Walking is one of the safest and most effective forms of exercise to do and regular walking can help to increase energy levels, increasing productivity throughout the day. Building a walk, or several small walks, into your daily routine can encourage good habits and can make significant improvements to your overall health and well-being. The government recommends at least 10,000 steps per day and research has shown that a minimum of just 10 minutes brisk walking a day or 150 minutes a week, can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.1
How and where?
There are so many different ways to add more walking into your daily life:
- Catching up with a friend, walking the dog (or a friend’s)
- Popping to the shops on foot instead of driving
- Walking part of your journey to work
- Planning a daily walk so that it becomes part of your daily routine
- Small mini walks
- Instead of sending an email to a colleague in the office walk to their desk and talk face to face
- Take a longer route to your destination
- Park the car at the far end of the car park
- Use stairs instead of escalators or a lift
- Use public transport – helps to increase steps as you will need to walk to stations, bus stops etc (and good for the environment!)
- Join a walking group
To avoid injury and muscle soreness, warming up and cooling down are always important.
Wearing layers will help to keep the body at a comfortable temperature and walking boots or trainers with socks should be worn to help absorb impact – walking on grass is preferable to pounding on pavements! Towns and cities have parks and green areas, and local councils often have nature walks or nature reserves where changes in nature and different seasons can be observed. This can be a great way to relax and enjoy new scenery. You can always make the walk more interesting by varying your route and speed. Joining a group or club is a great way to make walking a healthy habit and to keep you motivated.
Walking in the morning helps the circadian rhythm to reset. Melatonin aids sleep, and levels are reduced with early morning walks allowing them to gradually increase throughout the day to aid sleep at night.2
What happens in the body when we walk?
Endorphins are chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters released in the brain, that interact with receptors that are responsible for the happy or high feeling often described post-exercise. They are involved in pain relief, stress reduction, immunity, sense of well-being and slowing down the ageing process. In addition, other neurotransmitters are released during walking – dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin all help with mood regulation. Elevated serotonin boosts mood and is associated with appetite and sleep; and adrenaline, the stress hormone (fight or flight), can be regulated with walking. Levels rise during walking, which stimulates the heart to pump faster, and the capillaries to open to allow greater blood flow.
Blood from the digestive system and liver diverts to muscles within the skeleton and chemical reactions occur as hormones instigate glucose production from fat. Lactic acid is the by- product which builds up during exercise, resulting in a reduction on the pH level of blood surrounding the muscles. An abnormal pH is associated with health conditions such as diabetes, and heart disease. Resting is therefore essential to allow metabolism of lactic acid when the muscles are exhausted and stop contracting.
Rib cage muscles pull the diaphragm as breathing increases, becoming deeper, allowing more oxygen to circulate and blood is pumped around the body in veins to transport oxygen to the heart. The muscles around the lungs strengthen. The body has over two million sweat glands and sweating during walking helps the body to regulate temperature.
You can improve your cardiovascular health with regular walking, which can help to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. During a walk , heart rate and blood circulation increases, and blood pressure lowers as vessel health improves, strengthening the heart.3 Cholesterol health may also see an improvement. HDL (High Density lipoprotein) cholesterol can be increased, which absorbs cholesterol and transports it to the liver for removal. LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which makes up the majority of the body’s cholesterol, may be lowered.
Bone and Joint Health
Bone formation and the reduction of calcium loss can be aided by walking. Bones may become denser after exercise due to tissue replacement, aiding the prevention of osteoporosis. Walking can also encourage the lower body to become stronger, which benefits balance and coordination, which can deteriorate with age and disease. Joint pain and arthritis may be reduced due to lubrication as a result of the walking movement.
Walking as part of rehabilitation is often used for patients with joint replacements, strokes, and heart conditions. Nordic walking is safe for people with heart conditions. Stability is increased by the poles, which are not gripped tightly, so that blood pressure is not elevated.
Mood and Mental Health
Being fitter and healthier can, in itself, lead to improved self-esteem and boost self- confidence. Mood and mental health can be significantly improved due to endorphins being released during exercise, often referred to as the “runners high”4 Walking stimulates the brains reward centres that are responsible for motivation and pleasure – regular walking can help to retrain this response, which often declines with age, as higher levels of dopamine are available to its receptors.5
Motor activity increases the firing rates of serotonin neutrons, and this results in increased release and synthesis of serotonin. In addition, there is an increase in the brain of the serotonin precursor tryptophan that persists after exercise. Endocannabinoids are signalling molecules involved in many functions including mood, stress and pain. The brain has receptors for endocannabinoid molecules to lock into, which helps to reduce stress and also increase dopamine, the happy hormone. Researchers have reported increases in circulating levels of endocannabinoids after exercise.6
The immune system can also be boosted due to an increase in white blood cell movement around the body.7 Endorphins can also help to relieve stress and improve the immune response.
Walking can help to achieve an ideal weight, which can minimise risks associated with being overweight and obesity. Weight management also helps to reduce inflammation, which can underpin many health problems. Varying the speed, distance, length and terrain of a walk will help to burn more calories.
Blood Sugar Balance
Blood sugar balance and diabetes risk may be significantly improved and maintained with regular walking.
Energy levels can also be improved with a walk. Oxygen levels are increased as are cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are the hormones that help elevate energy levels.
There are currently studies being carried out looking into walking and Covid-19/Long Covid and walking as part of the recovery is now being encouraged by the NHS.8 Regular aerobic exercise, including walking, has been shown to significantly improve immune related markers in people recovering from Covid-19.9
Posture can significantly improve when walking as muscles become stronger. Nordic walking, Chi walking and Race walking, in particular, encourage good posture for a good technique.
Different types of walking
A brisk walk is faster than a stroll. For a brisk walk, a speed of around 3 miles an hour is usually achieved. At this speed, the heart rate should increase, and body temperature rise. Being able to hold a conversation, but not being able to sing is an indication of a good brisk speed.
Power walking uses arm motion to go faster, whilst taking shorter strides. The step lands on the heel and is rolled through to the toe.
Race walking has very specific rules. The knee should not be bent, and the leg is straight as it touches the ground.10
Chi walking focuses on posture, core, loosening of joints and focuses on mindfulness.11
Nordic Walking is a specific technique that uses poles to enhance walking. It gives an upper and lower body workout at low impact.12 A qualified instructor will be able to teach the technique and adjust where necessary. Nordic walking is often social as it is often carried out in groups, with a coffee and chat at the end.
An amble or stroll is a walk at a much slower pace, often used to take in the surrounding scenery. There are many books available that have planned routes for such walks, including coastal walks, towns and city tours.
Hillwalking is exactly that. Different parts of the country are more suitable than others, whereas hiking involves concentration due to rough terrain which and is more challenging.
Treadmill walking puts less pressure on the joints, and there may be a selection of different programs that can challenge an individual.
Charity walks are very popular. They are also a great way to raise money and awareness of the charity. Examples are Prostate Cancer UK’s March for Men; Race for Life, organised by Cancer Research UK and Walk the Walk, organised by Breast Cancer charity.
Nutrients to support health during exercise
Adequate fluids, good quality carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats are needed to support physical activity. Further to this, some key nutrients may provide added benefit.
Exercise can be a good form of stress on our bodies but the increased metabolic activity it produces can also result in the production of more free radicals and a higher need for antioxidants.
Turmeric and omega 3 are anti-inflammatory and can be beneficial for exercise as they may help to reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, aiding recovery. Other antioxidants include N-Acetyl cysteine, glutathione, vitamins A, E and C, and the minerals selenium and zinc.
You can help to support the metabolic needs of regular exercise by taking multivitamin and mineral formulations, and to support energy and mitochondrial function – the B vitamins (alone or in multi-formulations) and extra CoQ10 and alpha lipoic acid are often good choices. You can support muscle function with omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, L-arginine and D-ribose.
Safety must always be considered when walking and it is recommended to check the weather forecast and wear appropriate clothing. Waterproofs will be needed for rain, and sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream in the heat. Never walk in lightning. Tell someone where you are planning to walk and take a fully charged phone with you. There are many apps that can be used to plan routes, or a small map is a good idea. The app “what3words” is being used by the emergency services now, so well worth familiarising yourself with. When walking, consider your fitness level and age and choose a route that is suitable. A basic first aid kit and water to keep hydrated are essential for longer walks. Carry snacks to keep blood sugar levels stable and ensure that a nutritious meal has been eaten beforehand. Wear reflective clothing if walking in the dark and carry/wear a torch.
Always check with your GP that it is safe to walk if you have health concerns. As already discussed, many health issues can improve from walking. If you have an injury, a few days rest may be needed and always seek medical help if it continues to cause concern.
Walking can be a great way to improve both physical and mental health and is safe and enjoyable for all. It can be a sociable experience or a time for reflection and contemplation. Making time to walk daily can benefit you for years to come. Finding ways to add a walk into your routine may be as simple as walking to work, using the stairs and not a lift, or meeting friends for a walk and chat. Keeping a log of walks and goals may help to keep the motivation going. Walking can help to tone your legs and your mind! If Nordic walking, 90% of the body will benefit from muscle toning. The more you do, the fitter you will become, and endurance and stamina will improve.
Anne Mills BSc (Hons)
British Nordic Walking Instructor
British Nordic Walking
British Walking Federation
Long distance Walkers Association
- Walking is one of the safest and most effective forms of exercise to do.
- The government recommends at least 10,000 steps per day.
- Minimum of 10 minutes brisk walking a day or 150 minutes a week, can significantly reduce the risk of many health conditions.
- Many different ways to add more walking into your daily life: Catching up with a friend, popping to the shops on foot, walking part of your journey to work, using stairs instead of escalators or a lift etc.
- Neurotransmitters increased during walking – dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin all help with mood regulation.
- Walking can help support cardiovascular health, bone and joint health, and mental health and mood.
- Can also improve posture, weight management, help to balance blood sugar levels and increase energy.
- Different types of walking include Nordic, Race, Brisk, Charity, Power, Chi and Hill-walking.
- Nutrients such as Turmeric and Omega 3 can help to reduce oxidative damage and inflammation. Other antioxidants include N-Acetyl cysteine, glutathione, vitamins A, E and C, and the minerals selenium and zinc.
- You can help to support the metabolic needs of regular exercise by taking multivitamin and mineral formulations.
- Help to support energy and mitochondrial function with the B vitamins, CoQ10 and alpha lipoic acid.
- Support muscle function with omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, L-arginine and D-ribose.
- Safety must always be considered. Always check the weather forecast and wear appropriate clothing. Tell someone where you are planning to walk and take a fully charged phone with you.
- Focus on brisk walking, not just 10,000 steps, say health experts – GOV.UK (2018). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/focus-on-brisk-walking-not-just-10000-steps-say-health-experts (Accessed: November 16, 2021).
- Wang, F. and Boros, S. (2021) “The effect of daily walking exercise on sleep quality in healthy young adults,” Sport Sciences for Health, 17(2), pp. 393–401. doi:10.1007/S11332-020-00702-X/TABLES/3.
- Murtagh, E.M., Murphy, M.H. and Boone-Heinonen, J. (2010) “Walking: the first steps in cardiovascular disease prevention,” Current opinion in cardiology, 25(5), pp. 490–496. doi:10.1097/HCO.0B013E32833CE972
- Hallam, K.T., Bilsborough, S. and de Courten, M. (2018) “‘Happy feet’: evaluating the benefits of a 100-day 10,000 step challenge on mental health and wellbeing,” BMC psychiatry, 18(1). doi:10.1186/S12888-018-1609-Y.
- Robertson, C.L. et al. (2016) “Effect of Exercise Training on Striatal Dopamine D2/D3 Receptors in Methamphetamine Users during Behavioral Treatment,” Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(6), p. 1629. doi:10.1038/NPP.2015.331.
- Watkins, B.A. (2018) “Endocannabinoids, exercise, pain, and a path to health with aging,” Molecular aspects of medicine, 64, pp. 68–78. doi:10.1016/J.MAM.2018.10.001.
- Nieman, D.C. et al. (2005) “Immune response to a 30-minute walk,” Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 37(1), pp. 57–62. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000149808.38194.21.
- Getting Moving Again | Your COVID Recovery (no date). Available at: https://www.yourcovidrecovery.nhs.uk/your-wellbeing/getting-moving-again/ (Accessed: December 16, 2021).
- ALAWNA, M., AMRO, M. and MOHAMED, A.A. (2020) “Aerobic exercises recommendations and specifications for patients with COVID-19: a systematic review,” European review for medical and pharmacological sciences, 24(24), pp. 13049–13055. doi:10.26355/EURREV_202012_24211.
- Race Walking – Athletics & Running (no date). Available at: https://www.englandathletics.org/athletics-and-running/athletics-disciplines/race-walking/ (Accessed: December 16, 2021).
- Understanding Chi Walking / Fitness / Cardio (no date). Available at: https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/fitness/cardio/understanding-chi-walking.html (Accessed: December 16, 2021).