If you do nothing else, WALK


A Little Motivation to Take a Walk

It’s one of the best forms of preventive medicine, experts say.

CreditCredit…By Pablo Delcan And Danielle Del Plato; Source Photo: Kaspars/adobe Stock

By Jancee Dunn

March 17, 2023

You’re reading the Well newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  Essential news and guidance to live your healthiest life.

I, like so many of us, spend too much time hunched over a computer — and it’s alarming me a little. So throughout my day, I ask myself: Can this activity be done while walking? I’ve recently taken meetings and made eight-minute phone calls on foot, and I turned one coffee date with a friend into a ramble through the park.

My incentive? The results of a literature review published last month in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers examined 196 studies and found that a brisk walk — of at least 11 minutes a day — significantly lowered participants’ risks for heart disease, many kinds of cancer and mortality overall.

The same study found that those who did at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week slashed their risks of early death even more. A speedy 20-minute walk each day will get you close to that goal, said Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, the chair of the Division of Preventive Cardiology at the Mayo Clinic.

“It’s really amazing the amount of benefits you get for a relatively minor effort,” he said, adding that walking is one of the best forms of preventive medicine. But many of us still need a little nudge to get up and moving, so I’ve rounded up five additional incentives.

You can walk off aches and pains.

It’s tempting to stay off your feet if you’re in pain, but that’s not always the best course of action. Nearly a quarter of adults in the United States have arthritis, for instance, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity (like vigorous walking) to help manage symptoms.

A 2022 study, published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, involved people ages 50 and older with osteoarthritis in their knees and found that those who walked regularly had less frequent knee pain. The research also suggested that a consistent walking routine may slow the damage that occurs within the joint, said Dr. Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, an associate professor of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the lead author of the study.

Research suggests that activities like walking might also help relieve lower back pain. My throbbing back is more effective than any wearable device at alerting me that it’s time to get up. (And walking always helps.)

Walking can enhance your therapy sessions.

“Walk and talk” therapy takes place outdoors, either in person or over the phone, and can be a refreshing alternative to more traditional sessions, said Lynn Bufka, the associate chief of practice transformation for the American Psychological Association.

“All that we know about the benefits of exercise — in terms of combating depression, and reducing anxiety, and helping with insomnia — are the same things we’re trying to address in psychotherapy, so how can we fit them together?” she said. “And we know that walking in nature really helps with stress and burnout.”

Outdoor sessions are not for everyone, Dr. Bufka noted, and some patients may have concerns about physical or psychological safety, or privacy.

But for some people, “not facing each other in the stillness of the office is more helpful,” said Lori Roberto, a clinical psychologist in Sacramento who offers in-person “walk and talk” sessions at a green space near her office. “I’ve found that the rhythm of walking leads to a different flow and kind of an ease,” she said. “Although sometimes there are external disrupters like cyclists — and sometimes turkeys.”

A regular walk might help sharpen your memory.

Feeling forgetful? A brisk, fast-paced walk may be useful, but “brisk” is the key word, said Rong Zhang, a professor of neurology and internal medicine at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Zhang and his colleagues conducted a small study of middle-aged and older people with memory impairments and found that a half-hour walk — five days a week, over the course of a year — improved blood flow to the brain and cognitive functioning among the participants. A follow-up study, published last year, found similar results in older adults without cognitive impairments: They experienced improved memory as well.

“You need to make an effort to get up that heart rate, where it’s a little more challenging,” Dr. Zhang said, adding that you should “feel a little shortness of breath” and conversation should become more difficult.

He included another important caveat: Data from both studies suggested that it takes at least a year for improved blood flow in the brain to translate into better cognition.

Walking may stop you from brooding.

If you’re trapped in a worry spiral, a half-hour trek in nature can dial down ruminative thoughts. A 2020 study in The Journal of Environmental Psychology found that a 30-minute walk significantly reduced a negative mood and “elicited more awe.”

One effective way to treat rumination is through disruption. “A walk can disrupt the cycle enough to get us out of the looping thoughts,” Dr. Bufka said. The scenery may redirect our attention, she added, or we might focus on the exercise itself.

A combination of walking and mindfulness might also help. Walking meditation, which can be done anywhere, can help clear those persistent thoughts. Try this introductory meditation from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, adapted from the mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.

You can learn something new.

Enjoy multitasking? You can make walking an educational experience. If you have medical questions, for instance, consider a program called “Walk With a Doc” (available in 47 U.S. states), which features free, regularly scheduled walks with a local doctor. During the hourlong stroll, participants can talk with the doctors as much as they’d like.

You can also listen to a podcast. After I wrote about my favorite health podcasts in last week’s newsletter, I was flooded with fantastic suggestions from many of you. Here are a few:

  • Bedside Rounds,” a medical history podcast that focuses on the “weird, wonderful, and intensely human stories that have shaped modern medicine.”
  • Maintenance Phase,” an incisive dissection of diet culture and the “wellness-industrial complex.”
  • Man Up Podcast,” hosted by two chatty urologists, Dr. Kevin Chu and Dr. Justin Dubin, features men’s health specialists on topics such as vasectomies and hair loss.
  • Dr. Streicher’s Inside Information Podcast,” a frequently hilarious and always informative exploration of menopause, hosted by Dr. Lauren Streicher, the medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause.

Thanks, readers — time for another walk!

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