Three unexpected benefits of walking

Walking is one of the most health-promoting activities you can engage in, but let’s face it, compared to death defying yoga moves or lifting more weight than anyone ever going for a walk is, well, pedestrian.

Most of us are already trying to do-all-the-things and we’re perpetually sold on the idea that a few really intense workouts each week is all we need to stay fit and healthy. Not to denigrate tough training sessions, but the rabbit hole of health goes much deeper. It turns out our bodies require low intensity movement as much if not more than the tough workouts we’re accustomed to. Walking fits this category of low intensity movement well. 

Katy Bowman, author of the book Move Your DNA, puts it this way, ‘Walking is a superfood. It’s the defining movement of a human. It’s a lot easier to get movement than it is to get exercise. Actively sedentary is a new category of people who are fit for one hour but sitting around the rest of the day. You can’t offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise.’

If you’ve been around me long enough (or, let’s be real, a few minutes!) I’ve probably foisted the following idea upon you; our ancient ancestors should serve as our foundational blueprint for health. The way homo sapiens live nowadays is dramatically different from our hunter-gatherer forebearers despite our biology being, for all intents and purposes, identical. 

The disparity between the environments and activities of our ancestors and the environments and activities we are engaged in tend to cause us health problems. From the foods we eat and the way we relate to one another to our sleep patterns and the type of movement we engage in. One key area where there is significant difference is the amount of walking our bodies are designed to do, and how much we actually do.

It’s estimated that hunter-gatherers averaged from 2 miles per day to as much as 7 miles per day - compare and contrast that against most average sedentary humans who are lucky to get a single mile completed.

Now, we all know walking has a ton of physical benefits; improved cardiovascular health, increased bone density, improved coordination etc, etc. But there are other benefits that walking offers which aren’t quite so obvious.

Lymph drainage

The lymphatic system essentially acts like a drainage system for our bodies. It collects toxins and waste and transports to them around the body for removal. The lymph system, unlike the vascular system, has no pump - so we need movement in order to encourage the lymph system not to stagnate. The repetitive gravitational effects of walking can help to keep the lymph flowing.

Increased mental acuity

The effects of walking on mental acuity can be quite significant, one study found that low intensity daily walking can be effective in staving off hippocampal atrophy which has a high correlation with dementia and alzheimer's. A well functioning hippocampus tends to lead to better short-term memory, and let’s face it, we all know regular exercise is good for our mental health.

Walking in nature has additional benefits

A study of Shinrin-yoku (Japanese art of forest bathing) showed ‘that that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.’ The authors of the study parodied my earlier point about the disparity between our ancestors environments and activities and those of modern humans ‘From the perspective of physiological anthropology, human beings have lived in the natural environment for most of the 5 million years of their existence. This is the reason why the natural environment can enhance relaxation.’ 

None of this is exactly rocket science but as the old Samuel Johnson saying goes; ‘People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.’ The barrier to entry for walking is about as low as any other form of movement or exercise. So take action! Get outside and get your swagger on!