Walking is a top exercise recommended to prevent or manage many conditions, but the benefits of taking those daily health-supportive steps go even further. Yet, recent data challenges the “10,000 steps a day” gold standard previously promoted as the amount necessary to achieve optimal health benefits.
“Promoting steps is an excellent way to encourage people to move more and sit less throughout the day,” said Amanda E. Paluch, PhD, principal study investigator and an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Our results showed that taking more steps, particularly among those who are least active, may have the greatest benefit.”
Adults taking more steps per day have a progressively lower risk of all-cause mortality, up to a level that varies by age, she said. Paluch and colleagues reported inconsistent evidence however, supporting an association between step intensity (walking faster than 40 steps per minute and 100 steps per minute) and reduced mortality.
“Clinicians should consider encouraging incremental, achievable goals,” she said. “For example, physicians can encourage 5,000 steps per day to patients who currently walk 4,000 steps, and then recommend 6,000 steps once they reach 5,000. These small improvements could be meaningful for their health and more achievable and sustainable for patients.”
If 6,000 daily steps seem daunting, experts say the activity is cumulative—health benefits are achieved through the total number. You can get your steps in through sustained walking over a longer period, shorter 10-minute intervals or a combination of both.
Sneak walking in throughout the day
The Office of the Surgeon General recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each day with walking included as an avenue to meet those recommended guidelines. You can reach the goal easily doing some combination of the following:
- Walk to work one to two times per week or take public transportation part of the way and walk the rest.
- Take 10-to-15-minute walking breaks between sitting activities.
- Take a 10-to-15-minute walk before or after meals.
- Walk up and down stairs; avoid taking elevators and escalators.
- When at home, keep active. Do some gardening or yard work.
- Walk the dog.
- Sign up for a dance class or learn a new sport like pickleball.
- Take an after-dinner walk with a partner or friend.
- Park farther away and skip the drive-through.
- Take an extra lap at the grocery store and walk the cart back.
Create a walking program
Walking can be done anywhere by people of any fitness level. But if you’re considering a formal program, approach it like other sports or exercise activities.
“I don’t think people view walking as a typical workout because they don’t need special equipment,” said Joy Fletcher, co-founder of Agile 4 Life Fitness. “But, if it’s used as exercise, it is a workout and there are things to consider to avoid injury, pain and stiffness.”
According to fitness experts, the most important part of any walking program is a warm-up routine. This should include three to five minutes of easy walking plus dynamic moves that mimic the action of walking. To cool down, perform static stretches – the kind you hold – at the end of a workout. Focus stretches on calves, glutes, quads, hamstrings, hips, shoulders and chest.
“A cool-down stretch is critical for older adults,” Fletcher said. “Walking strengthens muscles but also shortens them. The most common complaint from people starting a walking program is stiffness the next day and after sitting for extended periods. Tight muscles can cause muscle or tendon pulls or tears, or create imbalances that cause uneven wear and tear on joints. This can lead to arthritis and pain, especially in hips, lower back and knees.”
Before beginning a walking program, check with your doctor and study fitness walking techniques that will improve workout effectiveness and prevent injury.
Consider walking meditation
The fitness benefits of walking are clear, but the activity also offers psychological perks. One randomized controlled trial lasting 12 weeks compared adults with type 2 diabetes performing a Buddhist walking meditation or a traditional walking regimen. Results showed that the walking meditation group had lower fasting blood glucose levels, blood pressure and cortisol levels. Other studies report that walking in nature can decrease negative moods like depression, anxiety, anger, fatigue and confusion. The basics of a mindful walking practice are easy to learn and can enhance any walking program.
Walking and heart failure
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the top cause of death for adults in the U.S., surpassing cancer. Nearly 700,000 adults in the U.S. die from heart disease each year—one out of every five deaths. Increasingly, researchers and physicians are emphasizing the importance of moderate exercise every day to prevent heart failure.