By this point in our evolutionary history, we all know walking is good for us. Yet, many of us still leave this fundamental component of health up to whatever we manage to squeak in while walking around the house, to and from work (if that’s even happening), or while running errands.
We may think we counteract the amount of time we spend sitting with a 30–60-minute gym session, but our bodies weren’t designed to sit all day and then push as hard as possible for a brief amount of time.
According to a study in Diabetes,
The average non-exercising person may become even more metabolically unfit in the coming years if they sit too much, thereby limiting the normally high volume of intermittent non-exercise physical activity in everyday life.
Non-exercising physical activity refers to any activity that is more than rest but less than exercise (think doing chores, walking, fidgeting, gardening, etc.).
Perhaps the easiest way to combat a day filled with staring at a computer screen is simply to tie up your laces first thing in the morning and go for a walk.
Other than the obvious benefits related to moving, here are seven reasons why incorporating a morning walk will improve your health.
#1. Fasted Cardio
Walking first thing in the morning before you eat means you’re exercising in a fasted state.
A meta-analysis of 27 studies concluded that aerobic exercise performed in the fasted state induces higher fat oxidation than exercise performed in the fed state.
Translation: fasted cardio pushes your body to burn stored body fat. Because walking is low intensity, you can do it every day, and you won’t feel fatigued from not having enough food in your system.
#2. Low Insulin State
This benefit also ties in with burning more stored body fat. When you haven’t eaten for a period of time, your insulin level is lower.
Think of insulin like a dimmer switch. When the dial is turned up high, your body will burn less fat (and more carbs) for energy than when the switch is turned low.
Some people have a hard time burning stored body fat because insulin remains high, even when they haven’t eaten for a period. This leads to insulin resistance and, eventually, Type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that with weight loss, insulin resistance can resolve itself.
Establishing a morning walking routine will not only help with weight loss, but it will also teach your body to burn fat during low-intensity exercise.
#3. It’s Easy
Bit of a no-brainer here, but all you have to do is throw your shoes on and head out the door. Okay — if you sleep with very few clothes on, then get dressed.
You don’t need to down a pre-workout shake or engage in a lengthy warmup. Leash your dog, throw in some earbuds, tune in to your favorite podcast (in my case), and go.
Most people overestimate the calories they burn at the gym and underestimate the calories burned during simple movement. The fact remains we spend far more hours in a day sitting, standing, or walking then we do during formal exercise.
Walking is the easiest way to burn more calories.
#4. Blood Flow to Reduce Soreness
Anyone experiencing delayed-muscle onset soreness (DOMS) knows the pain of waking up to stiff muscles. When I’m sore, squatting to use the bathroom or walking downstairs brings out my inner sailor.
Often the last thing we want to do when we’re sore is hit the gym. However, studies show light exercise is the most effective way to alleviate pain associated with DOMS.
Exercise increases blood flow, and better blood circulation means more oxygen-rich and nutrient-rich blood will be going to the injured muscles. Also, increased blood flow helps wash away the chemical irritants responsible for pain.
#5. Eye Movement
Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of walking outdoors is that it gives your eyes a break from constantly looking down at a computer screen.
Dr. Mike T Nelson, an exercise physiologist, compares staring at a computer screen too long to sitting too long. When we sit, our hip flexors get tight from constant constriction. Eye muscles are similar.
When you’re walking outside, he recommends looking up toward the tops of trees and then looking at distances far away. You’re training your eyes to do the opposite of looking down and close up (what we do at our desks).
Dr. Nelson writes,
If your eyes are functioning better, you’re going to feel better.
In fact, stepping away from the computer for short walking breaks throughout the day is an excellent strategy to combat eye fatigue.
#6. Optic Flow
Optic flow is the motion pattern generated at an eye that is moving relative to the environment. So if you are walking, things that are stationary are going by. You move forward; the trees stay in the same spot.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, Neurobiologist, states that optical flow, as the actual movement of objects past us as we walk, quiets some of the circuits responsible for stress.
Dr. Huberman notes,
First, that morning walk calms me through something called optic flow. Self-generated optic flow — by walking, running, or cycling — shifts the brain into a state of relaxation that’s not seen when you’re stationary … When you move through a space and you’re active, there’s a natural calming of the brain circuits involved in threat and threat detection.
When you’re working at a computer, your eyes aren’t moving. What you see is two-dimensional and fixed in space.
Creating optic flow is the direct opposite of what most people are doing all day. Dr. Huberman notes that creating optic flow reduces stress in the same way EMDR (eye movement therapy used to treat PTSD) can heal trauma.
#7. Sunlight Exposure
Aside from the opportunity to soak up crucial Vitamin D, there are two other important reasons to get outside early in the morning. Morning sunlight on our retinas helps reset our circadian rhythm, making us sleepier at night, and sunlight improves our mood.
Melatonin is the hormone responsible for making us sleepy in the evening. When we are exposed to sunlight (or very bright artificial light), our brains release melatonin earlier, allowing us to fall asleep more easily.
Melatonin researcher Russel J. Reiter of the University of Texas Health Science Center notes,
The light we get from being outside on a summer day can be a thousand times brighter than we’re ever likely to experience indoors.
For this reason, it’s important that people who work indoors get outside periodically, and moreover that we all try to sleep in total darkness. This can have a major impact on melatonin rhythms and can result in improvements in mood, energy, and sleep quality.
Sunlight exposure in the morning also helps improve our mood. Dr. Huberman states,
There’s good evidence if the light comes in at the right time of day, you get an elevation in mood. If the light comes in at the wrong time of day, meaning at night, in the middle of the night, in particular between the hours of 11:00 PM and 4:00 AM, you get activation of this pro-depressive circuit that’s also signaled to the pancreas. So it throws off blood sugar regulation and metabolism and can start creating some serious problems.
Getting a walk each morning ranks as one of the healthiest things we do for ourselves daily.
If you get up when it’s dark and have to head straight to work, it’s okay if you end up getting outside a little bit later. When I worked in a corporate setting, I packed tennis shoes and walked during my lunch break.
Now that I’m a mom, I go out for my morning walk after I’ve taken my kids to school. When creating new habits, strive for better vs. optimal.
When you lace up, regardless of the time, remember these key benefits for getting outside as early as you can:
- Fasted cardio gets your body into fat-burning mode.
- Low insulin pushes your body to use stored body fat for energy.
- Walking requires minimal effort.
- Walking can reduce soreness from training.
- You’re strengthening your eye muscles.
- You’re creating optic flow, which reduces stress.
- Exposure to sunlight will allow you to fall asleep faster and improve your mood.