22/03/2018 11:40 GMT | Updated 22/03/2018 11:40 GMT

Taking Part In Sport Relief’s Billion Steps Challenge? How Walking Is Improving Your Physical And Mental Health

Raising money and boosting your health? Sounds like a win-win to us.

If you’re currently pounding the pavement for Sport Relief, not only are you raising money and awareness for a great cause, you’re improving your physical and mental health.

According to the NHS, regular walking is proven to reduce your risk of a whole host of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. What’s more, it can also improve your mood and reduce your risk of depression. 

The good news is a lot of you are reaping the benefits already. The latest Sport England ‘Active Lives’ survey of almost 200,000 respondents, released on Thursday (22 March), shows walking remains the most popular physical activity. Around 18.6 million people regularly walk for leisure while 14.5 million people walk for travel. The latter saw an increase of 423,000 (0.7%) people on last year.  

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Walking is a cheap and easy way to get your body moving, says personal trainer Dom Thorpe. “Not only does it burn calories, primarily fat, helping you control your body weight, it also activates multiple muscles within your body to keep them functioning the way they were designed to,” he told HuffPost UK. 

These weight management benefits are largely why walking cuts the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, all of which become more likely if a person is overweight or obese. 

For walking to count towards your recommended level of physical activity, the NHS says you should walk at a pace that increases your breathing speed and heart rate. For this reason, Thorpe recommends hill walking or power walking to up the intensity. 

“This can also be a great way to strengthen your legs and glutes, and get your heart rate up to ensure that your veins and arteries remain free of congestion, limiting the chances of heart attacks and strokes,” he explained. “This is due to the higher pressure blood flow being pumped around your body, much like a plumber unclogging blocked drains with a high pressure hose.”

Thorpe says walking also engages your lungs as your body takes in more air, encouraging a gradual increase in the function of alvioli, the part of the lungs where oxygen is transferred to the bloodstream. “This process encourages a strengthening of the diaphragm too, the muscle responsible for inhalation and exhalation,” he says. 

All physical activity causes the body releases chemicals called endorphins, known to boost our happiness levels. But numerous studies have suggested walking in particular may alleviate symptoms of depression. Leading mental health charity Mind recommends trying to walk more for this reason, adding “being outdoors in nature can help lift your mood”.

You could even consider joining a local walking group to meet new people and find someone to talk to about mental health. The national initiative Mental Health Mates was created by journalist Bryony Gordon for this reason.  

Thankfully, you don’t need to walk for hours on end to experience these benefits. Earlier this year an investigation by BBC show ‘The Truth About Getting Fit’ uncovered the time consuming target of 10,000 steps many of us aim for is not the holy grail of fitness. 

“In the run up to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, a company came up with a device they called a ‘mampo-metre’, now that literally means a 10,000 step metre. That magical figure didn’t come as a result from rigorous scientific studies, but was the result of a clever marketing campaign,” presenter Michael Mosley explained in the show.  

Upon conducting an experiment, Mosley and his team found completing three 10-minute sessions of brisk walking per day (equalling around 3,000 steps), known as ‘Active 10’ was linked to more health benefits than walking 10,000 slower steps per day.