The Simple (and Free!) Way You Can Immediately Improve Your Health

Lace 'em up and enjoy the many benefits of walking, including less stress, a lower risk of heart problems and much more.

Two men walking together in the city
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Sure, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) will help you burn calories hours after exercising, and Pilates might give you six-pack abs, but what about walking? Walking can help you stay fit and slim and improve your overall health—and almost anyone can do it.

“Walking, like other forms of exercise and activity, is purposeful. We feel empowered and in control of our bodies," says Alan Young, MD, a physician at Mercy Health in Wyoming, Michigan. "This benefit—achievement—of walking, if you will, can’t be understated.” Dr. Young recommends getting at least 150 minutes of walking per week. But it's OK to start small—even a two minute walk can help improve your health.

Any amount of exercise counts, according to the latest fitness recommendations for Americans, which were published in November 2018. Adults should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like walking, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity, like jogging, weekly, in addition to strength training exercises twice a week, the latest guidelines suggest. Bouts of exercise don't have to last 10 minutes to be beneficial, as previously specified.

Walking is one of the best things you can do for your health because it can help you not only lose weight, but research shows that it can also enhance your mood, reduce your risk for heart disease and much more. Here’s the latest on how walking can help transform your health.

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It can lower your risk of heart problems

You may already know that walking can do your heart some good by improving circulation. But research presented at an American College of Cardiology conference found that walking for at least 40 minutes daily several times a week was linked to a 25 percent lower risk of heart failure among postmenopausal women. What's more, the faster the women walked, the lower their risk.

When estrogen levels drop during menopause, women tend to have more fat and cholesterol build up in their arteries than they did when they were younger. Why? "Estrogen lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and slows plaque formation in the arteries,” Young explains. Walking may help keep this in check.

That's not all. “Walking also helps decrease inflammation, reduce blood pressure and lower risk of type 2 diabetes, which are risk factors for heart attack and stroke,” he adds.

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It relieves stress and anxiety

Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of forest bathing, has been shown to help relieve stress and anxiety. Essentially, forest bathing is walking around in nature to soothe your body and mind—and in many ways, the calming aspect of being outdoors can give you new perspective. “The canopy of trees provides a shelter from harsher weather elements, such as bright sunlight, temperature, variability, loud noise and wind,” Young says.

It also allows you to step away from digital distractions, work deadlines and other anxiety-inducing tasks to help you focus on your breath and center your thoughts. You can even go in a group. One study of more than 1,500 people in the UK found that regular group walking in nature was linked to an improved mood and better mental health.

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It can improve quality of life for cancer patients

As much as they are able, cancer patients should stay active while they’re undergoing treatment. Walking can increase energy levels, help maintain function, prevent wasting muscle and lessen fatigue, a common side effect of treatment.

Walking may also lead to an endorphin release that improves mood. “I think that there’s a very positive psychological effect from taking control and exercising in a situation that often leads to people feeling powerless,” Young says. For example, one pilot study in the journal BMJ suggests that walking 30 minutes a day three times a week can improve quality of life for people living with advanced metastatic cancer. Speak to you doctor about a walking program that's right for you.

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It can help you sleep better

Not getting enough sleep (at least 7 hours for most adults) can slow productivity, lead to memory decline and disrupt your focus. Being sleep deficient has also been associated with chronic illnesses like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But research suggests that walking can help improve the quality of your sleep. Not an early bird? Start your day with an outdoor walk. According to a 2017 study in PLOS One of 360 women, doing outdoor physical activity such as walking first thing in the morning can help improve sleep latency—a.k.a. the amount of time it takes to fall asleep—and sleep efficiency.

“Regular exercise, such as walking, has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and stress. All of these have a negative impact on our sleep quality,” says Young. "I feel that reducing these three factors is what leads to an improvement in insomnia."

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It can ease joint pain

If you have osteoarthritis, joint pain is likely a fact of life. But low-impact exercises like walking have been found to ease pain, help maintain function and even improve mood in people with the condition. Walking does this by strengthening the muscles around your hips and knees, as well as lubricating your joints. Try easy hikes, taking your dog for a stroll or enlisting a walking buddy. To see how far you’ve walked, use the steps tracker on the Sharecare app, which you can find on both iOS and Android.

And if you don’t have arthritis? Walk anyway. Research shows walking five or six miles weekly may keep it from developing.

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It can improve cognition in older adults with mental decline

More than 16 million American struggle with cognitive impairment, which affects their memory and ability to concentrate, make decisions and learn new things. But walking on a regular basis and following a heart-healthy diet could help, according to research publishing December 2018 in Neurology.

For the study, researchers divided 160 sedentary adults age 55 or older with cognitive impairment into one of four groups. One group was asked to walk, bike or get another type of aerobic activity at least three times per week. The second group was instructed to follow the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, an eating plan that encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and healthy fats—think olive oil and nuts—and recommends limiting saturated fats, salt and sweets. A third group got both routine exercise and followed the heart-healthy diet. The remaining participants received health education. After six months, researchers found that the executive brain function—skills that control and coordinate information processing, the ability to juggle tasks, plan and other cognitive behaviors—of those who exercised on a regular basis improved significantly. They noted however, that cognition among people in the combined exercise-DASH diet group improved even more dramatically. Memory and language skills were not improved regardless of intervention.

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