I never imagined that I’d become someone who counted their steps and sung the joys of the slow and steady exercise known as walking. “Hardly enough payoff, not sweaty enough, a bit dull,” I’d always thought. But as the years passed, and my body changed (along with my mind), I’ve realized that the relatively unglamorous practice of walking brings with it a whole host of deceptively simple pleasures.
When a friend of mine suggested we pair up for some exercise accountability — measuring our daily steps plus WhatsApp check-ins —I said yes immediately. I’d had a particularly difficult few years, during which time seemingly every proverbial midlife challenge (including aching joints and sometimes overwhelming fatigue) had been thrown my way. My exercise levels had dipped, and although I’m not overweight, my weight had slowly increased.
Now, I’m hooked on walking as my daily exercise. Here are the 10 things I particularly love about putting one foot in front of the other:
1. You don’t need any fancy equipment. If you own a smartphone, there’s no need to go splashing out on a fancy FitBit or another exercise gadget to measure your progress. There are dozens of walking apps available for download; we chose a free app that allowed us to easily share our steps to instill a bit of healthy competition. And you probably already own a decent pair of exercise shoes — something lightweight with ample room at the toes, good arch support, and shock absorption.
2. You‘ll improve your fitness levels. “Walking is a man’s best medicine”, said Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago — and he was definitely onto something. The World Health Organisation recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, to be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration. (That’s less than 22 minutes a day.) While many of us who are juggling work, parenthood, and other life commitments struggle to fit in an hour-long fitness class or gym workout (especially when you factor in shower and travel time), most of us can easily incorporate a purposeful 20-minute walk into our day simply by re-engineering our commute slightly or using our lunch break differently. And once you’ve been walking for 20 minutes, you’ll probably find you’ll want to carry on a bit longer.
3. You can begin where you are right now. Whether you’re voluptuous or reed-thin, it makes no difference to the roads or pathways upon which you’ll travel. Indeed, walking is relatively easy on your joints while still providing the weight-bearing exercise that The National Osteoporosis Foundation views as crucial to keeping our bones strong. (Moreover, it’s is a safe alternative if you can’t do high-impact exercises, such as running). How far should you walk? Although 10,000 daily steps is a popular number, it’s actually an arbitrary figure and one that some experts claim might put sedentary folks off exercise. (Aiming for somewhere around a minimum of 7,500 steps per day, at a pace which gets you a bit out of breath and increases your heart rate, may be more realistic.)
4. You’ll notice many knock-on health effects. I’ve already lost a bit of weight, but more importantly, I’m eating healthier (far less sugar, more fruits and vegetables) and drinking more water than ever. I’m also boosting my levels of vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol), a type of vitamin D that increases the body’s levels of both dopamine (the “pleasure chemical”) and serotonin, and is key for regulating levels of calcium and phosphate.
5. You’ll boost your mood. If you suffer from depression, regular exercise is a proven mood elevator. While walking, your body releases endorphins, which interact with receptors in the brain to both reduce pain and improve mood. It also boosts the brain’s levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the so-called “happy chemical” by increasing levels of tryptophan, an amino acid used to manufacture serotonin.
6. You’ll heighten your senses. For me, walking is moving meditation, a way to strongly connect with my senses and the sensations around me. Each of us can experience the attentive calm that comes from paying close attention to the world: listening to the birdsong, looking up at the cornices on buildings, feeling our feet rhythmically strike the path or pavement. Colors seem more vibrant, smells seem richer, and even the myriad sounds that comprise the vague hum of urban noise become more distinctive.
7. You’ll relieve muscle tension. Far too many of us are human desk-jockeys, spending a whopping seven (or more) hours each day sitting. Doing so can greatly raise the risk of many illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure. Walking is the best exercise to help gently stretch out your muscles through motion. Plus, you won’t have aching muscles from over-exertion or regrets for missing tomorrow’s workout due to being too sore the next day. (You’ll probably also sleep better, too.)
8. You’ll (re)connect with nature. Whether you live in a big city, a rural village or somewhere in between, you can probably find a park or some small sliver of nature to visit when walking. If you’re lucky enough to have a forest nearby, spending time in the woods — what the Japanese call shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing” — can reduce stress and encourage a sense of wellbeing. I often walk along the canals near my house, my journey shared with ducks, moorhens, and even an occasional swan. It’s a vital reminder that, even in the most urban of landscapes, pleasurable pockets of wildness can be found.
9. You’ll expand your connection with others. Although I prefer to walk alone, many people enjoy partnering with a friend or joining a nearby walking group. Even if you travel solo, there’s a quiet sense of community that comes from sharing the streets with others as you walk mindfully. I often listen to a walking meditation that encourages me to send kind thoughts to random people in the street around you. This contemporary, playful variation on the ancient metta bhavana (“loving-kindness”) meditation always makes me smile and I often chuckle softly to myself.
10. You’ll gain some headspace. I’ve attained plenty of insights and a few epiphanies while out on the path. Somehow, even the thorniest problems seem less so after I’ve returned from a walk. And although I’ll sometimes use the time to listen to audiobooks (I’m currently enjoying James Hollis’ The Middle Passage), usually I take the time to simply enjoy the world and my place in it.
All that, just by walking. Who knew?