The benefits of a daily walk

The benefits of a daily walk
Walking little and often can have a great impact on our health and wellbeing

“Ten thousand steps a day.” It has become almost a religious mantra for anyone embarking on walking as an exercise routine. But you don’t need to adhere to this to feel the benefits of getting outside and stretching your legs.

And this magic number has less scientific value than you’d think. It dates back to a Japanese marketing campaign from the 1960s designed to promote a commercial pedometer – and for some reason it has stuck, making us feel guilty for not hitting this made-up target ever since.

Britain’s leading walking charity, Ramblers, says the benefits of walking little and often are not to be sniffed at. “Walking in the great outdoors is one of the most effective things we can do to improve our health and wellbeing,” says George Salmon, a spokesperson for the charity. “Even a short stroll around your local park can make a drastic difference.”

A growing body of scientific evidence supports this.  If you’re among the 60 per cent of people who suffer from back pain it might well be time to put your best foot forward. Walking for 30 minutes five times a week can help ward off back, according to a new study. The research found that people with lower back pain who took regular strolls remained pain-free for twice as long as those who did not follow a regular walking programme.

And if that isn’t enough to persuade you to rise from your desk right this moment and go for a stroll, then perhaps the following will spur you into action...

The health benefits of walking

It burns calories and contributes to weight-loss – but just how many calories does walking burn?

It all depends on your age, weight, height, gender and speed. An average 180lb person burns around 100 calories walking one mile at a brisk pace. Increase the pace to vigorous and that figure rises to 130 calories.

By accelerating and decelerating the pace of your walking, you can burn even more. A study by engineering researchers at the Ohio State University discovered that mixing up the speed of your walking (which is natural when you’re outdoors) can burn up to 20 per cent more calories compared to going at a steady pace (which would most likely be on a treadmill).

“Walking at any speed costs some energy, but when you’re changing the speed, you’re pressing the gas pedal, so to speak,” explained the study’s lead author, Nidhi Seethapathi. “Changing the kinetic energy of the person requires more work from the legs and that process certainly burns more energy.”

Additionally, walking at a pace of 3km per hour (1.86 mph) or more could lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by at least 15 per cent, according to a new study.

The findings, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found the risk of diabetes fell for every kilometre per hour faster someone walked on average.

Those who walked at a pace of between 3km and 5km per hour, which is considered “an average or normal walking speed”, reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 15 per cent, compared with those who walked at a “strolling” pace of less than 3km an hour.

Walking also helps your heart. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that walking – like many other regular physical activities – has enormous cardiovascular benefits. The Stroke Association says that just 30 minutes of moderate walking five days a week can reduce your risk of a stroke by a quarter.

A paper published in the journal Current Opinion in Cardiology found that even short walks offer heart-health benefits. “Patients may accrue short-terms gains such as improved fitness, body composition, blood pressure and lipid profiles,” said the authors. “Longer term benefits include reduced risk of coronary heart disease, coronary events and mortality.” Walking can even have an effect on cholesterol.

Walking can also help people with dementia. A 2022 review of numerous trials that encouraged dementia sufferers to take regular light exercise – including walking – concluded it improved cognitive function across the board. All the participants were 60 or older and exercised at least once a week for eight weeks or more.

There is also a link to fighting cancer. A 2019 study from the American Cancer Society found that two-and-a-half to five hours of moderate exercise such as “brisk walking” every week lowered the risk of seven different cancers: colon, breast, kidney, liver, endometrial, myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Many people report feeling better and brighter after going out for a walk, and this is backed up by research. Mind, the UK mental health charity, published a study that compared the results of exercise in the great outdoors with a walk inside an indoor shopping centre. 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression and said they felt less tense after taking a walk in a green environment. 90 per cent felt increased self-esteem.

Ramblers agrees with the importance of being outside specifically. “Getting out in the fresh air can be invaluable for your mental wellbeing,” George Salmon says. “Not only does it give you a chance to relax and recharge, it’s a great way to reconnect with nature.”

There’s also evidence that our mental health is affected by something called negative air ions. These are negatively charged gas ions generated by sunlight, cosmic rays and plants, which are particularly concentrated in forests, near waterfalls and on beaches. A US review of multiple studies highlighted that people who had been exposed to these negative ions experienced “reduced depression severity, lower psychological stress, less anxiety and enhanced well-being”.

Joanna Hall, a sports scientist and founder of walking programme WalkActive, says this is another reason we should walk outside as often as we can, “especially in dense forest or by waterfalls”.

How far should you walk every day?

Hall warns us not to obsess over distance. “But if you’re looking for quantity, I feel 7,500 steps as a daily target is a good benchmark,” she adds.

Ramblers says you shouldn’t worry about how many you do per day, as long as you do something. “The good news is that any number of steps has a really positive impact on your health,” stresses Salmon.

Is it better to walk longer or faster?

Neither, according to Hall. What’s far more important is to “walk better”. “There are skills involved in walking just like there are in golf and tennis,” she adds.

In her coaching programme, she encourages walkers to use the leg that trails behind to propel them forwards, rather than using their leading leg to pull them along. Ideally, as we stride, our legs should make the shape of an inverted letter V.

“That way you will improve your posture, increase your walking speed and reduce joint strain at the hips, knees and ankles,” she adds.

Rather than speed of walking, she prefers to talk in terms of foot cadence, suggesting that, for most people, 120 steps a minute is a good target. Check your watch while you’re walking.

What to wear when walking

Such a simple sport requires only very simple clothing – although it’s worth spending money on quality trainers or hiking boots.

“There’s no need to have fancy gear to start walking,” says Salmon. “The number one rule is to walk in anything that makes you feel comfortable and supported. So if you’re setting out for the first time, a trusty pair of trainers is often the best call. Once you’ve decided to explore a bit further, you’ll want to invest in a pair of well-fitted walking boots. Most outdoor stores will provide a personalised fitting service.”

Hall stresses that your trainers should allow your toes to spread in your shoes as you walk. “A wider and squarer toe box will mean you’ll have an even push from your big toe, middle toe and little toe all at the same time, which will help with the alignment of your feet, knees and hips, safeguarding your joints,” she says.

She also recommends flexible soles on your trainers, so as to allow all the joints in each foot to move properly. “Imagine you have a Post-it note stuck to the back of your shoe,” she explains. “If someone is walking behind you, you want them to be able to read it. So you should leave that back foot behind you for a little bit longer. This switches off your hip flexors and improves alignment from foot, knee and hip, safeguarding your joints and giving you more propulsion forwards.”

How to stay safe while walking

Solo walkers would be wise to stick to busier or well-lit routes, especially in winter when the days shorten. Rather encouragingly, Hall says that as your walking technique improves, so will your physical presence, making you appear more confident and less vulnerable.

According to Ramblers, when it comes to walking in the countryside, one of the biggest barriers is “the fear of getting lost”. For that reason, they offer a beginner’s guide to navigation – a free online service that covers map and compass reading, plus other practical advice.

How to get started walking daily

Ramblers suggests novice walkers should start gently and build up their daily distance. “If you’re just starting out, taking that first step can seem daunting,” Salmon says. “Set out at an easy pace and keep it short. Work out a route that suits you and as you build up your stamina, extend the distance over the coming days and weeks. When you can keep going for over half an hour, basking in the beauty of the great outdoors, you’ll know it’s working.”

Hall suggests you’re more likely to complete a daily walk if you make it part of your morning routine rather than putting it off until the end of the working day.

She also says you’re more likely to walk regularly if you make it as easy as possible for yourself. One way to do that is to map out short but interesting walks starting from places you visit every day.

“That might be your desk at home, your place of work or the school gates where you drop off your kids,” she explains. “From each location, map out a five-minute walk, a 10-minute walk and a 15-minute walk.” Armed with these different route ideas, you’ll never have an excuse not to complete your daily exercise.

Finally, if you commute to work by public transport, Hall recommends you get off a couple of stops early and walk the final section. If you work from home, you can always give yourself a short pretend commute every morning by walking down to your local high street for a coffee.

How to stay motivated to walk daily

Podcasts can provide a sense of companionship and make the walk a bit less lonely.

Many have a handy walking theme, such as Ramblings by BBC presenter Clare Balding, in which she heads out into the countryside with a different guest in tow.

Similarly, Folk on Foot combines folk music and walking, hosted by former BBC executive and broadcaster Matthew Bannister. There’s also the Talking Walking podcast, which features artists, designers, activists and writers talking about their passion for walking. And in Walking the Dog, host Emily Dean is joined by a celebrity for a walk with their four-legged friends.

Even the National Trust has a walking podcast, in which ranger Kate Martin rambles through some of the trust’s most beautiful landscapes.

Training for an event will keep you focused too. Perhaps consider signing up for a charity walking event – long enough that you need to walk regularly as part of your training.

Walking with a friend will encourage you not to drop out of regular walks, especially if you both make time in your diaries for a rendez-vous on certain days of the week.

Otherwise you could join a local walking club. Ramblers has hundreds of local groups across the country that offer regular walks and social events. Find your nearest one on their website.