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Why walking is good for you

New research has pinpointed the exact ways that regular walking is good for your health. But no, that doesn't mean a leisurely stroll around the park

Walk more, walk hard.
Walk more, walk hard. (Unsplash/Chuttersnap)

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Walking is arguably the most popular form of exercise across the world, yet it draws a fair bit of flak from the “serious” fitness community. Most fitness coaches acknowledge the benefits of walking but, and there’s always a ‘but’, they argue that it is just a gateway activity to adopt proper forms of fitness routines. Finally, science has armed all the walkers of the world with evidence of just how beneficial the activity actually is. In a new study published in September’s issue of JAMA Neurology journal, researchers found that walking reduces the risk of death, dementia and diseases. The most significant finding, however, was that while walking is good, brisk walking is even better. “Steps performed at higher intensity resulted in stronger associations,” the researchers found.

Brisk walking is likely to be more beneficial since it helps to decrease blood pressure, bringing about better sugar control, and decreasing bad cholesterol, says Dr. Sanjay Kumar, director of cardiology at Fortis Escorts Hospital in Faridabad. “It is also helpful in reducing the extra fat in the body, hence it is more likely to have better outcomes for the management of heart health,” he says. 

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When we go on a brisk walk, we train our heart to get accustomed to situations of heightened exertion, where it needs to work a bit harder, says Dr. Nagendra Singh Chauhan, director of interventional cardiology at Medanta Hospital’s Heart Institute in Gurugram. “If you train your heart beforehand, it will be able to handle situations of overexertion better and you won’t face any problems. This can be done through power walking and not walking,” says Chauhan.

The researchers of the paper mentioned above, monitored over 78,000 individuals using fitness trackers for two years, and then conducted a follow-up on their health over a period of seven years. The cohort study concluded that “a higher number of steps was associated with lower risk of all-cause dementia. The findings suggest that a dose of just under 10,000 steps per day may be optimally associated with a lower risk of dementia. Steps performed at higher intensity resulted in stronger associations.” 

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The minimum number of steps to cut the risks, the study says, is 3,826, while the optimal number of daily steps to have the maximum benefit is 9,826 steps per day. The study also zeroed in on the ideal peak cadence for a 30-minute walk—112 steps per minute.  It also found that higher step counts may lower the risk of cardiovascular and cancer mortality and incident diabetes, particularly more intense steps.

Many coaches, like Delhi-based founder and celebrity trainer Gagan Arora, contend that it is not just about the quantity of your steps but their quality, that determine how much you stand to benefit. “There is a difference between striding across the office while talking on the phone, someone going on a brisk walk and someone running for the same amount of time. The person running is doing the most beneficial exercise followed by the brisk walker while striding across the office is the bare minimum movement that is required,” Arora says. 

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“Covering 10,000 steps a day, at a speed of about 5km per hour, five days a week, is what is recommended to achieve good health outcomes,” says Kumar. He recommends between 150 and 300 minutes of brisk walking per week as a moderate aerobic activity, coupled with some resistance training activity twice a week. This is particularly useful for those over 40, as the ideal exercise routine to maintain one’s health and fitness.

The one thing to watch out for while power or brisk walking is your heart rate. During the power walk, the heart rate should not spike too much. “In most people, the heart rate spikes during a power walk because they are unfit, living sedentary lives and consuming processed food,” says Chauhan. “It is only by training consistently does the heat become accustomed to the level of exertion and the heart stays stable. One should be able to power walk for 30 minutes without any huffing, puffing or breathlessness,” he says, adding that one should do a minimum of 30 minutes of power walking daily. “This will help in reducing the risk of death and disease. One should also supplement this with stretching, yoga and meditation. The joints should not become stiff.”

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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