Walk Your Way To Improved Health

A few steps a day can result in significant advances in overall health.
By Cara Lucas

It’s an epidemic, and the media is calling it “Sedentary Death Syndrome.” There is an obvious solution to the condition, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal and non-governmental agencies; the prescription is physical activity.

Being physically active should stand as a lifelong pillar of wellbeing, and it’s important to form a habit of daily activity while still young. High-impact, aerobic exercises are specifically suggested to combat age related health risks.

Walking—it is the most widely accepted mode of physical activity and provides the lowest risk of injury. Not to mention, it can be done in virtually any setting all year round. Even five minutes a day can have a noticeable impact on one’s health and provide a natural fountain of youth. Walking offers a well-rounded approach to fighting off ailments such as stress-related symptoms, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and cerebral nerve deterioration that can eventually result in senility or dementia.

Learning more about how walking fights against these illnesses is the first step in preventing and reversing age-related health conditions.

Walking and Stress Relief
Often, removing yourself from a stressful situation enables you to put mental and physical distance between you and the unbearable environment. Performing a physical activity like walking does wonders for lowering stress-related blood pressure, relaxing tense muscles, and providing some clarity or perspective when it is lacking.

But how intensely must one exercise to achieve beneficial results?

Leisure physical activity acts as a “buffer,” curbing the effects of minor stress. A study using a sample of 135 college students focused on whether it was necessary to have both leisure activity and high aerobic fitness to maintain the stress-buffering effects. Researchers found that leisure activity alone provided sufficient minimizing effects on stress related physical symptoms and anxiety in the students. The level of aerobic activity had no mitigating effect on stressful physical and/or psychological symptoms.

This means that taking a few minutes from screaming children, an intense work environment, or a visit with the in-laws to take a stroll or a quick walk is enough to produce positive results.

Making time for personal health by simply walking is chemically advantageous, as well. It releases hormones called endorphins that induce feelings of happiness while reducing cortisol levels that release in pressure-filled circumstances.

Walking for stress reduction yields equal amounts of mental stimulation as well as physical. Moving the body can also shift the mind and, with the rhythm of stepping, breathing, and moving, provides a similar meditative state as yoga. Monks, in particular, use walking as an avenue and method for prayer—the practice is called labyrinth walking.

According to the American Cancer Society, this relaxation technique is “a form of meditation that involves walking on labyrinths, winding pathways drawn or laid on the ground.” Labyrinths differ from mazes in the fact that they only have one path leading in and out and contain no intersections or dead ends.

Labyrinths date back to the ancient religious practices of the middle ages but are making a comeback, not only in places of worship, but in retreat centers, prisons, community centers, parks, and airports. Currently, there are 2,000 permanent labyrinths in the United States, but they can be made anywhere using various materials like tape, stones, or chalk.

Although the American Cancer Society does not actively promote this activity as a treatment for cancer or other diseases, it does state that many health care practitioners are advocates of this practice because of its ability to “promote relaxation and relieve stress beneficial to overall health.”

Walking and Bone Mass Density
Osteoporosis is defined as “a disease characterized by low bone mass and microarchitectural deterioration of bone tissue, leading to enhanced bone fragility and a consequent increase in fracture risk.” Hip fractures prove to be the most prevalent as well as the most severe, and often contribute to unfortunate, early demise in the elderly.

Losing bone mass density is a natural function of aging. And, statistically, women in general are more at risk for sustaining injuries due to osteoporotic factors. A postmenopausal woman has a 50-percent chance of incurring a fracture throughout the remainder of her lifetime versus a 60-year-old man, who only has a 25 percent lifetime risk.

Don’t assume, however, that osteoporosis strictly accompanies the onset of growing older. Although it is true that as you age and your body declines, primary osteoporosis can set in; however, it does not disqualify you from experiencing this non discriminating public health issue. Secondary osteoporosis can make itself known through channels that include certain medications and/ or specific medical conditions.

Walking is advantageous as it provides a load-bearing activity, which is significant in creating stronger bones and putting at-risk bones under necessary stress. From this, one can conclude that in aging, it would be beneficial to weigh more as opposed to being too thin. The positive relationship of heavier weight and stronger bones, according to a recent study, is the “direct route of increased mechanical stress and load from the weight itself.”

The high-impact activity of walking is not only one of the best forms of exercise to encourage bone formation, but to also increase muscle mass that supports your bones. Building stronger muscles improves dexterity and improves balance as you age, preventing dangerous falls and other preventable accidents by approximately 25 percent.

It is important to note that prevention is key is fighting osteoporosis, and implementing such high-impact activities at a young age helps maximize the mineral density of bones while they are still growing.

Evidence suggests that the most significant benefits are noted in adolescent girls. Recent data shows that bone mass density in the lumbar spine increased 41.7 percent and 24.8 percent in the femoral neck during a span of 15 months when 9-and 10-year-old girls participated in 45 minutes of high-impact dance 3 times per week. The stark comparison can be seen in the average bone mass density improvement of +1.5 percent per year in pre-, peri-, and post-menopausal women when participating in a consistent, weight bearing exercise program.

This data spotlights the need for the early promotion of physical activity in children and adolescents to strengthen bones, as well as the continued implementation in adulthood through activities such as walking. One American study suggests that a brisk 5-minute walk equates to as much improvement in bone mass density as longer walks, making it accessible and achievable for the elderly to perform.

Walking and Cardiovascular Health
According to the American Heart Association, being sedentary is a major contributor to developing heart disease. Studies have shown that moderately paced walking aids in helping you shed pounds that put unnecessary stress on your heart, can lower cholesterol, controls blood pressure, and manages stress levels by releasing mood-boosting hormones called endorphins.

LDL is the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol that puts one at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Implementing a proper nutrition plan and incorporating a walking workout into your life is shown to improve LDL-C profiles, as well as reduce the possibility of developing other diseases like cancer and diabetes. A recent study shows that a modest exercise routine like brisk walking for 30 minutes per day on most days of the week has the potential to reduce LDL cholesterol up to 14 percent.

As you sustain a walking routine, the excess pounds should begin to melt away. Upon the initialization of physical activity, both glycogen utilization and insulin sensitivity immediately improve. Statistically speaking, walking also increases HDL (high density lipoprotein) values 1 mg/dL for every 3 kg of weight lost. A high level of HDL indicates a lower risk for disease, like diabetes and cancer, for example.

With weight loss can come a decrease in blood pressure and accompanying endorphins that boost mood and overall peace of mind, which, in its own right, has an impact on lowering blood pressure.

What about after a heart attack? Most individuals are aware that semi-intense physical activities like running, jogging, or biking are key in rehabbing after a myocardial infarction. However, a recent study proved that brisk walking is sufficient in reaching the proper THR (training heart rate, which is greater than or equal to 70 percent of measured maximal heart rate) to achieve the same restorative benefits.

Although it is the most popular aerobic training modality utilized in cardiac= rehabilitation programs, preceding this study, there were indistinguishable results as to whether brisk walking was feasible as a treatment for elderly patients who were hampered by age-related muscle loss or musculoskeletal limitations. Also inconclusive was if walking on a flat surface would be enough to initiate the appropriate THR to bring about cardiovascular benefits.

Out of a total of 142 patients (28 women and 114 men), all of the women and 90 percent of the men (103 out of 114 patients) achieved a sufficient THR, proving that brisk walking is indeed just as beneficial as running or jogging and dispelling the notion that you must perform these specific activities to achieve cardiorespiratory and total health benefits.

Walking and Mental Health
Now that one can see the direct link between establishing and sustaining a walking routine in relation to bone and cardiorespiratory health, it is time to discuss the benefits of walking and mental health, especially as one ages.

Walking to keep your mind sharp is coming into focus as a solution to reduce the risk of such cognitive diseases as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. In fact, studies show that a decreased walking speed is “associated with poor performance in tests assessing psychomotor speed and verbal fluency in elderly individuals.”

Studies also show physical activity specifically improves tasks that are regulated by the hippocampus, which is the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, and result in detectable changes in plasticity in these elongated ridges located on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain.

Prevention, like in bone and cardiovascular health, is key to ensuring protection of your mind later in life. Moderate aerobic exercise like walking has a defensive effect on cognitive abilities regarding executive control processes like planning, scheduling, working memory, and multitasking.

Not only does walking have a preventative effect of cerebral functions, it can just as easily have a regenerative outcome. Previous studies using animals as subjects show that aerobic activity can spawn new capillary growth in the brain, along with increasing the length and number of dendritic connections between neurons.

Studies have also shown that walking about six miles per week preserves brain function, and clinical exams show that walking this distance was linked to a 50 percent reduction in brain atrophy and cognitive decline.

Retrieving this data involved researchers looking at patients’ records of brain MRIs (between 1992-1994) and follow up MRIs (between 1998-1999) of 426 patients. Of those, 299 were cognitively normal, 83 had mild cognitive impairment, and 44 had Alzheimer’s.

All of the patients’ exercise habits were tracked throughout the study and remained the same during this time period. All of the healthy, cognitively normal adults who walked at least six miles a week preserved brain volumes in key areas like the prefrontal cortex and the temporal cortex, which serve important roles in memory. As stated earlier, those with MCI (mild cognitive impairment) reduced brain atrophy by 50 percent. Included were those with existing cognitive impairment, who, when walking at least five miles per week, experienced smaller mean losses in brain volume than those who were sedentary (1 point on MMSE, or Mini-Mental State Exam, versus 5 points for sedentary participants).

A key learning point from this study is that moderate aerobic exercise like walking, which is accessible to anyone, improves blood circulation in the brain, which additionally improves the effectiveness and health of neurons, as well.

Walking yields numerous benefits in different departments of one’s health. There is no need to be a great athlete to accomplish the activity, and just getting out and moving always makes you feel better. Remember, prevention is key. Take steps to preserve your longevity and walk your way to better health, today.