Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
I MUST confess. I like walking. When I was in New York a couple of years ago, I tried to explore Manhattan by walking. I just walked from the hotel where I was staying to Central Park, to Times Square, and to the United Nations headquarters.
Here, in the Philippines, I work at an office that entails me to be sitting for eight hours – save only for those minutes when I walk going to the canteen or just to unwind myself. So much so that I don’t ride from my house going to the terminal – which is about 600 meters. My friends are wondering why I never ride (except when it is raining!), but I told them I am saving money. However, the truth is, walking is my form of exercise.
Hikers, mall walkers, and the like have always known that walking is good for the body. Walking, after all, is one of the safest things we can do with our body. It’s much easier on the knees than running and doesn’t trigger untoward side effects. In fact, increasing documented evidence suggests that walking offers several health benefits.
“Regular physical activity is probably as close to a magic bullet as we will come in modern medicine,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the United States. “If everyone were to walk briskly 30 minutes a day, we could cut the incidence of many chronic diseases by 30 to 40 percent.”
And that’s only for a starter.
Heart disease. Brisk walking is good for the heart, which makes a lot of sense. The heart is a muscle, and anything that makes the blood flow faster through a muscle helps keep it in shape. But regular walking also lowers blood pressure, which decreases the stress on the arteries. It can boost the amount of HDL cholesterol (the good one) in the blood. It even seems to make the blood less “sticky,” and therefore less likely to produce unwanted clots. This all adds up to as much as a 50-percent reduction in the risk of suffering a heart attack, doctors claim.
Stroke. Walking also decreases the risk of a stroke. In an analysis of the health habits of 72,488 nurses over the past 14 years in the United States, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health recently found that those who walked six or more hours per week decreased by 40 percent their risk of suffering strokes caused by a clot.
Low blood pressure. In one study of older people with low blood pressure after meals, walking afterward restored their blood pressure to normal. “These findings support an old German proverb – ‘After meals, you should rest or walk a thousand steps,'” says Dr. Lewis A. Lipsitz, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Intermittent claudication. Think of this condition like heart disease in your legs. The same circulatory problem that can restrict blood flow to your heart is blocking the blood flow in your calves, thighs, feet, or hips. The result: When you walk too far, you have severe pain in your legs, usually centered in the calves. If you ask your doctor what you can do about it, he will tell you is to stop smoking. The next thing is exercise, according to Dr. Jess R. Young, chairman of the Department of Vascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio. The type of exercise he’s talking about is the simplest of all – walking.
“Get out every day for at least an hour of walking exercise,” he says. “You can break that up anyway you want, but you have to bring on the discomfort of intermittent claudication to have the walking do any good.” Walk until you bring on the pain, he says, but don’t stop at the first sign of pain. “Wait until it gets moderately severe. Then stop and rest a minute or two until it goes away, then start up walking again.” Repeat that pain/walk cycle as often as you can during your 60 minutes of daily walking.
Be warned, however, that improvement won’t happen overnight. “It will be two or three months, minimum, before you see results,” says Dr. Young. So don’t get discouraged.
Diabetes. If you’re diabetic, doctors recommend exercise. “The best exercise for people with diabetes is brisk walking,” says Dr. Henry Dolger, former chief of the Diabetes Department of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “It’s by far the safest, least stressful, and most productive of all exercises.”
Walking, he explains, improves the efficiency of every unit of insulin taken in or produced by the body. “That means you get more effectiveness out of every gram of food you eat than you would without exercise,” Dr. Dolger says. “It also gives you a great sense of well-being and requires no equipment.”
Osteoporosis: For those having osteoporosis, walking is another good form of exercise. “If you don’t exercise, you lose bone,” says Dr. Robert Heaney, a professor at Creighton University. Experts claim that walking does not only strengthens the muscles but also builds up the bones. They suggest walking at least 20 minutes a day, three or four days a week.
Insomnia. Having trouble getting a good night’s sleep? Get some exercise late in the afternoon or early in the evening, says Dr. David Neubauer, a general psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins University Sleep Disorders Center. It shouldn’t be too strenuous – a walk around the block will do just fine. Not only will it fatigue your muscles, but also it will raise your body temperature. When that begins to fall, it may help induce sleepiness. Walking also may help trigger the deep, nourishing sleep that the body craves the most for replenishment.
Constipation. Any form of regular exercise will tend to alleviate constipation, but the one mentioned most often by experts is walking. Walking, they claim, is particularly helpful for pregnant women, many of whom experience constipation as their inner workings are altered to accommodate the growing fetus.
Anyone, including mothers-to-be, should walk a “good hearty 20 to 30 minutes” a day, suggests Dr. Lewis R. Townsend, clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. However, he cautioned that pregnant women should take care not to get too winded as they walk.
Premenstrual Syndrome. When a woman’s mood takes a walk on the wild side, experts suggest that she takes a walk. “Exercising has been found to significantly reduce many physical and psychological PMS symptoms,” says Dr. Ellen Yankauskas, director of the Women’s Center for Family Health in Atascadero, California.
“It’s best to exercise at least three times a week, even when you don’t have PMS,” she advises. “Walking is the exercise I recommend, because weight-bearing exercises help keep bones strong.” She suggests going out for at least 12 minutes, though 30 minutes or more is even better.
Varicose veins. Prolonged sitting or standing can cause problems in your legs because the blood tends to pool. A little bit of exercise throughout the day, particularly walking, can often prevent this pooling, according to Dr. Eugene Strandness, a professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In fact, a recent study found that sedentary adults were more likely to have varicose veins than those who were active.
Stuffy nose. It doesn’t take much to get a stuffy nose. With every breath you take, you subject your nasal membranes to everyday irritants. One good way to unblock that stuffiness is through exercise.
“Exercise is a natural decongestant for common nasal stuffiness,” says Dr. Alexander C. Chester, clinical professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Walking helps: When you walk, you stimulate better breathing and better blood circulation. Walking also helps shrink nasal membranes, and besides, you get a good breath of fresh air.
Unknown to many, American president Harry S Truman took to walking briskly until the ripe old age of 88. Astronaut John Glenn credited his celebrated return to orbit at age 77 to his two-mile daily power walk. Famous author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau admitted he couldn’t have preserved his health and spirit without walking at least for four hours through the woods or fields every day.
Now, you know why I like walking.