From Little League to the big leagues, from Pop Warner to the pros, when an athlete has a minor tweak or injury, or is frustrated or dejected, common advice is for them to “walk it off.” Says the website Writing Explained, the idea that the physical act of walking can be a tonic in alleviating minor physical or emotional pain has been go-to advice not just in athletics but in life in general, dating back to at least the 1800s. People also turn to this expression to remind someone that the subject of a complaint, whatever it might be, is not all that serious.
In dealing with today’s world of mega stresses, conflict and uncertainty, “walk it off” remains a piece of sound advice of which we need reminding. Walking is a good, low-impact way to stretch and relax the body, which helps to reduce pain, notes Writing Explained. It helps to reduce and distract from stressful moments. If a person is angry, it gives that person time to calm down. It may well be the single best thing you can do if you are looking for a pathway to a healthier life.
Dr. Mike Bohl is the director of Medical Content & Education at the telehealth company Ro and a member of its Medical Expert Board. In a post on Eat This, Not That, he points out that walking is a full-body activity. “You use your leg muscles (which are the largest muscles in the body), your core muscles (to stabilize your spine and keep your balance), your arm muscles (to swing your arms), and walking also increases your heart rate and your breathing rate (getting your heart to pump more and your diaphragm to move up and down more).”
“When walking over half our body’s muscle mass is engaged,” writes Jessica J. Lee, a health reporter for The Guardian. Says Barry Franklin, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, in an American Heart Association News report, “Walking does several things to improve health. It lowers your risk factors for cardiovascular disease, decreases body weight and fat stores, decreases blood sugar levels, modestly improves your lipid profile and reduces chronic stress.”
“Physical activity doesn’t need to be complicated,” a Mayo Clinic post reminds us. “Something as simple as a daily brisk walk can help you live a healthier life.” It doesn’t require access to a gym or fancy equipment, except maybe a good pair of shoes. “Taking that first step toward better health can be as easy as … taking a first step,” writes the American Heart Association’s Laura Williamson. “Literally. Just putting one foot in front of the other — as often as you can.”
“Walking five times a week for at least 30 minutes each time is fine, but so is walking for five, 10 or 15 minutes at a time as many times as it takes,” Franklin said to Williamson. “I tell patients they don’t have to put the dollar bill in the piggy bank all at one time,” Franklin says. The more often you get up and move, the better. “Just keep moving — as much as you can, at whatever pace you can manage without lightheadedness or other symptoms of overdoing it,” he adds.
For some people it may make sense to count steps, but for others it may be a big turnoff. Don’t let it stop you. “The last decade of research (has been) preoccupied with the rise of ‘10,000 steps a day’ challenges and the use of pedometers and activity trackers. What they tell us is that while all these tools urge us towards lofty step counts, there isn’t exactly a magic number to achieve,” says Lee. “The figure 10,000 was dreamed up as part of a 1960s pedometer marketing campaign in Japan, and a recent study indicates that half that amount can be beneficial, with a plateau in benefits after about 7,500 steps. The NHS (National Health Service) advises that just 10 minutes of brisk walking daily makes a difference.” Be mindful of the consequences of doing nothing.
“A study published last year in the American Heart Association journal Stroke found people with low levels of activity with eight or more hours of daily sedentary time had up to seven times higher risk of stroke than the more physically active people who reported less than four hours of sedentary time,” reports Williamson.
According to Healthline, a series of studies this year to promote exercise as a way to boost brain health has found that walking quickly as well as walking far can help lower the risk of dementia. The studies also suggest that people should focus on their walking pace rather than the distance walked or the number of steps per day, aiming for 112 steps per minute. “To find your steps per minute, count the number of steps in 10 seconds and then multiply by 6 to find your steps/per minute,” they advise.
“When it comes to healthy aging, exercise is about the closest thing we have to a miracle drug,” Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and the director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, tells Healthline. “The key is to get moving and stay moving.”
Dr. Bohl suggests beginning your walk “at your typical pace for several minutes, then speed up your steps for several minutes before returning to your regular speed. When you’re done, do it again! Think of this as a tamped-down high-intensity interval training workout.”
Whatever you do, it’s important to make the act of walking enjoyable. “Rather than just moving from A to B, think about your surroundings and the wider ramifications of your walk,” says Lee. “There is a growing swathe of research to back up the idea that being in nature improves not simply mental but physical health … researchers in 2005 found that while walking or jogging improved blood pressure and mental health, viewing pleasant rural and urban scenes while doing so had a better impact on wider health and self-esteem than exercising on its own.”
So just try to walk it off your way. Remind yourself, as the Mayo Clinic says, “you’re on the way to an important destination — better health.”