Hippocrates once famously said that walking is “man’s best medicine” – and he had a point.
When it comes to exercise, going for a walk doesn’t often come top of the list. Trendier workouts – like yoga, HIIT and boxing – might get a lot more attention, but walking is secretly one of the most underrated forms of exercise going, great for burning off steam, reducing stress and finding mental clarity, and getting your blood pumping to give your health a boost.
With so many beautiful destinations on our doorstep too, you can save money on expensive gym classes by exploring the UK on foot. We talked to some experts about why walking is worthy of a top spot on your spring fitness agenda…
1. Walking can boost your mental health
Around one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, and with anxiety and depression on the rise among both adults and children, a daily walk is a really good way for the whole family to practice some mental self-care.
“Studies have indicated that exercise releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that can improve your mood, reduce stress levels and encourage emotional and mental satisfaction,” says Dr Luke Powles from Bupa UK (bupa.co.uk).
As well as getting that all-important boost of ‘happy hormones’, getting out into some greenery is good for the mind. “Research also shows that walking outside in nature can positively impact your mood,” says Powles. “In fact, a 50-minute walk has been found to decrease feelings of anxiety and worry in adults.”
It can be good for combating loneliness too. “A big motivation for joining our walking groups – we have over 500 groups across the UK who often do several walks a week – is the social aspect of it,” says Tompion Platt, director of advocacy and engagement at Ramblers (ramblers.org.uk). “There’s something about walking side-by-side with people in a group that allows you to have really easy flow of conversation. Often, those groups then end in a pub or at a lunch, so meeting people is a huge part of it – alongside being physically active.”
2. Walking can boost creativity
If you regularly find yourself staring at a blank document, shut your laptop, put on your trainers, and make like Steve Jobs. The late Apple founder was known to take power walks as a way to stimulate creative thinking.
“I go for a walk at lunchtime when I’m at work, and that’s really where I get the time to think about things,” says Platt. “Ideas suddenly come into my head.”
Platt, 37, has been rambling since he was a young boy growing up near the Peak District, and says he gets a “real sense of wellbeing” by being outdoors.
“There’s lots of research to back this theory up, but I personally find that if I’m sitting at a desk all day, or at meetings, it’s often when I go for a walk that I have the best ideas. It allows my mind to free up a bit.”
3. Walking is good for weight loss
“Regular brisk walking – fast enough to raise your heart rate, leaving you warm and slightly breathless – is classed as an aerobic exercise,” says Powles. This means it burns calories, can help you to lose weight, and improves your fitness levels.
Depending on your weight, Powles says that a brisk 30-minute walk, at a speed of around four miles per hour, could burn around 150 calories. And if you’re short on time, or starting from scratch with your fitness? “To make 30 minutes of walking even more achievable throughout your day, you could break up the session into 10-minute chunks,” he adds.
4. Walking is a low-stress exercise
Walking is the ultimate LISS (low-intensity steady state cardio) activity. It’s the opposite to all-out HIIT, the current fitness industry buzzword – but that doesn’t mean it won’t offer benefits, says Third Space trainer Luke Worthington (Thirdspace.london).
An example of a HIIT workout would be a 25-minute cardio class with very little rest time, while walking for two hours would fall under the LISS category. “High-intensity exercise is very time-efficient,” explains Worthington. “LISS is just as effective as a fuel-burner as HIIT though, and it’s far less stressful on mind and body.”
If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, he believes the best thing for your mind could be to dial things down, rather than throwing yourself into a high-adrenaline class. “In my opinion, the mega stressed, adrenaline and caffeine-fuelled city worker should opt for some leisurely LISS to counteract the effects of stress on the body,” says Worthington.
5. Walking can help ward off disease
“The benefits of regular exercise on overall health are so great, it lowers the risk of premature death from coronary heart disease by more than 40%, and the risk of age-related death from all causes by around a quarter – even if exercise is not started until middle-age,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, Healthspan medical director (Healthspan.co.uk).
A 12-year study of more than 300,000 people carried out by the University of Cambridge also found that a lack of exercise could be killing twice as many people as obesity.
Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for lowering raised blood pressure, for example. “The results from 54 studies, involving 2,419 people with and without hypertension (high blood pressure), concluded that aerobic exercise such as brisk walking lowered blood pressure by an average of 3.84/2.58 mmHg,” says Brewer. “In studies that concentrated on people with existing hypertension, aerobic exercise such as walking was found to lower blood pressure by between 5/1 mmHg and 10/6 mmHg. ”
6. Cheap and easy – walking is suitable for everyone
“Walking is good for the body because it’s low-impact; it’s a type of exercise that can be used by every fitness level, whether you’re beginner looking to improve your fitness or a regular gym-goer looking to increase steps. Best of all, it’s free,” says Worthington. Indeed, all you need are suitable shoes and you can walk just about anywhere.
Powell adds: “It’s a great flexible option for those that love to get outdoors, or especially if you’re the type of person that doesn’t like being tied down with a costly gym membership.”
Sold on the idea? Worthington says the distance you should walk depends on the desired results. “If you’re looking to improve your overall health, I would recommend aiming for around 30 minutes per day; I often suggest clients get off one train or bus stop earlier than their destination and walk to work – not only for the fitness benefits, but also the mental health effects too.”