Health Matters: Walking Your Way to Better Health

60 step challenge

August 3, 2020

By Jaime Larese, MS, RDN, LDN and Kyla Peterson, PT DPT OCS

When thinking about establishing an exercise routine, often we envision dragging ourselves from our desks, changing into clothes we can sweat in, placing earbuds in to listen to upbeat music, and having to jack the treadmill or elliptical up to high speeds to see benefits. This vision often deters people from including more exercise in their life. Yet, it’s no surprise that exercise is one of the most beneficial things we can do to be well. However, so many of us do not partake.

Jaime Larese
Jaime Larese, MS, RDN, LDN

The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that a whopping 70 million adults in the United States are obese, and 99 million are overweight. Lifestyle choices are the primary cause of the epidemic, with a lack of exercise noted as a top concern. The CDC estimates that over 50 million Americans – 1 in 5 – live with chronic pain that prevents them from engaging in movement and exercise. We know exercise is good for weight loss, pain management, and arthritis, just to name a few, but it’s often the thought of heart-pumping exercise that leaves us stranded – that kind of exercise doesn’t seem possible for so many. But what about walking?

For many, walking is a refreshing alternative to an aerobic gym routine. Walking can help melt pounds, tone our flabby parts, and leave us with an emotional high. Not to mention it’s free, enjoyable, already a part of life, and currently helps us practice physical distancing. Ample evidence and research support the benefits of walking. Getting just 2.5 hours per week – at a pace of 3 mph – counts as moderate exercise, and with tracking devices at our fingertips it’s easier than ever for healthy adults to get the recommended 10,000 steps per day. For those who don’t move much, 2,000 steps per day with an increase of 1,000 steps each week will help establish a healthy routine.

Remember, everything counts when you walk – walk breaks during your workday or even parking further away at the grocery store.

Kyla Peterson
Kyla Peterson, PT DPT OCS

For those who live with pain or develop pain from current or past injuries that haven’t healed correctly, walking can actually alleviate pain. Pain reduction can occur despite the common belief that moving will only make the pain worse. The notion that activity will increase pain can lead to decreased physical activity over time.

Physical therapists see this daily -- people stop doing all the things they love because they fear increased injury or irritation.

Remember, though, “motion is lotion.” The United States Surgeon General recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic weekly. Still, the intensity level is different for everyone based on what our bodies are accustomed to. Walking benefits the healing process through improved oxygen delivery to the muscles. It also improves joint health by maintaining the lubrication needed to combat stiffness. In addition, physical therapists note decreased walking speed and lack of distance tolerance as a health concern. A slow gait is shown to be the single best predictor of functional decline and disability. These factors are also tied closely to increased risk of mortality. So, what to do? The best thing is to establish a regular walking program.

Whether you use trekking poles while you walk to help with balance, walk unassisted, use the company of your dog, family member, friend, or walk alone – it’s all about getting moving. As with any fitness program, pacing yourself at the beginning is essential. The advancements in step monitors (mentioned above) come in handy when establishing a walking routine. They help keep you motivated and help you to monitor your progress over time. If you’re unsure where to start or how you can get past that nagging injury, an assessment by a professional physical therapist is your best resource.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk far.” Remember – walking is the most ancient exercise, and it is still the best modern exercise.

Jaime J. Larese, MS RDN LDN is a licensed dietitian and the wellness promotion developer and educator at St. Peter’s Health.

Kyla Peterson, PT DPT OCS is a physical therapist at St. Peter’s Health and is a board certified specialist in orthopedics.