Thankfully, we seem to be over the ‘go hard or go home’ mentality when it comes to exercise. Instead, there’s a movement towards what experts call ‘functional fitness’, which helps keep our bodies strong for everyday activities and embraces those we actually enjoy (and therefore do more regularly). In a world where we’re sat down more than is good for us, this is good news indeed – when the World Health Organization (WHO) cites physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for overall illness and early death worldwide, it would appear it’s high time to get off our backsides.
A mood-boosting ‘magic pill’?
“Human beings aren’t designed to simply sit around,” says fitness expert and celebrity trainer Matt Roberts. “A steady-state activity such as walking gently boosts circulation, which in turn increases the levels of adrenalin and endorphins in your system,” he continues. “Higher levels of these hormones boosts mood and energy, which is why you always feel better after a walk.”
Walking also significantly reduces your chances of heart disease, stroke, dementia, colon and breast cancer, and depression, according to NHS UK. What’s more, it’s been hailed a ‘magic pill’ by Dr James Brown, a senior lecturer in biology and biomedical science from the School of Health and Life Sciences at Aston University. He suggests that walking combats ageing and helps prevent early death, citing all the health benefits outlined above with a few more thrown in for good measure: “Walking…can cut arthritic pain by half, raise energy levels and reduce fatigue,” he told delegates at the British Science Festival in Birmingham. “All of these changes are not seen in people who run marathons; they are not seen in people who lift weights in the gym, or spend four hours running on the treadmill. They are seen in people who walk, and who walk for half an hour a day.”
For those with young families, a pleasantly surprising benefit of getting outside for a walk is that it can help young children develop long-distance vision, according to a Chinese study of almost 1,000 school-age children. Dr Mingguang-He of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou found participants who had one 40-minute lesson of outdoor activities every day had a significantly lower risk of developing myopia (nearsightedness) than classmates who had all their lessons inside (30.4% of the outside group had nearsightedness compared with 40% of the indoor group). Time spent outside appears to be beneficial because focusing on objects in the far distance helps strengthen the eye muscles.
Another study from the University of Essex showed that just five minutes of outdoor play (‘green exercise’) improves a child’s mental wellbeing and self-esteem – another good reason to turn off the tablets and shoo them outside, whatever the weather.
In a world where speed is of the essence, and a frantic pace of life the norm, walking can be a moving meditation for those who struggle with the more traditional form of this mind-calming technique.
“I struggle to meditate for even a couple of minutes,” says Louise Davies, 34, a teacher from north London. “I fidget, find my mind wanders and I usually give up after about five minutes, fretting about the time I’ve wasted trying to ‘relax’. Walking, on the other hand, clears my head like nothing else – I find I’m super-focused and often come back having mentally sifted through and sorted my biggest worries.”
Walking also gives us a chance to connect with others, according to slow movement pioneer Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow (£8.99, Orion). “It helps us foster a slower frame of mind, so that we become more aware of the people around us and able to meaningfully reconnect,” he says. In other words, have a chat as you meander around country lanes or through the park.
If you’re an early bird, a walk on a beautiful spring morning has myriad benefits, such as sparking creativity – watching the day burst into life and being within nature is a tonic all of its own, after all. And studies show that regular exercise such as walking combined with healthy eating habits will soon result in looser clothes and a trimmer waistline. Now if all that’s not worth pulling your walking boots on for, we don’t know what is.