The power of walking
By: Sara Howe
Have you heard? Walking is one of the best things you can do regularly for your overall health. I know what you might be thinking “Yeah, but Sara, walking isn’t that hard; it doesn’t get my heart rate up very much; I don’t feel exhausted afterward; are you sure it’s a good enough workout”; Yes, I am. Let me tell you why. In my opinion, walking is the most underrated form of exercise. Yes, walking. It’s the most straightforward activity you can add to your life that will significantly impact your physical and mental health. According to Harvard Health, walking boosts immune function. The study found that those who walked 20 minutes per day (5 days a week) had 43% fewer sick days than those who only exercised once per week. And if the people did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder. That is enough reason to walk if you ask me! In this article, I will cover the physical and mental benefits of walking and actionable steps you can take today to include walking into your routine.
As mentioned above, you can reap the benefits of walking as little as 100 minutes per week. In addition, going for a 10-minute walk after meals can help to reduce your blood sugar response. Your blood sugar will rise when you eat food (especially carbs alone). It’s normal to have some variation in blood sugar throughout the day (you should), but if you have highs and lows, that is a cause for concern. Constant spikes and dips in blood sugar throughout the day can impact your mood, anxiety levels, ability to concentrate, fatigue, hunger cues, and more. If you go for a walk after meals, your muscles use some of that glucose (blood sugar) to propel your body so that the spike won’t be as high! It doesn’t need to be a long or intense walk to have a positive impact. Walking is bilateral stimulation for the brain. The back and forth of the right, left, right, and left stepping helps to release trauma, process emotions, and improve cognitive function and creativity. I always wondered why I felt like I could think so clearly on walks, and now I know why! If you can walk outside, that is even better.
Getting fresh air helps to boost mood, connect with nature and disconnect from technology.
BONUS, if you can get out and walk within the first hour or two that you are awake and let the sunlight in your eyes (leave those sunglasses at home), this will help to set your circadian rhythm and hormones. When the sunlight enters your eyes, it stimulates the retina’s photoreceptors, which enable the hypothalamus- the master gland of the body. The hypothalamus then sends signals to the pineal and pituitary glands, which helps us balance our circadian rhythms. In addition, there are many more physical and mental benefits of walking, such as the reduced risk of osteoporosis, reduced risk of colon and breast cancer, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, improved cardiovascular endurance, helps maintain weight (if this is your goal), improves sleep, improves digestion, and more. So now, let’s talk about some actionable steps to include walking into your routine.
First and foremost, you must take an honest look at your life, see your priorities, and ask yourself if you are one of those priorities. If you are not, why not? If you aren’t filling your cup, you won’t be able to fill other’s cups for very long before feeling burnt out, overworked and exhausted. Take the time to take care of yourself; you deserve it. Ok, now take an honest look at your life, see what you fill your days with, and note all the things that are a “must” in your day-to-day life. Then see how many things on that list are “mindless” or “numbing” activities. Be honest with yourself.
The next step is to set a goal. I am a big believer in setting small sustainable goals. If you start with an outlandish plan, you will likely throw in the towel. You want to set a small sustainable goal, meet that goal, feel successful, and then continue to larger goals. So, let’s say, for example, you don’t walk at all right now. I would suggest setting your goal to walk five minutes daily, twice a week. Yes, this is a small goal. But this will help you to establish the behavior of putting your shoes on and walking out the door to go for a walk. I bet that once you start, you may walk for more than five minutes. With the goal only being five minutes, you are more likely to do it. Building a habit is about establishing a behavior.
I followed the technique I learned from a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it. This technique is called “habit stacking.” James suggests that when trying to pick up a new habit, you do this new desired behavior right after an already established habit. That way, you are more likely to do it because the already established habit will be your cue to do your new desired behavior. Let’s stay on the walking theme for this example. Let’s say you are someone that makes coffee every day.
After you drink your coffee, then go for a five-minute walk.
Another tip he gives is to give yourself an immediate reward after you do your new desired behavior. If you think about it, some of the behaviors that have given us positive feedback at the moment, but in the long term, can hurt our health—for example, drinking alcohol. In the short term, you feel buzzed or maybe even drunk, your inhibitions are lowered, and you feel like you are having more fun. But the long-term consequence of that is not a positive one. Your sleep is negatively impacted; the next day, your energy is less due to the lack of sleep, your brain is negatively impacted, your organs are negatively impacted, your relationships/work may suffer, etc. Now let’s take going to the gym. The short-term benefits may not be as desirable, but long term is a huge benefit. At the gym, you may be out of breath, you may want to stop because it’s hard, and you may not enjoy everything you are doing, but in the long run, you are helping your body and mind in so many ways. You are strengthening your muscles and working on your heart health; it’s impacting your brain and increasing blood flow to your brain, endorphins. So having an immediate reward for yourself after doing something hard at the moment will help you keep returning to that. So, let’s go back to walking five minutes daily, twice a week. After those five minutes, reward yourself. It can be a big glass of ice water, listening to your favorite song, texting a friend, and telling them what you just did. It doesn’t need to be a HUGE reward, but simply recognizing your effort.
Remember that your health is one of the essential things in your life. If you don’t invest in your health, you’ll pay for it later. So take that five-minute walk today and start to prioritize yourself! You are worth it.