Imagine if you could live longer and be more creative by doing one simple thing every day – the same thing that the father of western medicine and a famous English poet believed to be the very foundation of good health. What could it be, you wonder? Well, it’s as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.
We have been walking for over a million years. It is what our bodies are designed to do. Hippocrates, the Greek physician and father of western medicine, espoused the many benefits of walking, declaring it to be man’s best medicine. With over a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments in one foot alone, humans are built to walk not sit.
Walking is one of the best ways to maintain your health and independence as you age. A Harvard professor of medicine is even quoted as saying, “Walking is the equivalent of popping a series of magic pills that can help keep you in good health.” If that isn’t enough to get you up off the couch, keep reading. A recent study presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress revealed that participants who walked briskly at least once a day for 25 minutes slowed down the aging process and added three to seven years to their life.
Walking has long been thought to spark creativity and can help improve your mood. When you walk outside in the fresh air with the sun on your face (and probably a smile), your feet fall into a rhythmic pace and your mind relaxes. William Wordsworth, the famous English poet, was said to have walked over 175 thousand miles in his lifetime. His poems were often set in nature as he contemplated life during his daily walks. Interestingly enough, he lived to be 80 years old when the average life expectancy in the mid-1800s was around 45.
So why is walking so darn good for you? Well, for starters, it means you’re not sitting. On average, Canadians spend over nine hours a day sitting, a sedentary habit which contributes to premature death. Walking gets your heart pumping faster, which circulates more blood and oxygen to the rest of your body, strengthening your cardiovascular system. Unlike more rigorous forms of exercise which can put undue pressure on your joints, walking is a great low-impact exercise for people of all ages.
Walking helps you build both muscle strength and endurance and can reduce body fat. Other significant benefits of walking include improved balance, stronger bones, lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of developing diabetes and even depression. It will even help you sleep better at night.
And let’s not forget that walking is free! All you need is a good pair of runners, which cost much less than a gym membership. Even in the harsh winter months you can move your daily walking routine indoors and join a mall walking club.
So if you want to age well, the bottom line is you better get moving (if you haven’t already). Staying active as you get older is a crucial component to healthy aging. It can also help preserve the one thing we all cherish – our independence. Being active can help you maintain what experts call functional mobility, which consists of movements of everyday living like bending, standing and even getting in and out of bed.
Jenna Houssin, a physiotherapist at the Victoria General Hospital, says that mobility can decline in older adults for a variety of reasons. “They may be afraid to walk due to a decrease in balance and coordination,” says Jenna. “This could be related to changes in gait (the way someone walks), loss of muscle strength, a decrease in flexibility and joint stiffness or pain.”
If a fear of falling or a mobility issue is keeping you from a daily walking regime, consider an assessment by a physiotherapist or talk to your healthcare provider. A physiotherapist can evaluate your gait, along with your balance and coordination , then prescribe a safe and effective therapy. Jenna explains that a physiotherapist “may recommend a walking aid to help increase stability and confidence when walking. They may prescribe stretches and exercises to improve flexibility, strength and endurance.”
Here are a few tips for beginners to get started at walking. (Consult your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program).
- Go slow and easy – begin with a short 10-minute walk every day for a week. When this becomes easy, add five minutes to your walk the following week and build your endurance in five-minute increments.
- Hold your head high, looking forward and not at the ground. This will help reduce the stress on your neck and keep you balanced.
- Relax your shoulders and breathe easy as your arms swing freely.
- Tighten your stomach muscles and keep your back straight. This will provide stabilization as you walk.
- Walk from heel to toe.
- If you’re walking in the evening, choose safe, well-lit paths.
You can also keep track of your progress with a pedometer to record your steps, or download a free walking app for your mobile phone.
So, happy walking everyone! If your body could talk it would say thank you.
Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.
*Consult your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program.