Raj Kundhi, Senior Physiologist and Associate Registered Nutritionist at AXA Health

Health benefits of walking

27 January 2021

Tree hugger

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Walking is one of the most underrated forms of physical activity. It has numerous health benefits for both our mind and body, requires no equipment other than a sturdy pair of shoes, and best of all it's free! 

It also allows us to get those recommended steps in without taking part in any gruelling workouts or high-intensity classes that might not be for you. Whether it’s walking the dog, with friends around the local area or with a family member somewhere further afield, walking helps contribute to a healthier you, your way. 

In this article, we've rounded up some of our most frequently asked questions about walking and why it's so good for us, answered by our expert team.

How much exercise should I be getting a week?

As a guide, the NHS suggests that we do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. For example, this could be brisk walking (walking at a pace that gets your heart beating faster, but you can still hold a conversation) for 30 minutes, 5 days a week. Or you can even break it up into shorter bursts of 10 minutes, if that works better for you.

What physical benefits might I see from regular walking?

Walking regularly is shown to have numerous benefits to our overall physical health. It can help to reduce our risk of several conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. Additionally, if we are in a calorie deficit regular walking can help with weight loss. 

Walking is also a great way to help develop and maintain our muscle mass and strength in our lower body. This is particularly important as we age as it can help to reduce the risk of falls. 

What are the mental health benefits of regular walking?

There’s good evidence that walking can improve symptoms of depression and low mood. In fact, researchers have found that walking more than two times a week, for over 30 mins each time over ten weeks has real benefits for mental health.1

Exercise in general reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.2

Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health, says that physical activity can help develop resilience, improve low moods and boost self-esteem. And walking is a great way to start.

“When you’re active, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which are known to improve your mood. It also reduces harmful changes in the brain caused by stress and can help us to see possibilities, instead of feeling defeated. In other words, it can help us get some perspective on life’s problems!”

Is brisk walking better than jogging?

Jogging results in heavier breathing, and harder work for your muscles, so is considered a more vigorous exercise, compared to brisk walking. Whether you choose to walk or jog mostly comes down to your personal preference and level of ability; it’s about finding what works best for you.

Starting daily jogs if you’re fairly inactive will place a lot of strain through your muscles, which may cause tightness in the lower body and potentially stiffness in joints. Like any exercise, it’s always best to build up gradually, making sure your body is adapting well to the increases in activity.

Some people simply don’t enjoy jogging and would rather go for a brisk walk. So it’s important to choose what works for you and what you’re more likely to stick to in the long-term.

Does it matter where I walk? Is walking uphill better for my muscles?

Different terrains will work different muscles. Uneven terrain, such as sand and rocky ground, will work your ankle muscles, while walking up hills will work your calf muscles more, and generally more challenging from a cardiovascular aspect.

I’m not very active, is there anything I should be aware of before I start walking a little more?

When you take on any new activity, especially if you haven’t been active for a while, you’ll not only be making your muscles work harder, you’re putting extra stress on your heart and lungs, making them work harder too. 

With this in mind, it’s better to start slowly and gradually work your way up to moderate exercise. This may be a case of starting on a simple flat route, then gradually increasing the distance, picking up the pace, add in some hills on your walk, or simply increasing the time you’re out.

Keep an eye on your breathing. If you’re struggling to walk and talk, you’re probably working too hard! With brisk walking, you’ll be breathing heavier, but you should still be able to speak full sentences.

After any activity, in order to avoid the dreaded muscle soreness the next day, you can do some simple stretches for your calf, thighs, and hamstrings, which you can do when you get home.

If I miss a day walking, can I make up for it by doing an hour the next day, as long as I meet the 150 mins a week quota?

Yes, don’t worry! The name of the game is really to get those 150 recommend minutes spread out across the week. So if you are not able to do much on one day, you can try to do extra the next day (as long as it’s not too challenging), or incorporate a few extra minutes here and there throughout your week. 

If you make walking more of a habit rather than being a chore, building it into your daily routine, it should be easier to achieve.

Doing 30 mins of walking is tricky for me – will I benefit from 20 mins a day – is something better than nothing?

We should aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity across a week. If it’s difficult for you at first, try setting yourself some realistic targets and then gradually increase the time you can do. 

Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do 30 minutes of brisk walking a day. If you can only manage 20 mins a day, then it’s certainly better than nothing at all, and very much worth it. You might even be doing other activities already, without realising they count (such as gardening, housework or running around after children).

The muscles in my feet feel a bit uncomfortable when I’ve been out walking but I wear trainers when I do it. Have you got any tips?

There could be a number of reasons why you might feel some pain after walking, these could include:

You might not be used to walking that far or that fast – you need to allow some time for body to adjust. A good way to deal with some post-walk pains in your feet is to make sure you stretch! It’s not just the sole of the foot that needs a stretch, make sure the calf muscles are stretched too, as they can also play a role in causing stiffness and pain in the feet. Another good way to work out some of the tightness and aches in your foot is to roll a golf ball or tennis ball under your feet.

Are you wearing the correct shoes? – ensure you have shoes that are right for your feet and your intended use. Consider what terrain you will be walking on, as this will impact the type of shoe you need e.g. road vs uneven surfaces. 

It’s also important to check that the shoes you buy have appropriate cushioning and support for your feet. It’s good to try on a couple of pairs, as some shoes will naturally feel more comfortable than others depending on your foot type and structure.  

Are your shoes worn out? – looking at the tread of the shoes can give a good indication of how much ‘life’ is left in them. If you walk often then think about replacing them every couple of months. It’s important to replace and get shoes that fit properly than pick up a small injury that stops you from going out walking entirely.

Ironically, brand new shoes can also cause pain, because your feet may not have had time to adapt. To help avoid this, it’s best to wear the shoes in before hitting serious miles in them. Wear them around the house for a few minutes each time, increasing the duration until they’re comfortable enough to wear outside.

It’s all about finding what works for you, from the pace in which you walk, to the route you take, the shoes you wear and whether you do it alone or with others. Incorporating it into our routine means both our physical and mental health is getting a boost and if we enjoy doing it then we’re more likely to want to keep it up.

Related articles

Exercise and mental health benefits | AXA Health

The mental health benefits of spending time in nature | AXA Health

1. Primary source: Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis (Robertson and Maxwell 2012)

2. Exercising to relax – Havard Health Publishing 

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