by Emily Wheeler
Albert Einstein said: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” In our increasingly sedentary world, it’s easy to go through a whole day without much effort to move on your part. You walk to the bus stop to catch the bus that will take you as close to your class as possible. Then you take the escalator in the Student Store as a cut-through to get you to the pit instead of walking up the stairs that are just a few feet away outside. Then you take the elevator up to your lab room on the fourth floor. Then you repeat in the opposite order to get home, where you sit at the table and do your homework until you’re tired and decide to go to bed.
You may just think of walking as a necessary means to an end: a useful skill that can take you from one place to another. Sometimes, if those places are far apart, walking can even get pretty annoying. However, walking has many of the same health benefits as other forms of physical activity, so maybe it’s about time that we stop being lured into the easy, sedentary patterns of life simply by walking a bit more every day.
The American Heart Association guidelines for suggested physical activity tell us that we should be doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, five times per week, or we should do high-intensity exercise that brings the heart rate up to 70-85% of its max three times per week. In addition to this, it is also suggested that muscle-strengthening exercises are completed twice a week. It seems like a lot of people focus on the 70-85% maximum heart rate suggestion and translate that into “to achieve effective exercise, I need to do something that is going to get my heart beating pretty hard, such as running or playing soccer.” However, note that there is a clear alternative to this way of thinking written out in the suggested guidelines—moderate physical activity. If you’re training for a marathon, preparing for a VO2 max test, or practicing for an athletic competition, then high-intensity aerobic exercise might be the best route for you. But if you’re just trying to establish healthy patterns in your ever increasingly hectic life, activities as simple as brisk walking are excellent forms of moderate physical activity.
In some areas, walking is not an ideal method of transportation due to the landscape, safety issues, or large, impractical distances between locations. In these cases, you might have to allot some times specifically to going for a walk in a designated park, greenway, or even on a treadmill while you watch your favorite show or read a book. Think about how quickly the time goes by when you sit down to watch a 30 minute episode. You could be investing in your body simply by walking while you watch it.
In other areas, especially in Chapel Hill, there are walking areas and opportunities galore—you just have to be willing to take advantage of them! It’s a little sad to me that even though most of us wouldn’t go for a 10 mile walk to work every day (which is completely understandable because in both directions, that would take all day and leave you no time to work), most of us also won’t go for a ½-1 mile walk to class every day either! I understand that timing is an issue for many people because no one seems to have enough of it, but fitting short bursts of walking into your day as you go to places that you have to get to eventually anyway can be a lot more manageable than setting aside an hour to go to the gym some days. That walk from Hojo to Chapman Hall might take 20 minutes, even at a brisk clip, and there you are already, starting your day out with 2/3 of your minimum recommended physical activity.
Yesterday, I didn’t think I was going to have time to go to the gym and exercise, but then I started out my day at the School of Public Health (I did take the bus to get there so I’m counting it as my starting point), then walked to Dey Hall, then Phillips Hall, then to Bottom of Lenoir Hall to grab some lunch, then back up the giant hill to the School of Public Health, then to Chapman Hall, and then home. Just by looking up the distances between those places online, I figured out that I walked for a total of about an hour and a distance of about 2.5 miles. That’s actually a pretty good amount of moderate physical activity in my opinion and all I did was walk to where I needed to be all day!
Still not convinced that adding more walking into your day can improve your overall health? In 2011, a study showed that people who walked briskly for an average of 2.5 hours per week saw a 19% reduction in all-cause mortality and reduced risk of cardiac events, some cancers, (the greatest risk reduction was in breast cancer, with a risk reduction of 20-40% shown in those who exercised five days per week) high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, blood pressure, mental stress, and even erectile dysfunction. An article published on the Harvard Medical School website cites a meta-analysis of research on walking published between 1970 and 2007 to show that “Among 72, 488 female nurses, walking at least 3 hours a week was linked to a 35% lower risk of heart attack and cardiac death and a 34% lower risk of stroke.” The same article also noted that randomized clinical trials (often the most reliable type of research), showed that in 8,946 patients that already had heart disease but who walked for a minimum of 30 minutes, three times per week, the risk of dying from heart disease was reduced by 26%! This just shows what a powerful effect something as simple as walking can have on your health. The little choices really do have huge outcomes!
Overall, it seems that this simple form of exercise that most everyone already knows how to do can walk the walk (haha!) when it comes to improving our health. If you aren’t already determined to add more steps to your daily routine, consider the fact that walking can be done inside or out, requires no special equipment, and doesn’t even require any special clothing or shoes if you’re just walking at a gentle pace. In our busy days, many of us march back and forth from place to place all day and even reserve time to go to the gym sometimes, yet when was the last time you just decided to go for a walk just for the intrinsic enjoyment of it? So get a friend or your dog to join you, or even a friend with a dog to join you, and just go for a 30 minute walk together one evening. It’s a great way to catch up with people you don’t see very often, and it’s better for both of you than just sitting at home watching TV. Even if you’re just going out to eat together on the weekend, consider walking together instead of driving, and as you’ve probably heard a million times, choose the stairs instead of the elevator when you can. The benefits of walking correlate more to the time and the distance walked than the speed, so whether you exercise regularly or not, you can improve your overall health and reduce your risk for a variety of diseases starting with the first simple step.