Walk for your health and a longer life

Regular brisk walking with your arms pumping up and down can not only improve your heart health, but also tone up your muscles. — Photos: Filepic

The health benefits of exercise are well known.

Walking is a free, simple and easy way to get the recommended minutes of moderate activity weekly for all age groups.

A 30-minute walk daily can improve heart health, strengthen muscles and bones, reduce body fat and reduce the risk of developing some non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Walking can be done at an individual’s own pace at any time of the day.

There are no risks like those associated with more vigorous exercise.

Heart health

The health benefits of walking are well documented.

According to a 2015 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, walking leads to statistically significant reductions of:

  • Systolic blood pressure (a decrease of 2.17 to 5.28 mmHg)
  • Diastolic blood pressure (a decrease of 2.13 to 4.15 mmHg)
  • Resting heart rate (a decrease of 1.64 to 4.13 beats per minute)
  • Body fat (a decrease of 0.52% to 2.1%)
  • Body mass index (BMI, a decrease of 0.23 to 1.19)
  • Total cholesterol (a decrease of 0.01 to 0.22 mmol/L)

Meta-analyses have reported that a two mmHg reduction in diastolic blood pressure can reduce coronary heart disease risk by 6%, and stroke and trans-ischaemic attacks by 15%.

Meanwhile, a two mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure can reduce stroke death by 10% and death from vascular causes in the middle-aged by 7%.

Other studies have reported that a 30-minute daily walk can reduce the risk of stroke by about 20%, with an additional 20% reduction in those who walk briskly.

The increase in heart rate improves blood circulation and heart health, enabling the body to better combat disease.

Regular exercise like walking increases HDL (high density lipoprotein or “good”) cholesterol and decreases LDL (low density lipoprotein or “bad”) cholesterol.

By burning calories, walking reduces body fat and can lead to weight loss.

A walk of two miles (3.2km) in an hour burns about 150 calories.

This increases to about 200 and 300 calories in a three- (4.8km) and four-mile (6.4km) walk in an hour respectively.

If the walking is accompanied by control of dietary intake, weight loss is likely.

Walking boosts blood circulation and increases oxygen supply, thereby increasing alertness and maintenance of a higher level of energy.

Muscle and bone health

Periods of inactivity, particularly if they are long, can lead to weakening, and even wasting (atrophy), of the muscles in the buttocks and lower limbs, which carry the weight of the upper part of the body.Bone loss and joint movement can be improved by walking for exercise.Bone loss and joint movement can be improved by walking for exercise.

A 30-minute daily walk strengthens these muscles and can prevent wasting from occurring.

As walking also involves muscles of the arms, shoulders and abdomen, these muscles are also strengthened.

Regular walking leads to stronger and more defined abdominal and leg muscles.

If the arms are pumped up and down during the walk, they will also tone up.

Walking is particularly helpful in individuals with joint problems as it expands their range of movements.

In addition, walking builds stronger bones and can help prevent bone loss at all ages.

Studies have reported that walking by post-menopausal women for a minimum of 30 minutes daily reduced their risk of hip fractures by at least 40%.

However, if you already have osteoporosis, it is advisable to have a prior discussion with your doctor about the appropriateness of walking and its regime.

Walking outdoors can also improve vitamin D levels.

This is particularly important in many women who have vitamin D deficiency, which impacts bone health.

Other diseases

Walking is an effective way of reducing blood glucose as it increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

Daily walking can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus by about 60%.

Studies involving type 1 diabetics reported that those who walked after meals had about a 4.5 mmol/L peak increase in blood glucose levels, compared to about a 7 mmol/L peak increase in those who did not walk, with the peak increase occurring between 1 to 1.5 hours after meals.

A similar decrease in blood glucose levels after meals occurred in non-diabetics, which means that type 2 diabetics and gestational diabetics can also expect improved glucose levels following walking.

Walking has clear benefits against some cancers and possible benefits against other cancers. However, it does not prevent many cancers.

There are many studies that report a 30-40% reduction of colon cancer with daily brisk walking of 30-40 minutes.

Apart from improving general health, walking quickens the passage of waste material through the colon, thereby reducing the contact time between cancer-causing chemicals in the faeces and the cells of the colon.

Walking may also reduce the influence of irritants like bile salts and certain prostaglandins.

Regular walking can lead to a 20-30% reduction in breast cancer.

This is due to either a reduction of oestrogen levels, decreased tissue sensitivity to oestrogen, or both.

There are also reports of a reduction of endometrial cancer with walking, but the evidence is incomplete.

However, walking does not lead to a reduction of ovarian cancer.

The jury is currently still out on reports of the association between walking and other cancers.

Dementia is the general decline in mental ability that is severe enough to interfere with daily life, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common form.

There are reports of preservation of brain volume and a 50% reduction of Alzheimer’s disease in those who walked at least six miles (9.7km) a week.

Walking can enhance mental well-being with improvements in self-esteem, memory, mood and sleep quality, as well as reduction in stress, anxiety and fatigue, and a 30% reduction in the risk of depression.

It also helps in the recovery from depression, although one should not stop taking any mental health medications unless the doctor recommends it.

Living longer

The above health benefits of walking create a healthier mind and body, which could even extend life.

The National Walkers’ Health study reported that those who walked faster tended to live longer than those who walked slowly or at a moderate pace.

However, the latter is better than no walking at all.

Walking can be done individually or in groups.

If it is not possible to keep a fast pace throughout the walk, it can be alternated with walking at normal pace and speed walking.

In summary, walk for a healthier you.

Dr Milton Lum is a past president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners Associations and the Malaysian Medical Association. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The views expressed do not represent that of organisations that the writer is associated with. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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