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Walking is ‘doable’ and beneficial

Posted Aug 12 2011 5:29am

I am a fan of exercise, but recognise that not everyone is. The fact is, many of us have barriers to it. One major barrier relates to some people’s belief the fact that exercise, to be beneficial, needs to be hard work. Some simply don’t relish the uncomfortable sensations that exercise can bring. Also, to be frank, quite-intense exercise may simply be inappropriate for some people. People who are, say, very overweight should probably not be running up hills but be doing safer, more realistic forms of exercise, at least to begin with.

Over the years I’ve become an enthusiastic advocate of walking, at least in part because it’s generally safe and not off-putting to most people aiming to be more active. I used to have a withering attitude to walking, which came as the result of me being a (formerly) keen runner. I wasn’t a brilliant runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I could average about 6-minute miles for several miles at my peak. No World records were shattered, but for an amateur, recreational runner, this is a decent pace.

In comparison, I believed walking offered little or no health benefits. I’ve reviewed that opinion now, on the basis of the research. Some of my interest here was borne out of personal interest. I retired myself from running more than a decade ago after a long succession of running-related injuries affecting my feet, ankles, skins, knees, sacroiliac joints (in the pelvis) and lower back. It just wasn’t sustainable for me to keep running, and I wonder if I’d persisted what state I might be in now.

Somewhat reluctantly, I was forced to look for alternative forms of activity to ‘keep me going’, and ended up making walking my staple activity. I’m a naturally fast walker, but never imagined that it was likely to be doing me much good from a health perspective until I started looking at the research. But even before I was convinced that it had health benefits, there were things about walking that made it immediately attractive to me. Here are some of them:

1. I could schedule it into my day (e.g. walk to the tube/subway, walk between meetings in the centre of London, walk to a restaurant) in a way that did not make exercise something that appeared to interrupt my life or take ‘too much time’.

2. I didn’t have to get especially dressed for it. Though I have over the years invested in many pairs of work shoes that are rubber-soled, comfortable and durable. The two brands I’ve settled on, by the way (though there are many others), are Anatomical Gel and the Airflex range from Marks and Spencer.

3. No dread. I used to run to schedule, often come hell or high water. Sometimes I’d not feel like running, and it would be at least at the back of my mind and sometimes build up into a ‘big thing’ until I got it done. I don’t ever get that before a walk, however long.

4. No discomfort and no injuries. I haven’t had a walking related injury since I started. I now find myself very infrequently on the osteopath’s couch too (back stuff, mainly), in stark contrast to when I was running.

So, what of the health benefits of walking. I’ve documented these a few times on this site, both in terms of their effect on body and brain. Today, I’d like to share the results of a recent study which adds to this body of evidence.

A group of overweight and obese men (average age – 54, average BMI – 28) were randomised to a walking programme or nothing (control group). The men were asked to walk for 30 minutes on at least 5 days of each week, in bouts of at least 10 minutes. The intensity of walking was 65 per cent of maximum heart rate (MHR). 220 minus age is a rough approximation of MHR. So, for the average study participant, MHR = 220 – 54 = 166. And 65 per cent of this comes out at 108 (not particularly intense). The study lasted for 24 weeks.

At the end of the study, the walkers were estimated to have walked for an average of 156 minutes per week – just over 2½ hours.

Compared to the control group, the walkers saw significant change in the following measurements:

  • Waist Circumference (a loss of 2 cm compared to an increase of 1.3 cm in the control group) There was no significant difference in weight.
  • Total cholesterol
  • Insulin levels (lower levels in the walking group)
  • Insulin sensitivity index (improved insulin sensitivity in the walking group)

The end result, was that moderate-paced walking averaging about 30 minutes in total on most days of the week led to improvements that are associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Walking, again, turns out to be a form of activity is that is ‘doable’ and beneficial.

References:

1. Woolf-May K, et al. The effect of 24 weeks of moderate intensity walking upon metabolic syndrome risk factors in previously sedentary/low active men. Journal of Exercise Physiology online 2011;14(4):145-156

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