How going for a walk every day improves your mental health, boosts your social life and cuts your risk of chronic disease
Twenty years ago, Nancy Duguay stood at the side of a football pitch in the Canadian province of New Brunswick watching her 11-year-old son sprint back and forth—and wished she had a cigarette. Duguay, then 39 and a cardiac rehabilitation nurse, was trying to quit after smoking for more than half her life. She’d sneaked her first cigarettes from her parents’ packs as a teenager and hadn’t stopped since. With her hands empty as she waited for her son’s practice to end, the urge for a puff gnawed at her.
Behind the field, a heavily forested mountain stood guard. As a child, Duguay and her friends regularly hiked the mountain and picnicked on its peak. Then an idea struck her: walking instead of smoking. She told another parent that she would be back in time to pick up her son, and set off for the mountain.
Duguay has gone for a walk almost every day since that first walk up the mountain
Duguay, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and regular sneakers, climbed, her heart pounding. She stopped often to rest. When she arrived at the top, she took in the view. “I just felt so good,” she says. “My endorphins kicked in, and the craving was gone.”
Almost every day since, Duguay has gone for a walk—and the habit has changed her life. She quit smoking and her resting heart rate dropped from 80 to 60 beats per minute. The ritual has given her a lot more, as well: stress relief, mental-health management, community. “Now, there’s a psychological and physical need to do it,” she says. “I want to keep healthy and keep moving.”
It's good for your body
A growing body of research confirms what Duguay discovered: Walking confers enormous health benefits. According to medical authorities, walking for 150 minutes a week can reduce the risk of most major chronic diseases by 25 to 50 per cent.
In fact, light to moderate exercise has been found to be more effective than medication during rehabilitation after a stroke. And walking is as effective as taking drugs for prevention of diabetes and as a secondary treatment of cardiovascular disease.
In 2019, a Journal of Clinical Oncology study reported that a small amount of physical activity—such as taking a brisk walk for 20 minutes or more a day—is linked to a lower risk of seven types of cancer. Meanwhile, more walking means better sleep, too. In a recent study of middle-aged men and women, the participants who took more steps during the day slept better at night.
"Walking for 150 minutes a week can reduce the risk of most major chronic diseases"
One significant reason that walking is so good for us is fairly straightforward: when we move, our hearts work harder to transport blood to our working muscles and organs. That repeated effort strengthens the heart muscle, making it pump more efficiently at all times, sending blood around the body with fewer beats per minute. Exercise also improves the function of blood vessels, with one analysis reporting that aerobic exercise can improve our vascular health.
Walking helps build other muscles, too, especially in the lower body, and improves balance and strength. Physiotherapists like to say, “Motion is lotion.” When our bodies don’t move enough, they stiffen. Ligaments, tendons and muscles tighten when they’re not used, causing pain in joints. For back pain, especially, movement can help. When we walk, we activate the muscles that run along the spine, strengthening them.
Regular strolls can help ease joint pains
Hospitals have also begun to embrace the value of walking. At Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, older patients weren’t always encouraged to get up from bed because of the risk of falling. About ten years ago, that changed. Assisted by doctors, nurses, and volunteers, patients are now prompted to walk to the bathroom, explore the hallways and get out of bed to eat their meals.
Since that change, fewer patients require catheters and suffer pressure ulcers. On average, they spend less time in the hospital. “Every day that an older person is in bed, they lose five per cent of their physical functioning,” says Dr. Samir Sinha, Mount Sinai’s director of geriatrics. “So getting them up and walking can reduce the chance that Grandma might not be able to return home.”
It's good for your mind
Putting one foot in front of the other is equally beneficial for our mental health. For Duguay, walking helped her through some of the toughest periods in her life. When her mother died of cancer, Duguay turned to the mountain to walk through her pain. “I would cry all the way up the mountain,” she remembers. In this way, walking became her antidepressant.
According to a 2019 study led by researchers at Harvard University, people with a genetic risk for depression are less likely to struggle with the condition if they exercise—even if it’s light physical activity like walking.
"Walking became Duguay's antidepressant"
Walking also reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2019, the World Health Organization released new guidelines on dementia prevention, and its top recommendation was to get more exercise.
Although that link isn’t yet fully understood, experts believe there are a number of possible explanations: increased blood flow boosts the brain’s cell growth; physical activity stimulates certain hormones that may reduce brain-matter loss linked to cognitive function; and walking might reduce inflammation in the brain.
Walking offers mental health benefits
Meanwhile, one study from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, has shown that aerobic activity that incorporates intervals of higher-intensity exertion improves memory function. According to Dr. Jennifer Heisz, who worked on the research, walking promotes production of a protein, BDNF, that spurs growth of new brain cells. These cells help us create high-fidelity memories—“the type we need every day to locate our car in a busy parking lot and recognize a friend in a crowd,” she said.
It's good for your social life
Tim Button, a 56-year-old entrepreneur in the western Canadian city of Calgary, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2014. He underwent successful surgery but, less than two years later, he learned that his cancer was back, had spread, and was terminal. To keep as healthy as possible, Button started walking five kilometres a day. Before his diagnosis, he’d meet with business contacts and friends at coffee shops. Now he asks them to join him on a walk.
Every day over the last three years that his health has allowed, Button has gone for a walk, all the while expanding the range of his walking partners—he regularly strolls with strangers who contact him online seeking business advice, or people recently diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses.
Going for walks can be a great way to socialise
“I’ve discovered that not a lot of people go for walks,” says Button, who is still doing well in his fight against cancer. “And when they do, it opens up their mind to be a bit more honest about whatever challenge they would like to talk about.” On some walks, he says, conversation never slows. On others, little is said but much is shared.
Like Button, Nancy Duguay has incorporated her community in her daily walks. The more she walked, the more people around her saw the benefits and started doing it, too. Her husband, Roger, began to accompany her on hikes on their holidays. And about seven years after Duguay’s first walk up the mountain, her sister decided to try it. Now she, too, takes a walk every day, and they often go together. A small group of walkers has formed around them.
“We’ll meet people coming down and say, ‘This was a tough one today. It was really slippery, but boy, you know, it’s worth it’.”
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