Born to walk – Improve your health in 15 minutes of less

September 1, 2015

Published in the Alive newsletter.


The benefits of walking are numerous … and surprising! So lace up your sneakers and leave your cares behind.

Crows calling, twigs snapping, our feet crunching on fallen leaves, the smell of crisp fall air and freshly mowed grass, the sounds of children giggling infuse our senses. Aren’t you glad you put your work aside and went for a walk?

Heed the call of your body

In our past, humans were hunter-gathers, and to walk was as natural as breathing. In fact, more than half of our muscles are designed for walking. Now, Statistics Canada reports that Canadian adults age 18 to 79 are inactive for 10 hours a day on average, leading sedentary lives of watching television, working at their office desk, and sitting in the car while commuting.

But walking daily is one of the best things we can do for ourselves to counter our inertia and get healthy. An activity for all ages, with a low dropout rate, it’s movement that has minimal risk of injury. It’s a perfect low-impact form of aerobic fitness for all ages, or as a starting point to getting fit for those who aren’t quite ready to hit the gym. Anyone can enjoy the many benefits of walking.

Benefits of hoofing it

Adults age 18 to 64 should get at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical exercise per week. According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, brisk walking can help reduce the risk of

  • premature death
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure

Walking daily reduces the danger of developing certain types of cancers, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. Walking leads to improved fitness, strength, and mental health such as improved morale and self-esteem.

The neuro-protection connection

According to Teresa Liu-Ambrose, associate professor at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute at the University of British Columbia, regular physical activity, such as walking, protects the brain’s cognitive health in two broad ways.

Liu-Ambrose explains that when you engage in physical activity, your body naturally produces what scientists call “neurotrophic factors.”

Brain nourishment

“These factors are akin to “brain vitamins” as they facilitate neuronal cell growth, differentiation, and survival,” Liu-Ambrose says. One class of these neurotrophic factors specifically promotes the growth and branching of blood vessels within the brain. “Given the brain is a highly metabolic organ (such that it needs a lot of oxygen and nutrients), maintaining a proper blood flow to the brain is critical for its health,” she says.

Health protection

Secondly, when it comes to brain health, regular physical activity reduces many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, that have negative consequences on your thinking abilities. “Even a 15-minute walk per day at moderate pace (still able to carry a conversation with a bit of effort) may decrease your risk of developing dementia plus reduce the amount of shrinkage that occurs in the brain over a 10-year span,” Liu-Ambrose states.

Stress reduction

Walking can also regulate how our body responds to psychological stress. “When we are stressed, we release cortisol, which over time, can be quite toxic for our brain,” Liu-Ambrose says. “Research has found that those individuals who engage in physical activity, such as walking, release less cortisol in response to stress compared with those who are less active.”

Memory improvement

Liu-Ambrose’s research has shown walking two times a week for 40 minutes at moderate pace not only improves memory performance but can also maintain the amount of volume in the hippocampus, a brain region critical for memory and highly vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Build walking into your day

Kelly Scott is a physical activity specialist in the Chronic Disease Prevention Program in Hamilton, Ontario. “People are really busy. Setting aside time for leisure walking can be challenging so you have to build it into your everyday life,” Scott advises. “This is the cumulative effect. It adds up to how people reach their goal of 30 to 60 minutes a day.” Bouts of 10 minutes or more of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week achieve this end.

If you build it, they will walk

“From a public health perspective, if we want people to walk more for those short trips, we need to design communities where walking is pleasurable and accessible,” Scott asserts.

A recent walkability study conducted in Toronto and Vancouver confirms Scott’s position: between 45 and 64 percent of residents in these cities who were surveyed online said they “strongly preferred living in walkable settings.” Six and 15 percent of residents said they strongly preferred living in auto-oriented communities. People who lived in highly walkable neighbourhoods reported they walked significantly more for utilitarian purposes, took public transit more frequently, and drove fewer kilometres.

Scott points out the many benefits of improving the walkability of our communities, including making people feel safer in their neighbourhoods, increasing civic engagement, and reducing infrastructure costs and congestion. But walkability can also improve our health in a variety of ways.

Category: Falls Prevention, Healthy Cognitive Aging, News

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