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The health benefits of walking

17 February 2021

Find out how walking can have a positive impact on your health and wellbeing, plus how to develop a walking plan to improve your stamina.

Couple walking on a beach
A simple ten-minute walk puts you at lower risk of depression and stress.

Walking is one of the best and easiest exercises you can do. It's low-impact so there's little stress on your joints, you don't need a gym membership and it's a great way to see the country's parks, coastal areas and countryside. And it's also good for your emotional health: walking for 45 minutes or more triggers the production of the body's own feel-good hormones, endorphins, which in turn create feelings of well-being and relieve anxiety and stress.

How walking is good for your health

Walking for stronger bones

If you’re likely to suffer with osteoporosis walking can help. One study, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, USA, found that 30 minutes of walking every day reduced the risk of hip fracture by up to 40 per cent. 

How to prevent osteoporosis

Walking to beat cravings

Walking is a great distractor from stress and it seems that this aspect of it also helps prevent cravings for sweet treats and chocolate.

Research from the University of Exeter found that study participants who went for a 15-minute walk whenever they felt the need for chocolate reported greater self-control than those who didn’t. They were able to turn down the chocolate where before they might have succumbed. They also found the effects lasted beyond the walking period – participants reported that their cravings were reduced afterwards too. 

Boost your immune system with a walk

All exercise helps boost your body’s ability to fight off colds and flu, as well as other illnesses, and walking is no exception.

One study from the Appalachian State University, USA, found that if you walk between 30 and 45 minutes daily, the number of immune cells in your body will actually increase, making your body far better equipped to fight off any viruses. 

Walking for weight loss

Walking may not feel as effective as a calorie-burning exercise as, say, an hour-long aerobics class but while it’s true that you’ll burn more calories by doing more vigorous exercise, walking is something you can do at any time of day, anywhere, on your own, with or without a gym membership and without any special clothing or equipment. This makes walking one of the best ways to control your weight.

If you do it with friends or a pet, it’s also arguably more enjoyable too. For these reasons, you’re far more likely to stick to a walking workout regime and so a weight-loss plan that includes plenty of regular walking is more likely to be effective and long-lasting too. 

Losing excess fat isn’t as simple as eating less or exercising more, there’s lots of evidence showing that how you exercise has a big part to play too. For example, one study from Harvard University, USA, found that walking every day transforms obesity-promoting genes so that the negative impact they have on your weight is halved. 

More creative thinking after a walk

If you’re mulling over a task or need to solve a complicated problem there’s nothing better than walking to help focus your mind, but in a creative way. That’s why so many businesses are now asking their staff to hold meetings while walking – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Steve Jobs of Apple have both utilised ‘walking meetings’ to help boost creative thinking while trying to problem solve. 

Walking also helps prevent cognitive deterioration. Research from the University of California, USA, found that people who walked more (2.5 miles per day) had sharper memories than those who walked less than half a mile per week. 

Walking to improve heart health

Walking can give your heart a good workout, and walking is most effective when it's sufficiently brisk to get your heart working a bit harder. The British Heart Foundation recommends at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of moderate activity a week, where you breath harder and your heart beats faster. This can of course be broken into chunks throughout the week. Speak to your doctor if you have any doubts about your heart health before embarking on any strenuous activity. 

To work out what you want your pulse rate to be you first need to to know your maximum heart rate (MHR). To get this subtract your age from 220, then aim to keep your pulse rate at between 60 to 90 per cent of your MHR. So if you're 50 your MHR is 170 beats per minute, and your target range is 102 to 136 beats per minute (170 x 0.60 and 180 x 0.80).

Walking for stress relief

A simple ten-minute walk puts you at lower risk of depression and stress, especially if you do it with others.  A study from the University of Michigan, USA, found that group walks significantly lowered depression, lowered perceived stress levels and enhanced mental health.

Stress: what it does to your health

Better sleep after walking

While you sleep your body re-energises, rebuilds cells and generally prepares you health-wise for the following day, so if you can’t sleep well your health suffers in many ways. The good news is that walking improves sleep. Research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, USA, found that a one-hour walk in the morning helped relieve insomnia for study participants.

Taking a coastal walk will have additional benefits. Sea air is full of negative hydrogen ions which, by neutralising damaging free radicals, improve our ability to absorb oxygen. A 2018 review of research into negative hydrogen ions found that they reduce stress, boost immune system function and help regulate sleep patterns.

Boost your vitamin D

Walking gives you a chance to spend time in the great outdoors, whether you're going on a coastal walk or strolling through a city park, and just 15-30 minutes outside during the day can have a significant impact on your vitamin D levels. This is particularly important in cooler climates like the UK, where one in five people have vitamin D deficiency, and people with darker skin (such as those of African or South Asian descent) will be even more at risk of deficiency.

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

How many calories does walking burn?

Brisk walking can burn 100 calories or more a mile - that's 300 calories per hour, and walking uphill can increase this by 50 per cent. 

Create a walking fitness plan

To help you get started we've compiled a six-week plan. All you need is a pair of comfortable, supportive shoes and a bottle of water.

Weeks 1-3: get the habit

Research shows that it takes 21 days to establish a habit so the first three weeks are designed to help you do just that.

Week 1: Aim to accumulate 30 minutes' walking three days a week to get used to walking. The easiest way is to take three walks of 10 minutes.

Weeks 2-3: Now you've established a routine, increase the length of time you walk to 15 minutes and aim to do two walks four days a week.

Weeks 4-6: increase the distance you walk

The next three weeks are devoted to increasing the distance you walk, the speed at which you walk and the difficulty of your walks so you are able to cope with longer, more arduous trips.

Week 4: Stick to 15-minute walks but increase the number of days to five days a week.

Week 5: Step up your walking habit by increasing duration to 45 minutes in total five days a week. You can still break it up into 15-minute chunks if that suits you or experiment with doing one longer walk of, say, 30 minutes and a shorter one of 15.

Week 6: Time to increase the effort a bit by adding some more speed and/or endurance to your workout. Continue with five 45-minute walks a week but either try to walk further each time or take a different route and include a few hills and inclines.

Weeks 6 onwards: keep at it

Aim to increase to an hour of walking every day - remember you can still break it up into smaller chunks if it's hard to find the time.

Note: If you find any week hard, repeat the programme for that week and stay with it until you are able to progress comfortably to the next level.

Sleep strategies for a better night's rest

Brisk walking is best

The best walking workout is a brisk one, although if you haven't been exercising recently a slowish saunter is better than nothing. You'll know you're walking briskly if:

  • Your breathing is heavier but you can still conduct a conversation
  • Your heart is beating faster than usual but is not racing
  • You feel warm and slightly sweaty

Top tips for walking healthily and safely

Watch your posture: keep neck and shoulders relaxed, and pull in your abdomen. Walk with your chin up and look forwards not down, keeping your arms tucked in close to your body.

Breathe deeply from your abdomen to increase the amount of air you can draw into your lungs. Find a comfortable stride - not too long as your body is then forced to rotate through the hips.

As you step out plant your heel down first and let your body weight roll through. Once you've transferred your weight to your front foot push through using the strong muscles in your buttocks.

Then roll through your back foot keeping your toes in contact with the ground until you lift your back foot to take the next step. Keep your feet relaxed (don't let them claw as you walk) to prevent tightness in the shins.

Do a few simple stretches after walking to avoid aching and muscle tightness.

Read our guide to walking properly to find out about the mechanics of walking

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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