Way to Well-being
By Alexandra Cann
Here are 10
compelling reasons why walking is a great way to keep yourself healthy,
happy, and looking great, both today and in the long run.
1. Walking Keeps Your Heart Strong.
Some heart-felt statistics: Each year, 1.5 million Americans suffer heart
attacks, 45% before age 65. Luckily, there are steps you can take to keep
your heart strong: Regular, moderate exercise like walking, along with
eating a healthy diet.
Walking raises your heart rate and strengthens your heart muscle, making
it easier for the heart to pump blood through the body, which is good for
your entire cardiovascular system. It raises the level of HDL
("good") cholesterol, which works to free surplus fat from blood
cells, and greatly decreases the death rate from heart disease. This
latter benefit is the result of the toning of your involuntary
neurological centers. This leads to more control over the functions that
these centers control, like blood pressure, and a reduction in the
possibility of developing irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias.
2. Walking Reduces Stress. In our
fast-paced, constantly on-the-move society, you cannot avoid stress. Our
daily moods, energy, and strength seem dictated by it. And it's not just
our mental outlook: Heart disease and hypertension, among other illnesses,
are exacerbated by stress. There are ways to manage the stresses of
everyday life, however, and walking is - not surprisingly - one of our
More than 31 million Americans have introduced walking into their everyday
routine, and for most, it has become an indispensable way of alleviating
stress. Herbert Benson, M.D., associate professor at Harvard Medical
School and founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in
Cambridge, Mass., attributes this to the repetitive motion of walking,
which he describes as similar to meditation.
"Regular exercise produces an antidote against stress even before it
occurs," agrees University of Nebraska psychologist and exercise
physiologist Wes Sime, Ph.d. Sime bases his belief on a study contrasting
exercisers' and non-exercisers' reactions to traumatic stimuli. The
exercisers, on the whole, produced less stress hormones than the sedentary
volunteers. Walking regularly also reduces the intensity of emotional
triggers, which can lead to stress and stress-related conditions, such as
headaches and depression.
3. Walking Improves Your Self-image.
Walking also improves your self-image. "Exercise gives you a sense of
strength and self-esteem that can't help but make you feel proud,"
says Mary Anne Benton, author of 30 Days to Body Esteem (Body
Class, 1991). By setting short-term, reachable goals for your walking
program, you prove to yourself that you are capable of success, and this
often spills over into achieving goals in other areas of your life.
4. Walking Helps You Lose Weight.
Last year 44 million Americans went on a diet. Despite these astounding
numbers, one in three is still overweight. Why are so many diets not
working? Simply modifying your eating pattern doesn't work for long-term
weight control: exercise must be a part of any effective weight-loss
program. Research shows that people who combine healthful eating with
regular exercise, like walking, are more likely to keep off lost weight
than those who only diet.
Dieting without exercise lowers your metabolism and causes muscle loss,
which leads to a reduced number of calories being burned throughout the
day. By contrast, regular walking burns calories and improves muscle
fitness. This in turn speeds up your metabolism, allowing your body to
burn fuel more efficiently, so you burn more calories throughout the day -
even when you aren't exercising!
5. Walking Boosts the Immune System.
Walking is one of the best ways to protect yourself from both the common
cold and more serious illnesses, like cancer.
"Moderate exercise such as walking seems to prime the body's immune
system, preparing it to fight disease-causing organisms," says David
Neiman, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science. "Exercise seems to
prepare the body in advance [of infection] - increasing the odds that the
immune system will be able to head off a respiratory infection, for
example, before we feel the first sniffle." Exercise also raises
levels of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, both of which put
immune cells on "active alert," making for a quicker response to
an invasion. The heart rate and blood flow increase, speeding up the
circulation of immune cells throughout the body.
6. Walking Tones Your Muscles.
Walking tones your muscles, and toned muscles devour calories--lots of
them. Unlike stored fat, muscles need extra fuel throughout the day to
maintain themselves. This means that even when you are not exercising, you
may need to consume more food because your muscles use up more calories.
Fit, firm muscles also enable you to support your own weight, play sports,
act under stress, and lift heavy objects more effectively and efficiently.
On a practical level, you'll be less likely to be injured shoveling snow
or carrying luggage.
7. Walking Cures Back Pain. Research
and anectodotal experience also proves that a moderate walking program is
one of the most effective prescriptions for curing back pain.
"Walking builds a strong foundation for a back. It is simple,
inexpensive, and almost excuse-proof. It's a way for people to self-manage
their backs and their pain," says Mark Doyne, M.D., an orthopedic
surgeon at Texas Back Institute in Plano.
So how does walking help the 80% of Americans who suffer some type of back
pain in their lifetime? For starters, your spine aligns itself in a
natural way when you walk, and there's less pressure on it then than in a
sitting position. A regular walking regimen builds endurance in the large
muscle groups that support and stabilize the spine. And the increased
blood flow stimulated by exercise brings additional oxygen and healing to
injured ligaments, muscles, and discs.
8. Walking Prevents Osteoporosis. In
America, one out of every four women over age 50 suffers from
osteoporosis. Often called brittle bone disease, this ailment most
commonly strikes women shortly after menopause, when a lack of estrogen
causes a marked decrease in bone mass. Osteoporosis is linked to an
amazing 1.5 billion bone fractures per year. However, recent studies have
shown that by taking precautionary measures early in life women can
possibly prevent - or even reverse - osteoporosis. Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., a
physiologist at Tufts University, agrees. "You're never too sedentary
or old to get started," she says. "You can become more youthful.
You can turn back the clock."
9. Walking Increases Your Energy Level.
While many people count on the effects of caffeine for short-term energy
boosts, a walking program lifts your mood and energizes you for the entire
day. And getting regular exercise helps you sleep better at night, making
you more alert the following day.
How does walking work its magic? It prevents wide swings in blood-sugar
levels, which drastically effect mood and energy levels. It improves your
oxygen-delivery system, which makes you more alert. In addition, walking
increases your ability to do high-intensity activities more easily, like
running up stairs or chasing your dog.
10. Walking Improves Your Sex Life.
Many people have found walking to be the spark they were looking for to
recharge their sex lives.
Contemporary surveys show that moderate exercise increases libido, helps
to maintain sexual prowess, and can ignite passion. How? Sex requires
endurance, strength, and flexibility, which are all enhanced with a
regular exercise routine. An increase in muscle tone leads to stronger
contractions, and the stronger the contractions the more pleasurable they
will be. Exercise also stimulates the flow of adrenaline and endorphins,
the two "pleasure hormones."
According to James White, Ph.D., men who exercised four times a week for
at least nine months enjoyed an increase in frequency of sexual
intercourse and more orgasms. Fun foreplay, more exciting fantasies, and
fewer "erectile failures" were also reported.
For both men and women, exercise such as walking stimulates the male sex
hormone, testosterone, whose elevated levels are believed to stimulate
Adapted from Walking Magazine. 1996 Walking Magazine. All rights
reserved. Used with permission.