5 surprising benefits of walking
The next time you have a check-up, don't be surprised if your doctor hands you a prescription to walk. Yes, this simple activity that you've been doing since you were about a year old is now being touted as "the closest thing we have to a wonder drug," in the words of Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of course, you probably know that any physical activity, including walking, is a boon to your overall health. But walking in particular comes with a host of benefits. Here's a list of five that may surprise you.
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1. It counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes. Harvard researchers looked at 32 obesity-promoting genes in over 12,000 people to determine how much these genes actually contribute to body weight. They then discovered that, among the study participants who walked briskly for about an hour a day, the effects of those genes were cut in half.
2. It helps tame a sweet tooth. A pair of studies from the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk can curb cravings for chocolate and even reduce the amount of chocolate you eat in stressful situations. And the latest research confirms that walking can reduce cravings and intake of a variety of sugary snacks.
3. It reduces the risk of developing breast cancer. Researchers already know that any kind of physical activity blunts the risk of breast cancer. But an American Cancer Society study that zeroed in on walking found that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or fewer per week. And walking provided this protection even for the women with breast cancer risk factors, such as being overweight or using supplemental hormones.
4. It eases joint pain. Several studies have found that walking reduces arthritis-related pain, and that walking five to six miles a week can even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place. Walking protects the joints — especially the knees and hips, which are most susceptible to osteoarthritis — by lubricating them and strengthening the muscles that support them.
5. It boosts immune function. Walking can help protect you during cold and flu season. A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder.
To learn more about the numerous benefits of walking, as well as easy ways to incorporate a walk into your daily routine, buy Walking for Health, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
6 tips to help you keep a walking regimen on track
Regular walks are an incredibly popular way to exercise — and it's easy to see why. Walking is easy and free (except for a good pair of shoes), and can be done just about anywhere. But it's those very qualities that can also make it very tempting to skip. If your walking routine is in danger of lapsing, try one or more of these strategies to keep going.
1. Have a backup plan. For example, if you sleep in and miss your morning walk, you'll know that you're going to walk during lunch instead. Or, maybe you know that dinner with friends will prevent you from taking your evening stroll, so instead you sneak in a 15-minute walk in the morning and another before you meet your friends. And keeping a pair of sneakers in your car gives you the option to squeeze in a walk whenever you have a little extra time.
2. Create a cue. Many daily habits happen because something signals you to do them, like brushing your teeth in the morning and before bed. Try tying your walks to regularly scheduled activities, such as getting up in the morning or lunchtime. Over time, you'll associate walking with those activities, so they will remind you to take a walk.
3. Get a four-legged walking companion. Studies show that people who have dogs walk more. If you're up for the responsibility, getting a dog could be the catalyst that turns you into a habitual walker. But even if you can't commit to having a dog, there are still ways that man's best friend can keep you moving. Offer to walk your neighbor's dog, or ask a local shelter if they need a volunteer walker.
4. "Read" and walk. Audiobooks can make the time pass quickly while you're walking. Make a pact with yourself that you can only listen to an audiobook during your walks, in order to provide motivation. If you are walking outdoors, keep the volume low and use only one earbud so you'll remain alert to your surroundings in case of trouble.
5. Get a little rhythm. Music has been shown to inspire exercisers to go longer and harder. Remember the theme song from Rocky? Or Chariots of Fire? Just about any music that inspires you can add energy to your steps and keep you motivated. Start with songs that have a slower beat to warm up, then choose higher-energy ones for the middle of your walk, and finish with a slower, relaxing tune. You can even alternate fast and slow songs for a musical interval walk. Just remember to keep the volume low and use only one earbud if you're walking outside.
6. Make a change. A new walking route, even if it's just heading to the next neighborhood, can invigorate your walking routine. But if that's not possible, you can make a tried-and-true route fresh again with a few tweaks, like going earlier or later. Or invite someone new to join you. Different personalities and conversation topics will keep you engaged. And you'll see things differently if you walk your usual route in the opposite direction.
To learn more about how to get the most out of your walks, buy Walking for Health, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
Walking for Health
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|•||First steps: Starting a walking program|
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