You probably know walking is good for your waistline, but do you know walking may also lower stress levels, improve mood and reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease? Walking–even only moderately–provides a host of health benefits, and it’s a gentle, low-impact form of exercise accessible to almost everyone. If you’ve been inactive and tire easily, the Mayo Clinic recommends starting with short daily sessions of five to 10 minutes and building up to 15 minutes twice a week. Then, gradually work your way up to 30 to 60 minutes of walking almost every day of the week. If you’re having trouble getting motivated, these six surprising health benefits of walking will help you take the first step.
1. Feel Happy
Pick up your feet and pick up your spirits. Psychologist James Blumenthal and his colleagues at the Duke University Medical Center have been studying the effects of exercise in relieving symptoms of depression for more than a decade. Their research shows that exercising for 30 minutes three times a week is as effective as taking antidepressants and that continued exercise greatly reduces the chances of depression returning.
2. Live Longer
Even small amounts of physical activity can add up to big health benefits. According to a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet, just 15 minutes a day of moderate exercise such as brisk walking can add years to your life. Researchers analyzed the health records and reported activity levels of more than 400,000 people from 1996 to 2008. After taking into account differences in age, weight, sex and a range of health-related indicators, they found on average people who exercised 15 minutes a day had a 14 percent reduced risk of death and a three-year longer life expectancy. Every additional 15 minutes of daily moderate exercise further reduced the risk of death by 4 percent.
3. Improve Libido
If your libido is lacking, vigorous walking may be an appealing remedy. In her book A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex, Laurie B. Mintz recommends revving up your sex drive with exercise. “Exercise increases blood flow all over the body–including to the genitals–which results in enhanced sexual pleasure,” she says. Mintz suggests doubling your pleasure by focusing on the sexual thoughts and sensations that can occur during exercise. “Be in the moment,” she says. “Zone in on your body and your movements, and you may feel a stronger desire for sex.”
4. Sleep Better
Tired of being tired? A study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found people sleep better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, or about 30 minutes five days a week. Some researchers think physical activity improves sleep by helping reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and others suggest simply burning more energy during the day makes you more tired at night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends exercising at least three hours before bedtime to give your body time to cool down.
5. Improve Memory
Walking can strengthen your body and your mind. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found moderate exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in forming memories. Researchers randomly placed 120 sedentary people in one of two groups. One group walked 40 minutes a day, three times a week. The other was limited to less aerobic exercise such as stretching. After a year, brain scans showed that among the walkers, the hippocampus had expanded by about 2 percent. In the others, its volume had decreased by about 1.4 percent.
6. Prevent Breast Cancer
Working up a sweat may help prevent breast cancer. In a study from the Women’s Health Initiative, postmenopausal women who walked briskly as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours a week reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by 18 percent compared with inactive women. In another study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Yale researchers found that women who walked briskly for two to three hours a week after being diagnosed with breast cancer had a 45 percent greater chance of survival.