Updated: Sep 17, 2018
The tendency in the fitness world is to always think that more is better. More training volume, more intensity, more reps, or more time spent in the gym; whatever the particular metric is, greater numbers are generally thought to be superior. And to be honest, this is not an entirely bad mentality to have. It can drive people to achieve amazing things both in the gym and beyond, it can propel them towards greatness, it can be the catalyst for progress and the destroyer of procrastination, and it can truly elevate a human's level of performance and personal sense of accomplishment. But it can also and very easily be taken to a fault, because it most certainly is not always the best approach to take, and in fact quite the opposite can be true--the idea that "less is more" is not just a clever saying, it is an absolute fact in certain situations. My blog about workout intensity dives into this concept, demonstrating that higher volume is not always the best approach, and that restraint can sometimes be wiser. This blog will focus on a movement that very much goes along with this, one which perfectly demonstrates that less can absolutely be more, and shows that an activity does not need have a big impact in the moment to be able to render a powerful effect on the body. It is one of the most basic activities a human can engage in, one that we have been doing as a species for thousands and thousands of years to a great degree of success: walking.
If you have read my blog about the lifestyle factors that affect fat metabolism, then you are aware that our amount of overall daily activity can have a big impact on certain metabolic functions, and from that standpoint alone it should not be neglected; to me, walking definitely belongs in the category of "activity" rather than "exercise". To be sure, the effects go far beyond just a facilitation of fat loss, and include benefits that apply to almost every area of health and fitness. Walking can positively affect our psychological state, the health and efficiency of our brain, the integrity of our joints, the proper balance of our hormones.
And of course it keeps our metabolism functioning in a healthy way, while boosting our ability to mobilize our fat stores. The low intensity nature of the activity trains our oxidative (fat-burning) pathway moreso than other types of activity, no matter what a heart rate scale may indicate to you while you are training on an elliptical or a recumbent bike. Even without getting into the particulars, using very basic and almost invariably correct "primal logic", walking is something that we should be doing on a regular basis, because our primitive ancestors undoubtedly did a lot of it. Our bodies stopped physically evolving 10,000 years ago, so the patterns exhibited by those paleolithic humans so many generations ago are still the healthiest and most logical to partake in. But let's go beyond generalizations, and get into the specifics of it. The benefits of walking can be grouped into three main categories: psychological, restorative, and metabolic.
I. Psychological benefits
To me, these might be some of the most vital benefits that walking has to offer. At the present moment we unfortunately live in a very turbulent, contentious, and stress-laden society. The environment of now is one where tempers flare more precipitously, and ideological divisions seem to be widening and intensifying; the sad reality is that uncertainty, indignity, and even outrage have become a regular presence in the world around us. So if there is a very simple activity that can alleviate psychological stress and provide mental clarity, and can be done at almost anytime and almost anywhere, I think it is definitely worth taking a look at! Walking might not be a cure all for everything that ails us personally and it is not a magic remedy for the things that are causing us concern or disquietude--but it certainly go a long way, and here is how specifically:
1. Mood, Self-Esteem, and Stress
Physical activity in general has long been known to relieve stress and anxiety, partly through the release of endorphins which counteract stress hormones present in the body--such as that ever-obtrusive substance known as cortisol. Brisk walking in particular produces this effect, as it can rival the heart rate elevation (and other subsequent effects) experienced by other, more intense types of exercise. But several studies have shown that simply taking steps and walking at any pace can relieve stress and improve mood; they have demonstrated a direct numerical correlation between the amount of steps a person takes in any given day and how highly they rate their mood, self-esteem, and general level of happiness. One study in particular showed the powerful mood-altering effects of "walking meditation", where participants in one group were instructed to walk at low-intensity and match their steps to a basic one-two count, visualizing the numbers in their mind as they walked; this group actually experienced the same level of positive effects that are typically seen from brisk or intense walking (including the results from a group within the same study).
Walking in or around nature, particularly, has been shown to greatly eliminate rumination in the brain--the cycle of negative and regretful thoughts that can be a precursor to depression. An article in the New York Times cites a study that analyzes a specific area of the brain, the subgenual prefrontal cortex, that becomes particularly active when we engage in this type of thinking. It was observed to have less blood flow and activity in the brains of people who had taken a walk in a natural setting, providing direct and physical proof of the positive effect that a little "nature time" can have on our brains.
In the same way that a good walk can improve one's mood, it can have similar effects on intellectual/cognitive function; mental and psychological clutter are rarely exclusive of each other, so it is not a surprise that walking can positively impact both at the same time. The idea of taking a walk to clear one's head or to stimulate creative thinking is certainly not new. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was known for his walking meetings, a practice that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has also adopted. In both cases this could simply be an example of an attempt to disregard orthodox practices and create a unique company culture, or it could be more informed; regardless, it may very well be a smart idea, and there is significant evidence to back it up.
A Stanford study demonstrated quantifiably that the act of walking improved creative capacity, measured by performance on a divergent thinking test, which requires a subject to generate multiple solutions to a problem or question. And unlike the nature-specific effects that walking has on rumination and negative thoughts, it was shown that the environment did not matter, and that walking on a treadmill had the same general effects as walking outdoors.
3. Cognitive function
The brain is a very vampiric organ; it needs a constant supply of blood, and a deficiency in this can cause serious problems both in the short term but particularly in the long term. Without delivery of blood, the brain does not get properly oxygenated, which can lead to cognitive decline, diseases like Alzheimer's, and even in more extreme cases, stroke. So not suprisingly, activities like walking which stimulate blood flow in the body have been shown to create the opposite effect, halting this decline and even showing improvement in groups that suffer from vascular cognitive impairment, a disorder that causes insufficient amounts of blood to be delivered to the brain. And increased blood flow does more than just prevent ill effects to our cerebral matter, it also has a reciprocal positive effect--it actually promotes growth factors in the brain that enhance neural function and improve connectivity within our grey matter.
In regards to stimulating this process of delivering blood and subsequent oxygen to the brain, not all activities are equal. It has been scientifically proven that the impact of the foot has a different effect on blood flow than other forms of cardio activity ; when we strike the foot to the ground during a walking stride, it sends pressure waves through our arterties that significantly modify and increase the supply of blood to the brain. This is pretty remarkable, and it sets walking (and running) apart from other activities that elevate the heart rate but do not involve this act of foot striking.
II. Restorative benefits
This section should serve as a call to action for any of you who regularly engage in high-intensity, physically stressful activities such as Crossfit, standard strength training, or anything in the gym that requires recovery time and a some type of train split. If it requires recovery days, it is clearly generating some kind of stressful and adaptive response in the body, which can only be further aided by an activity that facilitates recovery and muscle health. That is of course not to say that these benefits of walking only apply to those who are regularly attempting to destroy themselves in the gym, but I think it's worth highlighting this group, because it is this very same crowd who would probably be the least likely to partake in an activity as low intensity as walking.
The reality is that people who gravitate towards walking are most likely already engaging in other types of low-intensity activity (and might benefit from reading my functional fitness blog), so in reality they could probably afford to skip it occasionally because they may very well be getting these benefits elsewhere. For those who have the more aggressive mentality in the gym and tend to exclude all but high levels of intensity, they might not be able to recall in recent memory the last time they went for a walk outside of an incidental stroll. I'm sure that Crossfitters and those of similar ilks do walk, but I would guess it is in more of a point A-to-B capacity, in the interest of approaching the squat rack or gathering weights for a WOD. Here are a couple of the specific reasons why walking should be an intentional part of a fitness and health regimen:
1. Muscle recovery and health
In the same way that stepping and walking helps to increase the supply of blood to the brain, it has the same beneficial impact on the muscles; better circulation and greater amounts of blood moving throughout the body translates to better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Walking is unique in its ability to deliver the ideal amount of restorative effects to our musculature, because it contains the specific positive reaction created by the striking of the foot, but it is considerably lower impact and less stressful than running or even jogging. It also stimulates the lymphatic system, which clears waste out of the muscles--particularly the legs and feet in the case of lower body focused movement--and can further facilitate muscle regeneration and health. Walking is starting to look like the perfect recovery system.
2. Joint health
Movement in general is great for the joints, as it stimulates the production of synovial fluid; this fluid is vital for delivering nutrients to joint cartilage, as most of them get little to no direct blood flow. And not suprisingly, movement that involves impact or compression is particular good for stimulating production of synovial fluid, so yet again walking stands apart from other activities in its ability to deliver the benefits of movement impact without actual movement stress.
The Arthritis Foundation (along with a multitude of other sources) recommends walking as a way of improving arthritic symptoms. Arthritis is a condition that most commonly involves the deterioration of protective joint cartilage, and anyone who has experienced it knows how debilitating the pain can be. While walking cannot reverse this process and restore cartilage back to the joints, it can manage the symptoms through the increased production of synovial fluid. I would speculate that if it can have such a positive effect on those who have already digressed into actual arthritis, regular walking can most likely prevent the condition from ever occurring in the first place; testing the preventative ability of an activity is almost impossible, but it makes perfect sense to me.
Walking has also been shown to promote better sleep, sitting at about the middle of the pack when ranked against other activities. It was superior to almost all sports and calisthenics exercises, but it did rank lower than running, cycling, and swimming in its ability to improve quality of sleep. However given that running is the only other activity on this list that involves striking the feet (and all the accompanying effects), I feel that walking is still the clear winner here.
III. Metabolic benefits
This might be the most interesting of the three, both because it has some of the sneakiest benefits that walking has to offer, and of course because it involves the increased metabolism of fat--which has automatic and built-in appeal to it. Walking challenges the idea that cardio activity should be centered around caloric burn, and instead presents its benefits in a more subtle, internal, not immediately noticeable way. It really tests out the concept of less being more, but if you are patient enough to allow for this, it can pay off some great fitness dividends. For so many people, cardio exercise is unfortunately synonymous with in-the-moment caloric burn, putting the focus entirely on how many fractions of pounds can be shed during the activity itself, how much sweat can be produced, and how much of an affect a person can render on their bodies while the actual workout is happening.
This is of course the wrong way to calculate the weight (no pun intended) and importance of the activity, but fitness beliefs and opinions are usually not formed in a scientific or data-driven sense. They are instead formed in an emotional sense and dictated by what feels "right"--like the burn in your glutes during a leg lift, which seems like it's going to translate to muscle tone but never actually does. In this way it just seems more logical that if calorie burn (and subsequent fat loss) is the goal of an activity, then the amount of them burned during the activity should be the ultimate measure of the value of it. So walking just might not seem like a great option for people, because there is nothing very tangible that you can point to that would indicate what exactly it's doingthe effects can go much deeper than either of these superficial and temporal measures, and ultimately propel our fat metabolism and weight loss on a much deeper and more effective level.
1. Fat metabolism
Walking (and all forms of lower intensity cardio activity), operate primarily in the oxidative metabolic pathway, also known as the "fat-burning" pathway. While most people tend to focus on the effects this may have during the activity itself, counting the calories burned during fasted cardio for example, this is not where the true benefits lie. The fact of the matter is, the body is an adaptive mechanism, reacting quite adeptly to whatever stimuli we present to it. So the more often we train it to operate in this oxidative pathway, the more proficient it will become at this. The calories burned on a walk, even a prolonged one, cannot even begin to compare to the amount of energy we expend throughout the day; so what becomes of extreme importance is how our body chooses to go about this, and walking is one way to make sure that it goes about it the preferred way.
2. Hormone production
As I have covered in my BLOG, so much of our success or failure with fat loss revolves around the balance of hormones in our body, and literally any little thing we can do to improve and restore this balance is a positive thing. Two of the biggest culprits that cause a hinderance to our ability to shed body fat are cortisol and insulin, borderline destructive hormones that run rampant through the system and cause all sorts of metabolic problems. The good news though, is that yet again we can count on walking to play the metabolic hero in two very important ways. It has been demonstrated to lower levels of cortisol--which should not be surprising if you read the previous sections about its effects on mood and stress--and allow the body to properly access its long-term energy stores and engage in the catabolism of our fat reserves.
Additionally, walking has been shown to improve the body's ability to use insulin and to lower blood glucose levels. Insulin is oftentimes villified, and with good reason considering its propensity for wreaking hormonal havoc and causing an array of metabolic disorders and diseases, but the fact of the matter is that it serves a very vital purpose and is highly beneficial when it is produced and utilized in the proper ways. Walking has a direct effect on this, restoring proper balance to the innately healthy relationship between blood sugar and insulin.
So hopefully at least a few of these stood out to you and sounded like something you are personally in need of, or perhaps they all did. I know I could personally stand to benefit from literally every single positive effect that walking offers the brain and body, and hopefully I made a compelling enough case for you to at least consider including it into your weekly routine. There is literally nothing to be lost by doing it other than time, and I would expect that for most people there is PLENTY of time that they could be sacrificing in exchange for it; time away from the television, mindlessly scrolling through social media platforms, online shopping, even other forms of exercise that we don't actually need to be doing as much as we do. Even the most industrious of have time-wasters in our life, or at the very least things we do that are not the most productive or positive options--we should all challenge ourselves to take two hours of this time per week and immediately start channeling it into something that can enhance the power of our brain, the health of our bodies, the level of our mood and self-esteem, and that requires such a minimal amount of effort and preparation. If you need to think about how you'll go about this, take a walk and it will probably come to you.