It can feel like the comforts of modern life conspire to keep us from moving around. All-too-convenient cars or public transportation take us from door to door, escalators and elevators save us the effort climbing stairs, and smartphones, tablets, and computers provide endless entertainment without moving a muscle.
Humans evolved to move. Hunter-gatherer societies spend most of their waking day moving about in low-intensity activities. We might imagine primitive man spending most of the day chasing down gazelles or hunting mammoths, but the hunter-gatherer societies spend much more time walking than running.1
Moving with Low-Intensity Physical Activities
Low-Intensity Physical Activities are activities like casual walking that get you out of your chair but don’t require enough effort that your breathing is labored. If you use a heart rate monitor, these activities would generally be below 70% of your maximum heart rate, which is about 50% of your VO2max, a measure of cardio-respiratory fitness.
These activities form the base of physical activities. Walking is the classic example, although many other activities, like a stretching session, beginning yoga, tai-chi, slow bike riding, or household chores, are all types of LIPA. Sports without much running (golf, playing catch, or leisurely table tennis) are also LIPA. For this post, let’s focus on walking as the primary example of LIPA.
What are the Benefits of Walking?
Getting on your feet to move around might seem like a small matter, but the benefits can be considerable, both physical and mental.
Four Physical Benefits of Walking
1. Walking delays death. A new meta-analysis showed that walking about 9,000 steps per day reduced all-cause mortality by over 40% compared with people walking about 4,000 steps per day. More steps showed even more benefit.2
2. Walking reduces blood pressure and improves other metabolic measures. A meta-analysis found people in walking groups reduced their diastolic and systolic blood pressure by over three points each, as well as reductions in resting heart rate and cholesterol levels.3
3. Walking prevents strokes. While walking seems to help metabolic measures overall, it appears to provide protection again strokes. An epidemiological study of older men showed a 45% reduction in strokes for men who walked more. However, the decline only depended on walking time, not walking pace.4
4. Walking helps lose weight. People who joined walking groups reduced their body fat by 1.3%.5 Walking around the course while playing golf helped otherwise sedentary people lose 1.4 kg (3.1 lbs.) of weight a trim their waistlines by 2.2 cm (0.9 in.).6
Five Mental Benefits of Walking
Walking makes the mind sharper, more alert, happier, and creative.
1. Walking increases happiness. If you’ve ever noticed you feel happier and more relaxed after a walk, it’s not a coincidence. Iowa State researchers found that walking improved “positive aspect” (attention, alertness, enthusiasm, etc.). Moreover, this effect held even when the walker thought it would be no fun (so your parents were right when they told you to go for a walk instead of moping around the house).7
Walking outside can be even more cheerful. A study from Iceland looked at how students responded to treadmill walks, videos of nature, or walking in nature and found that students felt more positive after walking in nature, even if it was just before the exams period.8
2. Walking improves sleep. Young adults assigned to walking for an hour a day improved their sleep duration, subjective sleep, overall sleep quality, and reduced their need for sleep medication.9
3. Walking reduces fatigue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the improved sleep, young adults found their persistent fatigue reduced by 65% from low-intensity activity, even more than people doing moderate-intensity activities.10
4. Walking increases creativity. Stanford University researchers checked how walking affected creativity and found an 85% increase in divergent creative thinking.11
5. Walking prevents brain shrinkage. High-resolution brain scans of adults about 80-year old found that the people in the top quartile of walkers lost significantly less brain matter than other quartiles. They also had half as much risk for cognitive impairment.12
Is walking aerobic exercise?
It depends on your cardiorespiratory fitness. Brisk walking would make breathing harder and count as aerobic exercise for most people. On the other hand, a casual walk may not strain breathing, so it isn’t technically aerobic.
If I do a lot of walking, is HIIT or aerobic exercise still helpful?
HIIT aerobic exercise develops the cardiorespiratory system and provides different benefits from walking. For more details, please refer to the post on HIIT. Even when looking only at overall health and longevity, one study found that people who did aerobic exercise in addition to walking had increased longevity.13
If my daily step count includes aerobic exercise, like running and sports, will I benefit from doing 10,000 steps aside from sports?
Taking steps fast (running!) doesn’t give the same benefits as walking or other low-intensity physical activities. For example, people that run over an hour a day will have more than 7,000 steps a day from running alone, but the longevity benefits only accrue to the first 10 minutes of running per week.14
How much should I walk?
A lifestyle guide from the CDC recommends getting 10,000 steps a day, about 5 miles (8 km), which is a reasonable target.15 Most people walk about three mph (5 kph), which would be over an hour and a half of walking. Take advantage of opportunities to walk during your day, and gradually build the total number of steps you take.
Increase your opportunities for walking by:
- Taking a companion — walking with a dog or friends can make the time more enjoyable.
- Schedule walking breaks — scheduling a regular time for walking after lunch or during your day helps build a walking habit.
- Walk more during travel — parking farther from your destination or getting off the bus or train earlier adds to your daily steps.
- Take the stairs — avoiding escalators and elevators is a good habit.
- Walk through meetings — having discussions while walking can help creativity and provide a change of pace.
Check the True Age calculator to see how daily steps affect your longevity!