The many benefits of walking regularly
Getting exercise through walking is a safe way to get a workout without needing a gym, and it can boost your mental and physical health in several important ways.
“Walking is the most studied form of exercise, and multiple studies have proven that it’s the best thing we can do to improve our overall health, and increase our longevity and functional years,” says Robert Sallis, MD, a family physician and sports medicine doctor with Kaiser Permanente.
In its 2018 scientific report to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee noted that walking is the most popular aerobic activity and has one of the lowest injury rates of any form of exercise.
And a 2019 study of more than 44,000 Canadians found that people living in more walkable neighborhoods had a lower overall risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s a reason to advocate for local infrastructure that makes walking easier, says lead author Nicholas Howell, PhD, of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
Still, in the short term, “even in less walkable neighborhoods, there are ways to be active in your daily routines,” Howell says. He suggests running errands on foot, parking farther from your destination, or getting off the bus a stop early. Those small adjustments “can help fit in a few extra steps each day,” Howell says. “And they all add up.”
Here, we explain what walking can do for you—and how to maximize its many benefits.
Benefits of Walking
1. Lower body mass index (BMI): A study from the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, published in 2017 in the International Journal of Obesity confirms that those who walk more and sit less have lower BMIs, which is one indicator of obesity. In the study, those who took 15,000 or more steps per day tended to have BMIs in the normal, healthy range.
2. Lower blood pressure and cholesterol: The National Walkers’ Health study found that regular walking was linked to a 7 percent reduced risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
3. Lower fasting blood sugar (glucose): Higher blood glucose levels are a risk factor for diabetes, and the National Walkers’ Health Study also found that walkers had a 12 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
4. Better memory and cognitive function: A 2021 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that when adults 55 or older with mild cognitive impairment were assigned to either stretching and toning exercises or to aerobic training—mostly walking—both groups showed some improvement on cognitive tests. But when compared with the stretching and toning group, the group that walked for fitness improved aerobic fitness more, had decreased stiffness in neck arteries, and showed increased blood flow to the brain in ways that researchers think could provide more cognitive benefits in the long term.
A clinical trial of older adults in Japan published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2015 found that after 12 weeks, men and women in a prescribed daily walking exercise group had significantly greater improvements in memory and executive function (the ability to pay focused attention, to switch among various tasks, and to hold multiple items in working memory) compared with those in a control group who were told just to carry on with their usual daily routine.
And a study of 299 adults, published in the journal Neurology in 2010, found that walking was associated with a greater volume of gray matter in the brain, a measure of brain health.
5. Lower stress and improved mood: Like other types of aerobic exercise, walking—especially out in nature—stimulates the production of neurotransmitters in the brain (such as endorphins) that help improve your mental state.
6. Longer life: In a review of studies published in 2014 in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers found that walking for roughly 3 hours a week was associated with an 11 percent reduced risk of premature death compared with those who did little or no activity.
And it’s never too late to reap the benefits of walking: A small 2013 study in the journal Maturitas found that seniors with an average age of 80 who walked just four times a week were much less likely to die over the study’s 10-year follow-up period than those who walked less.
Walking for Health
Experts agree that any amount of walking is good for you, but to get the maximum benefits of walking, you need to log some mileage and increase your intensity.
The minimum prescription for good health is 30 minutes of moderate-intensity walking, five days per week. “More is better, but you can get a significant portion of the health benefits of walking even with just that moderate amount,” Sallis says.
Here are five research-backed ways to sneak more steps into every day—as well as get the most out of every step you take.
1. Walk as much as you can. The University of Warwick study compared people with at least one sign of metabolic syndrome—a group of risk factors (high blood pressure, fat around the waist, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides and cholesterol) for heart disease—with those with no risk factors. They found that those who got the least activity had the most risk factors, and those who walked the most—accumulating at least 15,000 steps per day—had healthy BMIs, smaller waists, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and better blood sugar control.
Many people aim for a daily goal of 10,000 steps (or about 5 miles)—and an industry of fitness tracking devices has emerged to support them—but that magic number didn’t originate from scientific research, says John Schuna Jr., PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at Oregon State College of Public Health and Human Sciences in Corvallis. “It was first used in a Japanese marketing effort associated with one of the first commercial pedometers.” The device was called “manpo-kei,” which means "10,000 steps meter” in Japanese.
“The 10,000-steps goal is thought to be a realistic minimum, and it’s good, but for complete risk reduction, people should aim for more,” says William Tigbe, MD, PhD, a physician and public health researcher at University of Warwick and lead author of the study showing that 15,000 steps per day can lead to greater benefits. “In our study, those who took 5,000 extra steps had no metabolic syndrome risk factors at all.”
2. Pick up the pace. Another way to get more out of even a shorter walk is to do it faster. A study published in 2017 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at not just the total number of steps people took per day but also how quickly they took them.
“Those who had a faster stepping rate had similar health outcomes—lower BMI and lower waist circumference—as those who took the most steps per day,” says Schuna, one of the study authors. He recommends trying for a minimum of 100 steps per minute (roughly 2.5 to 3 mph) or as brisk a pace as you can (135 steps per minute will get you up to about a 4 mph pace).
3. Break it up. “We cannot accumulate 15,000 steps in leisure time only,” Tigbe says. “But if you take walking breaks throughout the day, it is doable.” Aim for brisk walking bouts of 10 minutes or more at a time. You’ll get in more steps and decrease the amount of time you spend being sedentary—which is a big risk factor for heart disease.
4. Try intervals. Instead of doing an entire 30-minute walk at the same moderate pace, try high-intensity interval training. Alternate between 30-second to 1-minute bursts of faster walking, followed by a minute or two of slower-paced recovery.
In one study researchers compared people who did no exercise with those who walked at a steady, moderate pace and those who mixed high and moderate intensity. The researchers found that the group that cranked up the intensity had the greatest reductions in waist circumference and abdominal fat.
5. Take it uphill. “Think of it as getting two for one,” Sallis says. “When you increase your intensity, such as walking up a steep hill, you get the equivalent benefit in half the time.”