You’ve probably heard that regular exercise can improve physical and mental health, but did you know that includes walking? In its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says, “Older adults…should strongly consider walking as one good way to get aerobic activity. Many studies show that walking has health benefits, and it has a low risk of injury. It can be done year-round and in many settings.”
There is mounting scientific evidence for the health benefits of “brisk” and continuous walking (3 to 5 miles per hour for at least 20 to 30 minutes approximately 5 days a week).
Physical function. Researchers at the University of Georgia Institute of Gerontology found that adults aged 60 and older who followed a walking program for 4 months achieved “significant” health improvements over those who didn’t walk. For example physical function scores increased 25% and peak aerobic capacity rose 19% for the walking group but decreased by 8.3% and 9%, respectively, in the other group. The results were published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy.
Heart disease. A Harvard study showed that walking at a moderate pace (3 miles per hour) for 3 hours a week or 30 minutes a day can cut the risk of heart disease by up to 40%. Among other things, walking appears to help decrease or stabilize cholesterol levels, a common cause of heart disease
Bone loss. Osteoporosis, or loss of bone, is a major cause of bone fractures, especially among older women. Weight-bearing exercise, in which bones and muscles work against gravity, helps build and maintain bone mass. The National Osteoporosis Foundation classifies walking “weight-bearing activity,” because it puts weight on your hips and legs.
Memory. Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System found that men aged 71 to 93 who walked more than a quarter-mile daily had 50% less incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia compared with those who walked less. And in a study of 6,000 women aged 65 and older conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, age-related memory loss was lower in those who walked 2.5 miles daily (17%) than in those who walked less than a half-mile per week (25%).
Walking approximately 6 miles a week may help prevent or slow brain shrinkage, or loss of gray matter, due to aging, according to a study published in Neurology by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.
Mood. As with other forms of exercise, experts believe that walking can boost levels in the brain of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin. Walking 30 minutes a day improved symptoms of depression faster than antidepressants among participants in a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
In comparison with many other forms of exercise, walking doesn’t require a gym membership, special equipment, or special training. So what are you waiting for? Just remember that before you start any exercise program, even walking, you should consult your doctor. Here are some online resources to help get you started:
American Podiatric Medical Association (http://www.apma.org/MainMenu/Foot-Health/Brochures/Walking-Your-Feet-/Walking-Tips-.aspx)
Mayo Clinic (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/walking/HQ01612)