There was a time when walking was a standard medical treatment.
In her book Your Brain on Nature, Dr. Eva Selhub of Harvard Medical School notes that health resorts and “sanitariums” sprang up in newly urbanized America during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.
There, doctors would treat patients with long nature walks. They saw walking as an antidote to sedentary city living.
But walking suddenly fell out of favor in the in the early 20th century.
That’s when new medical discoveries spurred doctors to put a premium on treatments that could be tested in a lab. This typically meant drugs.
Dr. Selhub went through the medical journals of the time. She noticed “Half-page advertisements for the Glen Springs Sanitarium gave way to the full-page advertisement for the anti-anxiety drug meprobamate.”
Today we walk less than ever. The average American takes 4,774 steps a day, according to a 2017 study at Stanford University.
This may sound like a lot. But our bodies evolved to walk far more.
Scientists believe our Paleo ancestors walked about 16,000 to 22,000 steps a day.
What are we missing?
Here are five benefits of walking:
- Better mental health. An article published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at the mental health benefits of being active. The authors found that exercise, including walking, “reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.” It also stimulates endorphins, brain chemicals that are “the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.”
- More creativity. A study from Stanford University found that creative thinking is enhanced both during and immediately after walking. The researchers said that their subjects’ creative output increased by an average of 60% when walking.
This would have been no surprise to Albert Einstein. He always walked to his job at Princeton University. People in cars would often stop and ask if he wanted a ride. But Einstein always refused. He insisted that the daily mile-and-a-half walk from his home to his university office was crucial to his thinking skills.
- Less cancer. An American Cancer Society study found that women who walk at least seven hours a week have a 14% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who walk three hours or less per week. Walking provides the same benefit even for women with high-risk breast-cancer factors such as using hormone therapy or being overweight.
- Longer life. Studies have linked walking with long life. In areas of the world where people live the longest, walking is a big part of their daily routine. These places include Okinawa, Japan, where people often trudge around and garden for hours. And Sardinia, where shepherds walk several miles a day in rugged terrain. But research has found that even minimal amounts of strolling are associated with lower mortality risk.
- Weight loss. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics followed about 100,000 subjects. It found that people who walked for more than 30 minutes a day had smaller waists than those who regularly engaged in sports and other forms of exercise.
It concluded that walking prevents obesity better than any other activity.
The Best Way to Walk
Any kind of walking is good for you. But research shows one approach may be the best.
In a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, scientists looked at 30 volunteers. They had them walk for different lengths of time throughout the day.
At the beginning and end of each day, researchers checked the levels of stress hormones in the participants. And they asked them to rate their mood, energy, and appetite.
More frequent short walks actually made people feel better than one long walk. On the day they took short walks, participants reported they were happier, felt less tired, and had fewer food cravings.
On the day participants took a long morning walk, they felt energized at the start of the day. But after lunch, fatigue set in. On the short walk day, their energy levels actually increased throughout the day.
Try this simple strategy: Set the alarm on your cell phone to go off every hour. When you hear it, get up and walk for five minutes. You’ll be healthier, happier, and more productive.
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