Monday, November 1, 2010

Why walking is world's best exercise

After the first 30 km of my 120-km fundraising walk, Catherine Whitnall, feature writer for Kawartha Lakes This Week, took this photo. I doubt I looked quite this fresh after the full 120 km.

Walking is the world’s best excise. It offers the most benefits and advantages. Improved physical, mental and emotional health are the big benefits. As for advantages, for most people walking is the easiest, most popular and most enjoyable exercise; it costs little and the risk of injury is very low. Fresh air, sunshine, and the tranquility and inspiration of outdoor nature can add more great benefits. Solitary walking affords particular benefits for deep thinking, communing with nature, or just getting better acquainted with yourself. Walking with a mate, a friend or a group can strengthen relationships and provide other social benefits. 
     For best results, fitness experts recommend brisk walking. That is generally considered walking at a pace of 3.5 miles per hour (5.6 km per hour), which makes it an aerobic exercise. But that’s a faster pace than many—including me— can maintain for any considerable distance. Endurance is thought to be more important than speed. Walking at as brisk a pace as you can sustain will give you all the benefits that walking can provide, whether that is a little more or less than 3.5 mph.
     We’ll look at all these factors, and in the “bottom line,” I’ll tell you about what I have found from my own experience.
Fitness benefits
“The best sports for fitness are the ones in which you exercise continuously, those that are least likely to injure you, and the ones you enjoy most,” Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a leading authority on sports medicine and fitness, writes in Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s Pocket Guide to Fitness and Sports. Mirkin also points to a particular reason why walking is one of the exercises that contribute most to overall fitness. “The best sports for fitness,” he writes, “use your legs because the blood vessels are so much larger that you can circulate far more blood with your leg muscles.” Running, jogging, skating, cross-country skiing and stationary bicycles are other activities that use leg muscles.
     The fitness benefits of aerobic activity (and even less intense than aerobic) have been known since at least the ancient Greeks some 2,500 years ago, and are still being constantly measured in hundreds, if not thousands, of studies. Stronger cardiovascular system and muscles, more energy, less illness and longer life are big fitness gains. Exercise reduces the risks of such threats as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, and some cancers. For most of us, walking is the best way to get those benefits—and not just because it uses our leg muscles.
     “The safest sports are low-impact aerobics, walking, swimming and pedaling a stationary bicycle,” Mirkin writes. Runners can get the same, or greater, benefits in less time than walkers, but risk of injury is high.
     “Close to two-thirds of people who run—competitively and recreationally—are injured every year,” Connie Bryson reports in Research News, an online journal of Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, an agency of the Alberta government. “Current treatments are effective for about 85% to 95% of runners. But the problem is that more than three-quarters of those people will have a reoccurrence of their injury. Many of them will go on to develop osteoarthritis.”
     “The long-term consequences of running injuries mean they can’t just be thought of as a nuisance anymore,” says Dr. Reed Ferber, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary, and director of the Running Injury Clinic.
Walk for a bigger brain
“It is exercise alone that supports the spirit and keeps the mind in vigour.” Cicero, 65 B.C.
     In just the past couple of decades, medical researchers confirmed Cicero’s finding of more than 2,000 years ago.
     Our brain begins to slowly shrink at about age 20, then shrinks faster after 60 when it typically loses between one-half and one percent of volume each year. Neurosurgeons now say that aerobic exercise—brisk walking in most studies—can actually reverse that process to rebuild shrunken brains, at least to some extent.
     “Aerobic Fitness Reduces Brain Tissue Loss in Aging Humans,” claimed a report by researchers at the University of Illinois in a 2003 edition of the Journal of Gerontology. Three years later, in the November 2006 issue, the Illinois researchers offered even more positive news: “Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Brain Volume in Aging Humans,”
     These, and “hundreds and hundreds” of other research papers on how walking and other aerobic exercises boost mental performance, have been put into lay language in a best selling 2008 book, Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. by John D. Ratey, Harvard associate professor of psychiatry.
     “Exercise is as important for the brain as it is for the heart,” Ratey writes. “Exercise,” he asserts, “is the single most powerful tool to optimize your brain function.”
     In a Columbia University study, the memory area of the brain increased by 30 percent among a group of volunteers who undertook a three-month exercise program. In a 2001 California study, the academic performance of physically fit students was said to be twice as good as the performance of their unfit peers. A 2004 review of more than 850 studies involving school children shows how exercise has a positive influence on memory, concentration and classroom behaviour.
     Apparently not all exercise helps the brain—only aerobic exercise that also strengthens the cardiovascular system. Bending, stretching, pushing, pulling and lifting are good exercises to build muscles and keep the body flexible, but they apparently do not have the same effect on the brain.
     And even strenuous exercises carried to the point of exhaustion can be counter-productive, warns a report from University of Melbourne researcher Elaine Mulcahy. “Steady-paced aerobic exercise improves the brain’s ability to solve problems and make decisions fast and effectively,” Mulcahy writes. But “fatigue and over-training will not help the brain, and exercising to exhaustion “is more likely to take you one step forward but two steps back.”
Walk and be happy
Exercise can make you not only smarter, but also happier. The Association of Applied Sports Psychology in Madison, Wisconsin, list these psychological benefits of exercise:
     “Improved mood; reduced stress; improved self-esteem; pride in physical accomplishments; increased satisfaction with oneself; improved body image… decreased symptoms associated with depression.”
     The Association says that, “Even a brief walk at low intensity can improve mood and increase energy.” For long-term benefits, it advocates exercising three times a week for 30 minutes at moderate intensity. To reduce symptoms of depression, programs longer than 10 weeks are said to work best.
     Aerobic exercise “reverses the detrimental effects of stress” and “lifts depression,” Deborah Kotz reports in U.S. News and World Report.
     Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise “can be an instant way to blow off tension by boosting levels of ‘soothing’ brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephine,” Kotz writes. She adds that “burning off 350 calories three times a week… can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants.” Exercise is thought to stimulate the growth of brain neurons damaged during depression, and “boost the production of brain molecules that improve connections between nerve cells, thereby acting as a natural antidepressant.”
     Getting outdoors is another benefit of walking. “Spending time outdoors seems to have discernible benefits for physical and mental health,” reports the HealthBeat letter from the Harvard Medical School. The sunshine will boost your vitamin D levels and your mood; your concentration will improve, and you may heal faster.
     In England, the “Green Exercise Research Team” at the University of Essex has for the past seven years been studying “the benefits of engaging in physical activities whilst simultaneously exposed to nature.” The team’s study of The health benefits of walking in greenspace included significantly improved mood and self-esteem. “Feelings of anger, depression, tension and confusion all significantly reduced and vigour increased,” the authors write.

Bottom line
I can tell just by looking that walking more than one thousand miles in the past year has enlarged my leg muscles but I don’t know that it’s done anything to enlarge my shrinking brain and I certainly don’t think it’s made me any smarter—more’s the pity. But I know this: I do my best thinking and get my best ideas when I go walking, and if my spirit is low it never fails to get a boost. I was in a funk when I first set out on my recent four-day funding-raising hike for our local hospital. I had spent a restless night, feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of tasks that confronted me. Well before I finished my first day’ day’s hike of 35 km I was able to think my way through what had seemed so difficult in the dark of night. The funk vanished with the morning mist, the brisk fresh air, the sunshine and the dramatic gold and scarlet colours of Ontario in the fall.
     Walking has never failed to provide me with an answer whenever I had a problem or something that needed thinking through. Nor am I alone in that. When Adam Smith, the great Scottish professor of moral philosophy, took long, solitary walks through Glasgow, the result was The Wealth of Nations, surely one of the 10 most influential books ever written. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said that when he had a knotty legal case to consider, the best thing he could do was go for a walk.
     As for fitness, while walking seems the best all-round exercise for most of us, it shouldn’t be our only exercise. We need at least a little cross training to strengthen more than just leg muscles, we need some bend, stretch, push and lift exercises to strengthen other muscles and keep out bodies flexible. After a long walk—perhaps 30 km or more—your legs might ache for several days, and strenuously exercising aching muscles can result in longer-term injury. It is on those days that a little cross training is particularly good. And walking isn’t much fun—and could even be risky—if it’s raining, snowing or the trail is icy.
     I’ll confess that during the year I spent training for my first marathon, a 42-km walk followed by a four-day, 120-km fundraising walk, I neglected to some extent some of my other exercises. Otherwise, here are the exercises I frequently use to supplement walking:
     •Flexibility and strength training. I follow a 40-minute video on a DVD disc. Twice a week is recommended. The program I use is Heart Beat: Healthy Heart Program, produced by St. Paul’s Hospital, in Vancouver, B.C., but there are hundreds of good execise videos to choose from.
     Stationary bicycle. I call it my exercycle, because both the foot pedals the handlebars swing to exercise the upper body as well as the legs. Each is usually an hour, but as long as two or three hours (with brief pauses) if I’m watching a baseball or football game on TV. I can burn up a couple of thousand calories in one workout.
     Stair climbing. I spent a year climbing our basement steps and up  the steps of tall buildings before tackling the 1,776 steps up Toronto’s CN Tower in 2009. My office pretty much fills the basement of our house, so I’m constantly up and down the 13 steps. For a workout, I will still sometimes tackle 20 or more flights at a time. I keep a close watch on my pulse and pause if I get near my maximum heart training rate. Nothing I do send my pulse up faster than stair climbing.
     Push-ups. Every morning (unless I forget) I do 10 half push-ups, i.e., pushing up from the knees rather than from the toes for full push-ups. According to a table from the central YMCA in London , the muscular endurance of a 20-year-old male who can do 35 to 45 half push-ups in 60 seconds is rated good to excellent; those 61 to 70 years old do well to manage 22 to 40 half push-ups. The figures are a little less for females. [See the full table by clicking on the excerpt from my eXerlog.] I don’t know what the ratings are for 79-year-old men, but the best I can manage in 60 second is 20.
     Finally, a word on walking safety. While this is one of the safest exercises, it is not entirely without risk. A twisted and sprained ankle is a risk when you hike on uneven ground and rugged trails offer greater risk. You can also stumble and fall. The risk is greatest near the end of a long walk when you are tired. On sections of my recent 120-km hike, unobtrusive rocks poked up an inch or two, ready to catch an unwary toe and cause a stumble. I did, in fact, stumble and fall once. The other risk, already mentioned, is straining aching leg muscles by strenuously exercising them before they heal.
     For paved or equally easy trails, a good pair of walking shoes are suitable. For hiking on less stable or uneven ground, lightweight hiking boots will do. For even tougher trails, you need heavier, waterproof hiking boots high enough to cover the ankle and help prevent twisting.
            TAGS: Walking. Health. Mental health. Emotional health. Aerobic fitness. Brain. Mood.


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