfy, loose-fitting clothes (but not too loose or they’ll chafe) made of breathable materials, allowing perspiration to evaporate. At night, don bright colors or reflective tape so motorists can see you.
Warm Up: Walk slowly for three to five minutes to warm up your muscles before revving up to a faster pace.
Don’t Overdo It: Until you’re a seasoned walker, plan a shorter route and complete it twice if you want more exercise.
Stay Hydrated: Carry a water bottle or strap on a hydration pack to keep the fluids flowing.
Cool Down: As with other exercises, slowing down gradually reduces heart and muscle stress. Build in five minutes of slow strolling after a faster-paced walk.
Grab a Pal: Some people like the peace and inner contemplation while walking solo; others get bored. If companionship motivates you, invite someone along and keep up a steady pace while chatting.
Prioritize Everyday Movement
Once you are doing a reasonable level of walking and moving more throughout each day, add in a few cardio workouts and weight-training sessions. “But do not use these as a replacement” Dr. Sinha says. “A compilation of 18 studies including nearly 800,000 people showed that prolonged sitting throughout the day doubled the risk of diabetes, heart disease and death—despite moderate-to-vigorous exercise.”
Dr. Sinha highlights a 2015 Northwestern University study showing that adults 60 and older, regardless of their exercise routine, doubled their risk of becoming disabled every hour they spent sitting. “Bottom line is that 30 to 40 minutes on the elliptical doesn’t earn you 12 hours in a chair,” Dr. Sinha says.
In fact, a growing body of evidence indicates that continuous endurance training may actually increase heart disease risk, he says. “If you are an avid distance runner or triathlete and want to live longer, it may be wise to switch your running shoes for walking shoes every now and then,” Dr. Sinha says. “Don’t get me wrong: Achieving your endurance goals in your favorite sport is a great accomplishment. But keep in mind that the real accomplishment for most of us is longevity, disease prevention and optimal brain and body health. For these goals, regular non-exercise activity is absolutely essential.”