You want to do it. You’ve been meaning to do it. So why are you blowing off those walks that you know can be so important to your health?
Not anymore. We’ve got a stick-with-it strategy that can’t miss: Give yourself a really good reason to get out there and you’re a lot more likely to make the time. Here are seven.
Want to keep adding candles to that birthday cake? Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that as little as 15 minutes of physical activity a day (yep, you read that right) can boost your life span by three years. What’s more, researchers at Brigham Young University who examined DNA samples of nearly 6,000 adults found that exercisers had a “biological age” that was about nine years younger than their couch-potato counterparts!
And the good new keeps coming. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, of almost 140,000 people with an average age of 69, found all levels of walking — even levels below the recommended guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week — were associated with a lower mortality risk, compared with no activity at all.
If you’re feeling like it’s too late for you to reap such benefits, know this: A study recently published in the International Journal of Stroke showed those who became fit later in life (ages 40 to 59) cut their risk of a potentially deadly stroke in half.
It’s not a stretch to say that just a little walking (or other aerobic activities) grows your brain. Researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise appeared to increase the size of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory. And the benefits can be pretty immediate. A study released last month by the University of Maryland, of adults ages 55 to 85, showed that a single session of exercise increased activation in the brain circuits associated with memory — including the hippocampus — which not only shrinks with age but is the brain region attacked first by Alzheimer’s disease.
Regular strolls can also help slow what is normal age-related memory decline. A 2017 study in Neurobiology of Aging found that older adults who kept up with their walking regimen over a 10-year period had less shrinkage of their hippocampus and had a smaller decline in cognitive ability.
And getting out there regularly may even help those already experiencing memory problems. According to a 2018 Neurology study, just 35 minutes of continuous walking or stationary biking three times a week, combined with a heart-healthy DASH diet, improved scores on thinking tests in subjects who had “verified cognitive concerns,” such as remembering or concentrating.
You’ve heard meditation is good for calming your mind — and fending off depression — but if you’re the restless type, know this: An afternoon of mindful walking may offer many of the same stress-busting benefits.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, for instance, found that an aerobic walking exercise that incorporated Buddhism-based meditations was more effective in reducing depression in the participants ages 60 to 90 than a traditional aerobic walking program.
None of which comes as a surprise to Mary Maddux, cofounder of Meditation Oasis. “Mindful walking clears your mind and helps you reconnect with your body,” she says. To try it, breathe in a relaxed, natural manner and walk at an unhurried pace. Take in what’s going on around you and what you’re experiencing through your senses. Listen to the birds chirping, leaves rustling or children playing. Feel the cool breeze across your face. Concentrate on what’s going on with your body: your breathing, the sensation in the soles of your feet as they touch the ground. “Let it all go, and you can come back refreshed and be able to see things with new eyes,” Maddux says.
Where you walk may also matter. A study in a 2015 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who strolled in a natural setting (say, a local park) exhibited decreased activity in an area of the brain associated with depression, compared with those who walked in a high-traffic urban setting.
As we get older, fat that used to primarily land on our hips and thighs starts to show up around our bellies. That spare tire is stubborn, but regular cardio sessions may reduce it. “You don’t lose a ton of weight exercising, but what you do lose tends to be centrally located,” says Tim Church, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge. “A disproportional amount of weight is lost in the abdomen through physical activity.”
In a small study of 27 obese women, researchers from the University of Virginia found that power walkers were able reduce abdominal fat (not just the outer flab, but dangerous visceral fat, which surrounds the organs and puts us at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease). What’s more, they did so without dieting.
And Duke University Medical Center doctors conducted a 2011 comparison of aerobic exercise, resistance training and a combination of the two, and found aerobic exercise to be the most effective way to lose belly fat. In fact, aerobic training burned 67 percent more calories in the study, compared with resistance training.
Walking can also help you stick to your diet. In a 2011 study, published in the journal Appetite, stressed-out office workers ate only half as much chocolate as they normally would after breaking away from their desks for a 15-minute walk.
If all the recent news about walking’s powerful link to longevity doesn’t grab you, newer studies showing how it can preserve your mobility and independence might.
The thing is, walking isn’t just good for those who can do it easily. (Beyond mobility benefits, studies show links between walking and faster recoveries from chemotherapy for breast cancer and surgeries for heart surgery.)
One of many studies to back up the connection between forcing yourself to walk and being able to keep walking came this spring from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Doctors there found that just one hour of brisk walking a week — or less than 10 minutes a day — was enough to reduce the risk of disability in adults who already had osteoarthritis.
In a similar vein, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found big pluses for sedentary seniors who started exercising regularly (moderate walking being the main activity): Not only did they cut their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness, but those who did develop a physical disability were one-third more likely to recover from it, compared with seniors who remained inactive.
In fact, health care providers have become such big believers in the power of exercise to fend off disability and speed recoveries that many hospitals have started incorporating walking “prehab” therapies into their programs, encouraging patients to commit to regular walking before they go in for an operation or procedure.
Looking for a way to spice it up? A Harvard study found that just 30 minutes of walking a day was linked to a 41 percent drop in erectile dysfunction risk. Not only does exercise help open the arteries to increase blood flow to the penis, it produces feel-good endorphins and lowers cortisol levels to help maintain a healthy libido. Other research suggests that some men with erectile dysfunction may even reverse their symptoms by dropping a few, since being overweight is a risk factor for ED.
And ladies get a lift, too. In a University of Texas study, women came into a lab and filled out questionnaires for 20 minutes. During a subsequent visit, they exercised on a treadmill for 20 minutes. Each visit was followed by the presentation of an erotic film. Findings showed a significant increase in sexual arousal after exercise (after filling out forms, not so much), which researchers attributed to changes in hormone and neurotransmitter levels.
If you’re one of the 50 percent of people over age 65 with chronic sleep problems, walking could be your ticket to more quality shut-eye — which is important to everything from preventing heart disease to staying sharp as you age.
In 2017, researchers at the Morehouse School of Medicine analyzed data from 4,000 older adults and found that those who were socially active and walked for exercise were 50 percent less likely to have trouble falling and staying asleep.
If you can walk first thing in the morning, so much the better, since exposure to early light appears to help you reset your natural circadian rhythm. A 2003 study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that postmenopausal women, between the ages of 50 and 75, who walked briskly for 30 minutes in the morning were 70 percent less likely to have trouble falling asleep.
Ready to get out there and get walking? Join AARP’s eight-week Fit & Fun challenge and commit to walking a half-hour every day with a buddy. Sign up at aarp.org/challenge.