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The Gentle Salvation of Walking

10up Exercise & Fitness

Americans love drama. It’s one of our national charms. We love loud movies, raunchy comedians, fast cars, even insanely spicy food. Whether these proclivities are good or bad is ultimately a matter of taste – but love or hate them, one must admit that the world without America would be a duller place.

There is one area, however, where I take issue with our penchant for extreme experience – the realm of exercise. As a physician, I am often struck by how many serious injuries Americans suffer in pursuit of fitness. I’ve seen many older patients who can scarcely move a limb without wincing from some long-ago injury suffered while working out.

There may seem to be many causes – lifting too-heavy weights, playing basketball/football with a too-young cohort, flat-out sprinting up steep mountainsides or breakneck skiing down them. But all can be distilled to just one basic problem: The motion is too violent – too dramatic, if you will – for the body to withstand.

So let me put in a vote for walking – the drama-free workout that works for a lifetime.

Putting in 45 brisk minutes a day is quite simply the best practice I can imagine for a lifetime of health. If you begin a daily walking program today, you can expect to enjoy:

  1. Longer life: A study of some 8,000 men published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over 12 years, walking two miles a day dropped the risk of death by nearly 50 percent. Walking seems to be particularly protective against cancer. The walkers cut their risk of death from cancer during the study period by about 65 percent.
  2. Lower weight. Several studies have shown that walking from 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day – roughly four to five miles – is highly effective as a means of weight loss.
  3. A better brain. The National Council on Aging found that walking 45 minutes daily at a rather brisk 16-minute mile pace significantly boosted cognitive performance in people over age 60. Another study found that walking 40 minutes three times weekly slowed the normal, age-related shrinkage of the hippocampus. This part of the brain consolidates short-term memory and is one of the first regions to be damaged in those who have Alzheimer’s disease.

While walking is indeed a gentle, safe exercise, it should not be effortless. To derive real benefit, you should be able to cover about three miles in forty-five minutes – a brisk pace. You should breathe more quickly and notice a slightly elevated heart rate, but still be able to easily carry on a conversation.

Speaking of conversing, one of the best things about walking, as opposed to solitary workouts in a gym or violent team sports, is that it lends itself to sociability. I highly recommend walking with a companion whenever possible – two-legged and four-legged versions both appreciate the exercise and company.

So, walk, and enjoy the gentle gifts it offers, which can seem even sweeter as we grow older. At this point in my life, I have most assuredly seen enough drama. Now, a long, scenic, convivial walk is one of life’s great pleasures, and one I plan on pursuing for many years to come.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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