Professor Neil Alexander of the University of Leeds was a world-renowned pioneer in the study of biomechanics. This is the science of how living things move.
“Walking,” he said, “is the exercise man is naturally meant to do.”
The earliest doctors recognized this.
Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the Greek physician considered the “Father of Western Medicine,” famously said, “Walking is the best medicine.”
In fact, there was a time when walking was a standard medical treatment.
Dr. Eva M. Selhub is an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In her book Your Brain on Nature, she 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.
The Exercise Man Is Naturally Meant to Do
But walking suddenly fell out of favor 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 said.
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.
In recent years, Internet-connected Fitbits, Apple Watches, and smartphone activity trackers have led to an explosion of interest in walking. Ten thousand steps a day is a goal for many people.
Activity trackers also allow researchers to test walking in much the same way they would a drug to see how it works against illness. Studies have found that walking reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, depression, and more.
New research from the University of Massachusetts shows that walking is also highly effective against diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. The study followed 1,923 adults for nine years, tracking their health and how much they walk.
Researchers found that people who walked more than 10,000 steps a day had a 43% lower risk of diabetes. Their chances of having high blood pressure fell by 31%. Their risk of obesity dropped by 61%.
The study showed that even a small amount of walking is beneficial. People who walked just a 1,000 steps a day had a 13% lower risk of obesity.
Dr. Amanda E. Paluch led the study. She says the findings deliver a simple message: Walking may be best and easiest form of exercise.
“Walking is a widely accessible form of physical activity,” she said. “Steps-per-day is an easy measurement and motivator that most people understand and can easily measure given the booming industry of wearable technologies and smartphones.”
The Best Shoes for Walking
You can maximize walking’s benefits by wearing the right shoes.
The soles of your feet are extremely sensitive. They have more than 200,000 nerve endings. This is one of the highest concentrations anywhere in your body. But heavy shoes deaden the feedback that walking gives to those nerves.
Professor Susan Cachel is an anthropologist at Rutgers University. She has studied how footwear affects our bodies. People who don’t wear shoes have stronger, wider feet, she said. And they have a bigger gap between their big toe and the other four toes. This leads to better balance and agility.
Professor Cachel believes that going barefoot, or wearing shoes that are light, may help seniors avoid falls.
Scientists have discovered that walking leads to better mental health because the impact of the feet striking the ground pushes blood to the brain. But heavy, padded shoes block this crucial pathway.
But what if you have knee or hip pain? Don’t padded shoes ease the impact on painful joints?
Researchers at Chicago’s Rush Medical College had people with osteoarthritis of the knee walk in sneakers and then barefoot. Using body sensors, they measured the force on the subjects’ knees. The researchers were surprised that the impact on knees was 12% less when people walked barefoot.
Dr. Najia Shakoor led the study. She says the findings may seem counterintuitive. But when you think about it, they make sense.
“If you can imagine a really big, insulated shoe on your foot, when you walk, you kind of stomp your foot,” Dr. Shakoor said. “The way your foot hits the ground is very forceful. As opposed to a bare foot, where you have a really natural motion from your heel to your toe.”
Your body needs sensory feedback from your feet to walk properly and to optimize the benefits of walking, she said.
When you’re barefoot or wearing light shoes, “Your body tells itself, ‘My foot just hit the ground, I’m walking. So let’s activate all these mechanisms to keep my joints safe.’ Your body’s natural feedback mechanisms can work properly.”
Of course, it’s not practical—or even possible—for many of us to go for walks barefoot.
The next best thing is minimalist footwear. Look for something light and flexible. Your shoes should protect your feet but still allow you to feel the walking surface.
There are many options. But excellent choices include the Nike Flex, Vivo Barefoot, Merrell Trail Glove, and Vibram KSO EVO.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about how to walk your way to better health with the Step-Right Protocol. You’ll find it in our monthly journal Independent Healing. To find out more, GO HERE.