Walking – the magic bullet to a longer life

Fitness for beginners

Back in the 1970s and the days of Jane Fonder, leotards and aerobic classes the emphasis was on no pain, no gain.

Today there is a different way of doing things, yet the health benefits can still be quite dramatic. Brisk walking most days for about 30 minutes can be extremely beneficial and you don’t even have to do it all at once. You can break the walk into 3 x 10 minute sessions and still get results. Of course vigorous exercise will take you to another level of fitness but for the overweight, beginners and older exercisers it’s really not necessary.

So, did the experts get it wrong, did they see people could not cope with such high intensity workouts and had to reluctantly draw in the reigns or as the science of exercise evolved and been able to provide an alternative with proven scientific results?

Well the answer is actually yes on both counts.

With obesity reaching epidemic proportions it goes without saying that health and government officials want to get people exercising without scaring them off. But research during the past decade has also shown that physical activity doesn’t need to be vigorous to be beneficial.

Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School believes that walking could be as close to a magic bullet as you will find in modern medicine. Brisk walking can help prevent obesity, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes and those that suffer a broader set of disorders-including breast cancer, depression, cognitive decline and sexual dysfunction – might also benefit from regular strolls around the park. If a pill offered all these benefits the public would be queuing outside every chemist shop.

The science all began back in the 1950’s when a study showed that London bus drivers suffered more heart attacks then the ticket collectors who were walking around the double-decker buses all day. It was then concluded that the longer and harder you exercised the more beneficial it would be.

In 1975 the American College of Sports Medicine issued the first exercise guidelines telling people to vigorously exercise as often as possible up to 70-90% of their maximum heart rate. For a 40 year old that’s about 160 beats a minute.

People have a natural aversion to exercise and this level of activity was just too much for most and 10 years on less than 20% of people met these standards.

But research had not stood still and evidence continued to prove that lower intensity still had great health benefits. Studies even showed that small chunks of exercise that added up to 30 minutes a day, spread throughout the day, had the same effect and this effect shown in many long term studies was to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression.

In 1995 the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and soon followed by the World Health Organization came up with a brand-new exercise plan: Accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week.

It appeared that length and consistency of exercise was more important than how hard you exercised and the real revolution in the field of physical activity was that you didn’t have to do it all at once, intermittent activity was as beneficial as long bouts of exercise.

Today the evidence is still coming. Gold-standard clinical trials are showing even more benefits from moderate exercise than expected, benefiting those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cognitive decline, breast and prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.

In 2001, a Harvard study of 39,000 women published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that as little as one hour of brisk walking a week might cut women’s risk of coronary heart disease in half. The sub title to this article was “Is ‘No Pain, No Gain’ Passé?”

The article’s subtitle summed up a new attitude in exercise science:

This attitude also plays a role in over-coming the psychology of exercising. Most people don’t like to exercise. Scientist can prescribe exercise routine that would make people incredibly fit and healthy but because of the sofa mentality that just wouldn’t do it. By recommending more moderate activity it appears more palatable to the sedentary individual and has more chance of getting that individual moving and it is these individuals that need the exercise most.

Things have change so much in the last 80 years. Then the typical commute to work meant a 2-mile walk, now it’s a 2-minute walk from the car to the office. As a matter of interest a 2-mile walk burns around 150 calories, the equivalent of 10 to 20 pounds of body weight each year.

Burning calories and helping control weight is one way walking helps a person improve their health. Other health benefits include:

  • Improving blood circulation
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improve blood cholesterol
  • Reducing inflammation and clotting related to strokes
  • Enhancing the body’s handling of glucose (good for diabetes control)
  • Alters hormone levels (which play a part in breast and prostate cancer)
  • Boosts bone mineral density (important in osteoporosis prevention)
  • Enhances the brain’s neurotransmitters (good for anything involving mood and creativity)

Some of these benefits happen quickly such as improved blood circulation others happen slowly, so slowly you will not appreciate them until you reach you twilight years and you see that you are more active and suffer less aches and pains than your friends.

Walking is such a natural form of exercise, after all we have been doing for 7 million years, that even if you are in your 80’s and have never been active you can still enjoy the health benefits walking can bring.

In one study 70-90 year olds who were at risk of disability were given a 5 day, 30 minute walking programme. After six months they were able to get out of their chairs more easily, walk faster and balance themselves better. Many old people are frightened of loosing their independence, walking could be the simple answer to prevent this.

So now you know how easy it is, now is the time to start. Walk whenever you can, buy a treadmill so that the weather can never be an excuse, walk to work if its only a mile or so or buy a dog, then you will have to walk. How you plan to do it is only limited by you creativity but the important thing is that you stop sitting down and start moving.

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