Do You Even Walk, Bro?

Centipede in Sneakers
Now THIS guy can do some real walking!

“What should I do on my off days?”

It’s a question I get quite often from athletes and clients.

It doesn’t matter if the training program is for athletic development or fat loss/physique improvement, everyone has to have some off days.

Recovery is important. But so is the feeling of making progress and staying on track.

I get it. Completely.

It’s why the response to that question heard from me most often is probably “go for a walk.”

Yes, walking.

It’s low impact, completely natural and has more health benefits than you might imagine.

In all 4 Pillars of Human Fitness, walking moves the needle very effectively. Let’s take a look.

Physical Pillar

Cardiovascular Benefits –

Harvard Medical School performed studies which showed that 20 minutes of brisk walking a day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular ailments by 30%. They indicated that regular walking could save Americans billions in health care costs each year.

The Stroke Association has research indicating that 30 minutes a day of walking can reduce stroke risk by 27%

A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Society called “Physical activity and coronary heart disease in women: is “no pain, no gain” passé?” showed correlations between time spent walking and reduced risk of heart disease among middle-aged women. For those walking more than 2 hours a week, their risk of CVD was less than half that of women who did no walking.

Cancer Fighting Benefits –

Kind of a big deal, no? A Harvard University Women’s Health Study in 2012 found that walking for 2-3 hours a week reduces the risk of dying from uterine and breast cancer by 19%. Get 4 hours a week of walking in and that jumps to a whopping 54%!

Joint health –

Walking helps keep the knees, ankles and hips lubricated with synovial fluid. This can help stave off arthritis if walking is employed early in life or reduce the frequency and intensity of experience for people already suffering.

Boost immunity –

A study of over 1,000 men and women determined that 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week resulted in 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. If they did get sick, duration and symptom intensity were reduced.

Sleep quality –

Sleep quality is enhanced in those who exercise, and walking doesn’t miss this benefit. Deeper sleep, reductions in snoring and sleep apnea and more energy on waking are all reported sleep-related benefits of regular walking.

Balance –

Especially in those who walk “off-road.” A variety of surfaces forces the body to deal with variable proprioceptive stimuli and create proper motor control programs to manage them.

Physique benefits –

Helps “tone” (ugh, I really don’t like that word!) the butt and thighs. Brisk walking requires significant activity in the hips, butt and thighs. Glutes, quads and hamstrings get busy in a hurry.

Variable terrain walking can improve core strength, activation and recruitment. Walking “off-road” means a variety of surfaces. You’ll spend more time on one foot dealing with terrain variations and your muscles will need to make frequent adjustments.

Walking spares the type 2 muscle fibers. This means your hard-earned gains remain intact while you develop a better aerobic base.

Let’s go for a walk, bro!

Walking actually counteracts the effects of weight promoting genes. Harvard researchers looked at 32 obesity-producing genes in over 12,000 people to see how much they actually contribute to body weight. Those people who walked briskly for an hour a day had the effects cut in half.

For athletes –

Causes an endorphin release, which reduces pain, including DOMS.

Increases blood flow, speeding the training recovery process.

Can counteract the muscle stiffening effects of sitting after workouts.

May have a spinal flossing effect which helps nerves align correctly, improving nerve impulse flow. Spinal flossing is a process which allows nerves to be mobilized so neural energy flows normally. Often accomplished with complex exercises and procedures, walking assists this process naturally.

Walking spares the type 2 muscle fibers. This means your hard-earned gains remain intact while you develop a better aerobic base.

Walking builds work capacity. Loaded carries employ walking as a base.

Mental Pillar

Brain/Mind benefits –

Walking helps to boost memory. Adults who can’t walk very long (6 minutes or more) tend to have less grey matter than those who can. In an American Association for the Advancement of Science study in 2014, it was concluded that brisk walking 3-4 times a week can augment the parts of the brain connected to memory and planning.

In a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was shown that 3 40 minute walks a week could increase the volume of the hippocampus by 2%. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s amazing with relation to brain volume and metabolism in adults. Since the hippocampus is involved in conversion of short-term memory to long-term, 2% sounds like a pretty good advantage to me.

Walking helps improve reasoning and intellectual performance among children and teens. If this isn’t a good reason for student-athletes to include walking in their training programs, I’m not sure what is.

Walking improves the quality of action in the prefrontal cortex. Walking is a cross-median activity that connects the right and left side of the body in a cross-rotational pattern. The prefrontal cortex manages this connection between the right and left brain and ensures that everything flows like it should. As a result, the PFC improves, too.

Walking helps clear your mind. A good walk can help you organize your thoughts, solve problems or even just clear your head. It’s really up to you.

Emotional Pillar

Feel better! Walking releases endorphins (as mentioned above.) These lead you to an overall feeling of well-being. They contribute to reduced feelings of apprehension and worry.

Walking can help curb stress eating. This one is in the emotional pillar because stress eating is often part of a self-destructive stress response cycle. Walking helps keep cortisol levels in check. Curbing stress eating will also require some mindfulness, good sleep and some healthy eating habits!

Participants in an observational study were asked to rate their mood, energy levels and to report on their nutrition choices, and then to report the number of steps taken that day. Steps were measured by a pedometer carried by the participants. Those reporting step counts over 10,000 per day reported the lowest incidences of feeling depressed, had the highest self-reported self-esteem and made better food choices than those walking fewer than 5,000 steps per day. This study was observational in nature, but still points to walking more as a boon to emotional and mental health.

Outdoor walking has been shown to increase feelings of well-being, connectedness and happiness. Fresh air and the sensation of being free from your four walls can make all the difference in the world. In a 2015 Stanford University study, 38 healthy city dwellers were given self-tests to determine how much they engaged in morbid rumination, or broodiness.

They were then divided into 2 groups. Each group was asked to walk for 90 minutes, one through a green, quiet, park-like section of Palo Alto, the other along a busy, loud, hectic highway. No music and no companions.

After finishing, blood flow was tested to an area of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, also called Brodmann’s Area 25 (BA25.) This area of the brain is believed to be involved with mood and anxiety via a connection to the amygdala and insula, with memory formation via involvement with the hippocampus and with self-esteem via a relationship to the frontal cortex.

So increased blood flow would mean more activity in these areas (more broodiness.) Reduced blood flow would mean less brooding, more inner peace. Both groups were given a questionnaire about their feelings and mental state and blood flow to BA25 was measured. You guessed it! In the highway walkers, blood flow was increased, in the park walkers, it was reduced. Conclusion: walking outdoors in a natural setting has a positive affect on mental health, at least as measured by the “broodiness” scale and blood flow to BA25.

Spiritual Pillar

We as humans have a long, rich tradition of walking meditation. The connection to the ground and the deep-rooted sensation of moving across the earth under our own power while being connected to her is part of our spiritual DNA.

Native Americans, Christian monastics, Buddhist monks, Islamic Sufis, ancient Druidic priests, Hindu priests and Taoist monks all have made and make walking a part of their deeply grounded and personal spiritual path. Pilgrimages are a part of virtually every spiritual tradition. In the case of both walking meditation and pilgrimages, the experience of the journey is more important than the completion. Being present to all the sights, sounds, people, challenges and sensations is what delivers the lessons of the journey and fills the soul.

Walking reminds us to take life one step at a time. The very reality that we can’t go anywhere without putting one foot in front of the other grounds us to an immutable fact. The permanence and security of this truth opens our soul to others.

Walking outdoors lets us understand that the world is not necessarily about us and that there is a greater force at work in nature than we can understand.

Some ideas for walking.

  1. Walk outdoors whenever possible. First of all, treadmill walking is not real walking. Walking outdoors is propulsion, which requires hip extension, core control and the ability to produce force to move along a horizontal surface. Treadmills force us to keep up with a moving ground. The action of the hamstrings, low back muscles and hip flexors is exaggerated. This can lead to poor posture, deteriorating movement patterns, tight hamstrings and hip flexors and even back pain.
  2. Think about getting “off-road.” Walking in the grass, on trails or on the beach provides an unpredictable variety of surface angles, density and other factors that make each step more challenging.
  3. If you must walk on roads, skip the sidewalk (where safely possible) and forget the straight lines. Many American streets are crowned, meaning they have a high point in the middle. So if you’re walking on one side of the road, you’re always leaning one way. Rough on the calves, hips and back. Try walking back and forth across the road. I use a 10-10-10 pattern sometimes. Makes the neighbors look at me funny, but it works. 10 steps in one side of the road, 10 steps to cross on an angle, 10 on the other side of the road, repeat. Don’t do this in the city, obviously.
  4. Add some intervals. This may be a bit advanced, but feel free to add some squats, push-ups or other activity to your walks. Maybe 10 squats every 1,000 steps. Have fun with it.

The bottom line is this. For otherwise healthy people, walking is the most bio-available form of exercise imaginable. Everyone who is ambulatory can do it, at some level.

When you add that to all the other benefits listed above, the answer is clear. Ya gotta get to steppin’!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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