“Sitting is the new smoking.” Have you heard that new term that has been somewhat of a buzz topic recently? It sure is startling, but it is somewhat true. In fact, Americans walk less than most other industrialized nations. We only average 5117 steps a day! Our sedentary lifestyles impact our health in great ways, however it is easy to incorporate more walking into your life gradually.
While most people know that regular physical activity is healthy for us, there are distinct physical, emotional, and financial benefits that can motivate one to create and execute a walking plan. Walking regularly improves heart health, including improving blood circulation and normalizing blood pressure. For patients with joint pain, osteoporosis, or osteoarthritis, walking can improve bone health by decreasing bone loss and bringing necessary nutrients to joints. A regular walking routine can also help tone muscles and help with weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight. Research has also shown that being active decreases the risk of some common diseases by 20-50%, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Many people can be motivated by financial gains instead of solely physical changes. Research done by the CDC in 2000 estimated that the benefits of regular physical activity could save the average American $330 a year in medical expenses. As one gets older, the fear of falling becomes more realistic. After a fall, there is a lot of money spent on surgeries, medical visits, and physical therapy to rehabilitate and it usually takes a huge toll on one’s confidence and quality of life afterwards. Research showed that walking regularly can improve strength and balance and therefore makes one 36-68% less likely to suffer from a hip fracture.
Finally, while more and more people are being diagnosed with depression and being prescribed increasing amounts of anti-depressants, regular physical activity can help with one’s mood. Individuals who exercise regularly are less stressed, are less likely to become depressed, and they sleep better. Regular exercise can also help improve mental cognition and memory. If you are walking with a group of people, it can add a sense of comradery and community. Finally, with the beautiful scenery that North Carolina offers, it is important to get some sunlight and enjoy nature. In 1982, Japan started a health program to encourage “forest bathing,” or spending time in nature. New research has confirmed that spending time in nature lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and depression, and promotes overall mental and physical well-being.
If one has a relatively sedentary lifestyle it can be daunting to start a new exercise regime, but remember that walking is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, and it is free! It is not required to buy special clothes nor equipment; it is only imperative to have comfortable shoes and to start slow. If leaving the house is too much at first, start walking around your house for just 5 minutes and add time as you can. You can also sneak walking into your daily schedule, such as parking farther away from your destination, walking around your office or house while on the phone, or window shopping at the mall. Once you are comfortable leaving your house, start on an even terrain around your neighborhood. As you feel like walking is getting easier, remember that research has shown that walking has similar health benefits to jogging or running. It isn’t necessary to run to get a good work out; you can challenge yourself with walking up steeper hills, on more difficult terrains and hiking trails, or bring small weights and pump your arms.
Need more motivation and accountability to reach your goals? Invite friends, neighbors, or family members to walk with you to make your walk more enjoyable. If you want to meet new people, join a local walking group that meets regularly so you can build your physical activity into your schedule. Those with stressful jobs may see their walking as special time for them to be alone. You can schedule regular walks to decompress after a long work day, and you can enjoy your surroundings or listen to music, an audiobook, or podcast while you walk. If you need more structure to reach your goals and challenge yourself, you can keep a track of your physical activity on a paper calendar, on your activity tracker watch, or in your phone/on your computer. Pedometers are very cost effective, and tracking either the distance (in steps or miles) or time (in minutes or hours) of your walk each day, you can compete against yourself and get visible satisfaction of your health improvements. Most people are always looking for the new diet, supplement, book, or piece of equipment that will improve their health but sometimes we just need a reminder of how easy and how beneficial a stroll in your neighborhood can be and how that small change can make a great impact on your life.