It's amazing that simply putting one foot in front of the other—and doing it over and over again—can have so many health benefits.
But by all accounts, walking—plain old cheap, safe and simple walking—is one of the best things you can do for your health.
"Anybody can do it—walking is user friendly," says Karen Merrill, an athletic trainer affiliated with the American Council on Exercise. "Walking can be fun as well as a beneficial type of exercise."
Rewards of hoofing it
Improved fitness. Walking can increase strength, endurance, flexibility and muscle mass. It can also reduce body fat and help you better manage your weight.
Disease prevention. Walking can help reduce the risk of a variety of diseases such as stroke, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and colon and breast cancers. It can also help prevent, treat and manage arthritis symptoms.
Likewise, studies consistently show a lower risk of heart disease as people increase their walking time or distance.
Walking can also help control blood pressure and keep cholesterol numbers in a healthy range.
Better mental health. The benefits of walking go beyond the strictly physical, Merrill says.
"A lot of people really start to enjoy their surroundings when they start getting out," she says. "They just feel better, and that's positive."
Walking can also help you sleep better and reduce depression and anxiety. And walking as a family can improve communication as well as health.
Who stands to gain?
Merrill says the people who'll get the most out of walking are likely to be those who are new to exercise. But even so, walking is not just for beginners.
"Even for somebody who is really, really fit, walking can be an adjunct to what they're doing already," she says.
By walking faster, farther or over more difficult terrain, "you can make walking as strenuous or as easy as you want," Merrill says.
For beginners, Merrill advises:
- See your doctor for a physical first, especially if you haven't had one in a year.
- Buy a good pair of walking shoes.
- Find a safe neighborhood and plan to walk when there's plenty of light—and if the weather's hot, walk before or after the hottest part of the day.
- Walk slowly for a few minutes to warm up, and then stretch for 5 to 10 minutes. Focus on the muscles in your legs and lower back.
- Walk for 10 to 30 minutes a day (depending on your current fitness level). If you've been inactive for a long time, start with a shorter walk. As you get used to exercising, increase your walking time by about 10 percent a week.
- Walk at a pace at which you can carry on a conversation. If you're gasping for breath, slow down.
- Drink plenty of water.
Pay attention to your progress
"Make sure you're not overdoing it," Merrill says. If your knees, ankles or hips hurt, or if you notice other problems, put your walking program on hold and see your doctor.
For most people, she says, "Walking can be fun, and in general, it's pretty easy on the body. It's not as if you have to learn a skill."
Just put one foot in front of the other and go.