Step into it!
You've likely heard how important it is to "get your steps in" everyday, with the common recommendation being at least 10,000 steps per day, every day. Have you ever wondered why walking and increased levels of physical activity (PA) are so important, and what benefits such a simple task could bring?
1. Increased caloric expenditure (Burn it!)
This probably doesn't come as much of a surprise, but the more you move, the more calories you burn! If you are in the process of losing weight, increasing your daily step count is a great way to start. Walking is a low-intensity, safe means of increasing your heart rate -- it's a safe means for all to burn calories!
2. Increased production of synovial fluid (WD-40)
Do you struggle with pain in your hips, low back, knees, or ankles? You're not alone! In fact, approximately 80% of Americans will experience pain in their lower back at some point in their lifetime! Can you imagine how many would experience pain across all four of these joint regions during their life?
Many of the joints in the body (such as the hip, knees, ankles, and most back joints) are classified as a sub-type of a synovial joint, meaning synovial fluid is present. This fluid is incredibly viscous (when I felt it in a cadaver, I compared it to that of syrup) and acts as a natural lubricant for the synovial joints. The more you move a joint, the more elastic the fluid becomes. Additionally, movement causes synovial fluid to migrate to the location of movement. By increasing your step count, you improve the synovial fluid characteristics and move it to the areas of the joint where it is needed most, which will help to reduce friction at joints to prevent pain.
3. Improvements in cognition, focus, energy, and alertness
As we previously established, walking will cause an increase in caloric/energy expenditure and heart rate. This in turn increases blood flow to the brain. In addition to increased blood flow to the brain, walking and exercise in general elicit a variety of physiological responses in the body, which benefit cognitive health. These benefits include reducing inflammation naturally and safely, reducing insulin resistance (making insulin more effective), increased vascular supply to the brain, and improvements in overall brain health. Physical activity has also been shown to slow cognitive decline. In 2019, I've noticed a huge increase in the amount of cognitive enhancing supplements on the market. Before purchasing one of these supplements, try incorporating ~5 minute walks hourly throughout your day, and noting any changes in your mood/energy levels. As always, I recommend using the natural (holistic) approach to health first!
4. Reduction of sedentary time (sitting is the new smoking?)
By walking more, you will break up the amount of time spent sedentary. Sedentary time/sitting has been referred to as "the new smoking" due to its negative effects on health. Sedentary time reduces caloric expenditure, since no movement is required. The longer someone is sedentary, the less calories they will burn throughout their day. It does not come as a surprise then, that increased sedentary time is closely associated with obesity. Studies even report that obese individuals are typically sedentary for two hours per day more than non-obese individuals. According to this article on the American Cancer Society's website, sitting for prolonged periods of time also increases risk of early death from all causes.
But can't we offset the effects of sitting on our body with a super-intense workout for an hour or so? Although many people try to do this, I HIGHLY advise against this approach. While we sit, a variety of changes occur to our musculoskeletal system. While sitting, the hip flexors and spinal erectors are tightened, which shifts the pelvis into an anterior tilt. This, in turn, inhibits muscles which oppose the hip flexors and spinal erectors by rendering them passively insufficient, meaning they are stretched beyond normal resting length and will not contract at maximal force. What muscles oppose the hip flexors and spinal erectors? The glutes and abdominal muscles. In my experience thus far in physical therapy, I cannot stress the importance of proper functioning of these muscle groups for pain-free, strong movements and preventing injury.
Who doesn't want to live a longer, healthier life? Walking at least one hour per day has been linked to longer lifespan, lowering the risk of early death by up to 31%. If you work an 8-hour day, and take a 5-minute walk once per hour, you've already accumulated 40-minutes of walking in a day's time. Add in a 15-minute walk in the morning and a 15-minute walk after work, and you've accumulated 70 minutes of walking in a day's time, over the hour-recommendation and above the recommended 150-minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week if done daily. Walking is also used in the treatments of multiple diseases, from cardiovascular disease to strokes.
6. Endurance gains
Yes, these short 5-10 minute walks I continue to talk about can even improve your endurance. When you walk, your muscles demand more oxygen, since oxygen is involved in producing ATP (through aerobic respiration, which I will write about in a future post). Oxygen is delivered to the tissues through blood, as it is transported by hemoglobin.
Since your muscles need more oxygen, your heart has to either pump faster (increased HR), pump a greater volume of blood (increased stroke volume), or both. The more you work your heart in these aerobic manners (increasing HR & SV), the more efficient it will become. In some populations, walking is associated with mitochondrial function: meaning the better your ability to walk, the healthier your body's mitochondria are. Mitochondria produce the body's supply of ATP, and are vital to the health of the individual as a result.
7. Muscle gains
Can walking increase your ability to gain muscle size and strength? Yes! Walking is a form of active recovery for the body. As we previously established, walking increases blood flow to the body's tissues. Muscle recovery is, in my opinion, the most crucial and often overlooked step to making "gains" in strength and size. During a bout of resistance training, muscles are damaged and break down. They do not grow bigger and stronger until after they have recovered. Walking helps to speed up this process, since the muscles will receive more nutrients (from the increased blood flow) that they need for optimal recovery.
By increasing your daily step count, I don't necessarily mean taking hour-long walks everyday. Instead, try to get at least 5-10 minutes of walking in every 1-2 hours throughout your day. The benefits of walking extend far beyond the points I briefly touched on here (such as improved digestion), which is part of the reason that everyone should strive for higher step counts, regardless of your sport, discipline, job, etc.
Enough reading for now -- get up, and go for a walk!