A life-saving stroll: the many health benefits of a daily walk

Just 20 minutes of walking a day cuts your risk of premature death by almost a third
Just 20 minutes of walking a day cuts your risk of premature death by almost a third - Getty

“Walking is a man’s best medicine”, said Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago – and a growing body of scientific evidence suggests he wasn’t wrong.

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 ...

1. Walking fights dementia

The latest evidence on the power of walking comes from Canada, where researchers discovered a link between cognitive brain function and low-level aerobic exercise in people who suffered from a form of dementia.

A group of 38 adults who suffer from vascular cognitive impairment – a cause of dementia – were monitored for six months. Those who regularly took brisk strolls over the period, amounting to three hours of exercise a week, displayed improved levels of brain function.

The research also suggested that regular walks could diminish the chance of someone developing vascular cognitive impairment in the first place.

2. It cuts the risk of dying from cancer

Two recent studies, presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference in Chicago, suggest that walking can be a potent weapon in the battle against cancer.

The first study showed that women who walk for 180 minutes a week after being diagnosed with breast cancer were roughly half as likely to die from the disease than those who didn’t, over an eight year period. The second study uncovered similar findings, this time for people who had bowel cancer.

As a guideline, 25 minutes of walking per day should be enough to deliver the benefits that the studies revealed.

3. It helps your heart

The benefits here are numerous – and most of them relate to the simple fact that walking gets the blood pumping without putting undue strain on the cardiovascular system (there’s evidence to suggest that sustained running, in comparison, has little affect on mortality rates).

So ...

  • A meta-analysis of studies performed between 1970 and 2007 found that regular walking reduced the likelihood of cardiovascular events (angina, heart attack, heart failure, coronary artery bypass surgery, angioplasty, and stroke) by 31pc. Among men, the risk of suffering coronary heart disease decreased by 18pc among those who walked for at least half an hour every day.

  • According to the Stroke Association, a daily 30-minute stroll keeps high blood pressure in check, reducing the risk of suffering a stroke by up to 27 percent.

4. It will improve your mood

A series of psychological experiments, conducted by Dr. Jeff Miller and Dr. Zlatan Krizan, suggest that walking naturally boosts are mood – even when it’s mundane and heads towards something you don’t want to do.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked to either tour a university campus on foot, or by video while sitting in front of a screen. Some were also told that they would have to write an essay about the experience at the end – a chore that the two doctors reasoned the participants would not want to do. They were asked to report their happiness levels at various moments in the experiment.

The mood of the video group dropped during and after the screening, but remained stable among those who completed the tour by foot. In the latter group, even those who an essay awaited at the end of the tour reported robust happiness levels.

5. Walking boosts your vitamin D (as long as you do it right...)

A bit tangential, this one, but not to be scoffed at. By building a regular stroll into your daily routine, you basically ensure that you get outside, rather than staying under different roofs (home, office, car) all day long. Once outdoors, you’re exposed to the sun’s rays, which is how your body absorbs vitamin D – and hence uses it to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.

Anyone who walks indoors on a treadmill needs to take a long, hard look in the gym mirror.

6. Helps you live longer

Forget expensive supplements, a short weekly walk is the best longevity medicine. A recent study found just one 10-minute walk a week can reduce your chances of early death. Yet Public Health England (PHE) has found that four in ten middle-aged adults – six million Britons – are failing to manage even one brisk 10-minute walk a month, increasing their risk of developing potentially fatal illnesses.

One brisk walk a day is enough to cut the risk of early death by as much as 15 per cent, according to PHE.

How to sneak a walk into your daily routine

By Joel Snape, editor-at-large of Men’s Fitness magazine

Joel Snape
Joel Snape

Like taking the stairs or replacing a third of your daily tea intake with water, re-engineering your commute to include a longer walk is one of those bits of health advice that’s so idiotically simple it’s tempting to ignore it.

“Get off the bus a stop earlier!” demand well-meaning experts, conveniently forgetting that most people plan their trip to work to maximise time in bed. “Plan your route to take in a local park!” they insist, apparently unaware that it’s hard to worry about azaleas when you’re brooding over the 9am catch-up.

I used to ignore those pleas. Then I moved a little further out of town and added an extra 500yd walk (each way) to my daily commute. Within three weeks, I could see the outline of a six-pack.

It was a surprise, but it really shouldn’t have been. Walking might seem unglamorous next to more calorie-intensive and sweat-buffed commuter options like cycling and running, but it comes with several key advantages.

Firstly, it’s low intensity, which means it’s easy on the joints, helpful for promoting blood flow, and hard to mess up. And because it raises your heart-rate without sending it thudding through your chest, it’s also more likely to relieve stress than cause it: a 2015 study found lunchtime walks improved enthusiasm and relaxation at work. In contrast, running sends forceful shocks through your lower limbs, promoting the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

Most of all, walking is easy: there’s no mental preparation, no getting your shoes out the night before, no at-the-desk sweats that repulse co-workers. Forget the 10,000-steps-a-day mantra – that came from the marketing campaign of a Japanese pedometer. Just get up, get out and walk to the station. Easy.

My favourite walk: I’ve been walking on York’s Hob Moor since I was eight: first with my father, later with my dog Jess, and now whenever I get the chance. It’s a brisk mile or so with a lovely view of the Minster, and a very slim chance you’ll be menaced by cows: whatever you do, don’t run.

Does walking lift your mood? What are your favourite walks? We want to hear from you in the comments section below.