It’s no secret walking is great for your health, and for people with existing health issues, walking may also have advantages over other types of exercise, like running. “It’s much easier to do, and you’re less likely to injure yourself,” explains Dr. Orlena Kerek, a pediatrician turned health and weight-loss coach. When struggling with a health problem, you want the barrier to physical activity to be as low as possible.
As for how much you need to walk to get a benefit, some sources recommend 10,000 steps a day, while others suggest closer to 15,000, Kerek points out. But, some research proves positive effects are possible with as little as 12 minutes a day. While walking isn’t necessarily a substitute for medical treatment, it really can make a difference. Ahead, experts outline the top health issues walking can aid.
Osteoporosis is when you lose bone mass, and the condition can lead to a higher likelihood of fractures. Most people don’t think about osteoporosis until they’re older, but we start losing bone mass as early as our mid-30s. So, how does walking help? “We know that weight-bearing exercise helps to stimulate bone growth,” explains Jessica McManus, a physical therapist and owner of Full Circle Physical Therapy and Wellness Coaching. Since walking (especially brisk walking) is weight-bearing, it’s one of the top options for healthier bones.
To make walking even more effective for improving and reducing the risk of osteoporosis, McManus suggests:
- Picking up your pace: “Walking faster causes increased impact when your foot hits the ground, increasing the stimulation to your bones,” she explains.
- Looking for hills: “Walking up and down hills helps to increase the workload of muscles in our legs. When these muscles contract, they help bone health by putting compression through them.”
- Adding in strength moves: “While waiting to cross the street, mix in some strength exercises like air squats, lunges or modified pushups on a wall.” Mixing in some jumping jacks or hopping side-to-side can also increase the impact on your bones.
Sometimes confused with osteoporosis, osteoarthritis is a condition of the joints where the cartilage, which acts like a cushion between bones, wears down. Walking can help reduce the effects of osteoarthritis, says Kellen Scantlebury, PhD, a physical therapist and owner of Fit Club Physical Therapy. “It’s a great, low-intensity way to help produce synovial fluid at the joint level,” he explains. “This fluid acts like a lubricant for the joint, reducing friction and stress at the site of arthritis.”
TYPE 2 DIABETES
Exercise is well-established as a way to improve blood sugar control in people with Type 2 diabetes. “Type 2 diabetes is all about creating too much insulin and overworking your pancreas,” says Kerek. “Exercise lowers your insulin response to glucose.” And if you can decrease your insulin output, you’re less likely to get diabetes and more likely to see improvements in existing diabetes. In fact, research shows adding about 30 minutes of walking a day (or approximately 2,400 steps) can make a positive impact.
MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
“We cannot discount the mental health effect of walking, especially during the pandemic when we’ve been sitting inside for a significant amount of time,” says Scantlebury. Surveys have shown about 4-in-10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, up from about 1-in-10 pre-pandemic. “Just 12 minutes of walking a day has been associated with reduced incidence of depression (and increased creativity),” Scantlebury points out. So, if you’re feeling down, taking up a walking habit might be part of an effective treatment plan.
CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE AND HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Walking is one of the most reliable interventions for better heart health. One meta-analysis showed participants in outdoor walking groups demonstrated improvements in a range of areas including systolic and diastolic blood pressure, resting heart rate and total cholesterol. “This is despite the fact that the majority of the interventions (75%) were below international moderate activity guidelines,” notes McManus. Her point: Every little bit of walking counts, and if you walk enough to meet the American Heart Association’s recommendation of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like walking), improvements might be even larger than what was shown in the meta-analysis.
“Exercise is like a drug for Parkinson’s,” says Dr. Michael S. Okun, national medical advisor to the Parkinson’s Foundation and chair of neurology at UF Health. “It likely leads to the release of growth factors in the brain which seem to be helpful for Parkinson’s,” he explains. “Some people have compared these growth factors to Miracle Grow.” So what makes walking specifically a good choice for people with Parkinson’s? Any type of exercise will help, but consistency is key, and walking is cost-effective and relatively easy to take up, says Okun.
ACUTE LOW BACK PAIN
Low back pain can throw a wrench into plans to be active. Current evidence suggests active rest for low back pain that comes on suddenly, McManus says. “This means remain as active as possible, within reason. A great way to do this is to get out and walk for shorter bouts several times per day.” People who practice active rest tend to recover more quickly from acute low back pain and have better outcomes, McManus adds.
Developing a walking habit is a simple, effective strategy if you struggle to get a good night’s sleep, research shows. “It’s unclear exactly why, but it’s thought that it could be related to getting outdoors in the morning, which helps to reset the circadian rhythm,” McManus says. “It’s also thought that walking helps to reduce stress, which can lead to more sound sleep.” Again, you might not need to increase your step count by that much to notice a difference. A recent study found adding 2,000 steps a day could help you sleep better.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Walking isn’t just super accessible and convenient, but as shown above, it could also be extremely beneficial to existing health issues. Remember to consult your doctor before starting a strenuous walking plan, and consider the intensity and duration appropriate for you.
Make progress every day while you work on fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.