Hippocrates himself noted “walking is the best medicine”. Now over 2000 years later, modern science has demonstrated just how sage this advice was. From our first steps as a toddler to our last steps before infirmity, walking is the primary mechanism of traversing our day to day lives and maintaining our independence. Just how we make use of this ability has a fundamental impact on our health and wellbeing.
Research conducted at the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre – a partnership between Leicester’s Hospitals, the University of Leicester and Loughborough University – has demonstrated this through investigating the two main controllable elements to our walking behaviour; how fast we walk and how much we walk.
Imagine for moment you were a doctor that is allowed to ask their patient only one question about their overall health status. What would that question be? Do they smoke? Have they got a chronic disease? Well no. A better question would be “how fast is your routine walking pace?” Compared to slow walkers, fast walkers live up to 20 years longer and have a much lower risk of getting heart disease. This association remains true even after taking into account overall walking activity. Indeed, fast walkers that are overweight or obese have a longer life expectancy than slow walkers who have a normal body weight.
This is also true of the risk of developing severe COVID-19 within the community: the risk is highest in slow walkers regardless of their body size. This is because how fast we walk is a fundamental marker of our whole body health and resilience to fighting off infection and illness. Next time you have to walk for whatever reason, make sure it is done at a brisk pace.
As well as walking briskly, walking more also has a huge impact on our health.
Every additional 5minutes of walking activity, or 500 steps, that we can fit into our day will further lower the risk of premature death and of developing a chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes. The good news is that this recommendation is not limitless. Maximal benefits are seen at an average daily walking volume of around 7,500 to 10,000 steps per day. Further increasing walking activity beyond this amount will have only limited additional benefit, if any at all.
Walking, particularly outdoors in the countryside, has also been shown to have a myriad of mental health benefits, from reducing stress, boosting mood and improving self-esteem.
In summary, the best way of living a long and happy live is to fully embrace the gift of walking, by doing it more often, at a brisk pace and surrounded by nature, where you can.