Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Being physically active can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities. But fewer than 1 in 5 adults 65 or older gets the minimum recommended amount by walking or running.
Only 23% of Americans Get Enough Exercise, according to the CDC.
Walking or running is not only an ideal activity but for many, it can help treat ongoing health conditions. For many people, it is also highly accessible. With a sturdy pair of shoes and a safe environment (inside or outside), most people can achieve their own reasonable walking or running goals, as well as attain the recommendations for adults in the CDC’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: 2nd Edition — at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. brisk walking). (1) Not to mention, moderate physical activity, like walking, can improve a person’s cognition (thinking), while decreasing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
There are many reasons to walk for exercise. Walking improves fitness, and cardiac health, alleviates depression and fatigue, improves mood, creates less stress on joints and reduces pain, can prevent weight gain, reduce risk for cancer and chronic disease, improve endurance, circulation, and posture, and the list goes on. If you’re considering taking up walking or running, there are several benefits that could help convince you.
Six health benefits of walking or running
Improving your mental health
Although you should always seek medical advice if you suffer from poor mental health, getting outside to run or walk, even for just a short amount of time each day will help. A relaxing walk in a nice area can be soothing, or a brisk jog or run can help to work off some of the tension and improve your concentration, and your quality of sleep.
The fact that exercise releases endorphins in your brain, explains why walking or running is good for you. Although, it can be achieved with many forms of exercise, getting outdoors is preferable to being in a stuffy gym or exercising at home. If you have mild-moderate depression, it can be tempting to stay home, so the act of leaving the house to walk or run is a positive one. Once you’re outside and warmed up, you’ll start to feel better.
That relaxed post-run feeling may instead be due to endocannabinoids — biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body. Exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream, according to David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where these mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm. (2)
Increasing Vitamin D
Your body needs vitamin D to keep your bones healthy and reduce the risk of muscle weakness and some cancers. You’re unlikely to get enough from your diet alone and while you can take a supplement, spending time outdoors is a much better method, and in the warmer months can provide most or all of the vitamin D our bodies require. It also helps your body absorb more of certain minerals, like calcium and phosphorus. Your body needs sunlight to make it, but you don’t need much. In the summer, just getting sun for 5 to 15 minutes, 2 or 3 times a week, should do it. In the winter, you might need a bit more.
Other health benefits
Walking or running will always be better for your health than staying inside and binge-watching the latest TV series. Most people can start off with a short gentle walk and improve over time. Walking every day can reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing the risk of developing diabetes or heart conditions.
Although running can put a strain on the heart, building up gradually will generally do more good than harm. So long as you seek medical advice over any doubts you have, and don’t try to do too much at once, running (or walking) is more likely to improve your health than harm it. There are more cases of cardiac arrest from having a sedentary lifestyle than from doing moderate exercise.
For those with no health issues, just a few minutes of running at a time with walking intervals will improve their ability to run further and faster over time. That will improve their fitness levels, stamina, and metabolism while working off any excess weight. In addition, there are all the same health benefits gained by walking.
Running is, of course, more strenuous than walking and if you’re just starting out, your body can take a while to build up the strength it needs. Running every other day will allow your muscles to recover, but that doesn’t mean you have to be inactive on non-running days. Walking can be a good way to keep active, while lessening the impact on your muscles, and still building up your fitness. (4)
Improving creativity by Walking or Running
If you’re working in a career where creativity is needed, it can be tempting to stay at your desk and wait for inspiration to strike. However, in a recent study walking has been proven to improve creativity (5) by an average of 60%, compared to just sitting. So, if you need to be inspired, walking might seem like a distraction, but it could kickstart your brain.
The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.
Walking or Running to Improve Sleep
Physical activities such as walking or running increase the pressure to sleep (6) that naturally builds throughout the day. This pressure – also known as the homeostatic sleep drive – increases while you’re awake. Sleeping resets your sleep drive, which begins anew when you wake up the following day.
Pre-sleep anxiety (7) is a common experience for many people, particularly those with insomnia. Over time, anxiety about sleep can condition people to associate their bed with stress and worry, which in turn can compound these anxious feelings. Exercise can alleviate symptoms of anxiety through biological and psychological means. Physical activity distracts people from thoughts or feelings that trigger anxiety, and also triggers processes in the brain that inhibit stress.
As walking or running leads to a physical improvement in your body and fitness levels, your confidence will increase. By setting yourself small goals, each time you reach your target you’ll feel more confident at achieving them and seeing the physical improvements while feeling much better in yourself.
If you have low self-confidence or suffer from anxiety, these improvements will also benefit you and lower your anxiety levels. The hard part is pushing yourself to get outside, but once you’ve made that leap, you will start to feel better for it. To ease yourself into it, try walking or running at quieter times of the day, so long as the area is safe to do so.
It’s also a great way to start the day, wake up your body and mind, and prepare yourself for the day ahead. If you’re short on time, walking part of the way to work can make you feel like you’ve achieved something even before your working day has officially begun.
And one bonus benefit
Regular walking can Lower Alzheimer’s Risk. A study from the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville found that men between the ages of 71 and 93 who walked more than a quarter of a mile per day had half the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than those who walked less.
A study of 6,000 women, ages 65 and older, performed by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that age-related memory decline was lower in those who walked more. The women walking 2.5 miles per day had a 17% decline in memory, as opposed to a 25% decline in women who walked less than a half-mile per week.
So, just take the first step and enjoy.