If walking was a color, it would be the new black.
There is no shortage of evidence that walking really is a miracle drug; exercise that can lose weight, increase lifespan, reduce risk of disease, improve heart health, maintain joint mobility and benefit mental health.
“You would have to take a lot of different pills to get all of these different effects that you can get walking around,” said David Bishop, a research professor at the University of Victoria’s Institute of Health and Sport.
That’s why the UK’s Royal College of GPs in 2018 recommended that Britons take a brisk 10-minute walk every day.
But above all, the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other “just feels good”, said Suzanne Crane.
The 59-year-old from Canberra is an outreach ambassador for parkrun.
Parkrun is a weekly five kilometer event held on Saturday mornings for runners in parks and reserves across Australia and around the world.
Despite its name, parkrun estimates that between 10 and 15% of participants are walkers. Crane thinks there are events where that number reaches 30%.
Crane tried to run, but it wasn’t for her.
“I was absolutely hopeless,” she said.
But then three ACL knee surgeries sealed the deal.
“I walked back to parkrun,” she said.
Slow down and stay connected
Four years ago, Crane was thrown another curveball when she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, psoriatic arthritis.
She said the disease could cause considerable pain. And because she takes immunosuppressive drugs, COVID-19 has made mixing with people inside particularly dangerous.
“It was easy coming out of COVID and slowly getting used to being around people while walking in the parkrun,” Crane said.
“Walking parkrun has been awesome for me because it means I can still be out there with all my friends who are runners, but also I’ll have a whole bunch of people who are my walking friends.
It’s about going the distance
Crane is not alone. There are many people who, for reasons such as age, mobility, weight, physical condition and injury, cannot run.
For most, walking is an equally attractive alternative.
The AusPlay survey, which tracks physical activity trends of Australians, shows that walking is the most popular form of exercise.
And COVID has really accelerated the results for women in particular.
As Professor Bishop points out, walking may not be as effective as running in terms of calories burned per minute, but if you measure calories burned for distance, it’s almost the same.
“You can either run four or five kilometers in 30 minutes or walk the same distance in an hour. I think what you do regularly will probably bring you the most benefit,” he said.
“You can imagine that sort of an exponential increase from sitting on the couch and doing nothing to walking is going to give you the biggest improvement in your health, and then you’ll get more improvements in doing more strenuous activities,” he said.
Professor Bishop focuses some of his research on finding the right level of exercise for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
He said that more and more health practitioners and physiologists see exercise as medicine.
“And for people who are capable and have no other contraindications, the introduction of slightly higher exercise doses will be beneficial.”
The goal is to try to find the magic point of just enough exercise before too much is damaging.
More exercise, more benefits – up to a point
The sports world is now talking about an inverted U: the more you exercise, the more beneficial it becomes – but there is a point where you go too far and excessive exercise can lead to increased injuries.
That’s exactly what happened to legendary Australian running coach, Nic Bideau, who has coached myriad Australian athletes over the decades, including Cathy Freeman, Craig Mottram and now Stewart McSweyn.
After running for an hour a day for more than 30 years, his hips hurt more and more each time he ran.
The final blow came during a bush walk in New Zealand, when he fell on slippery rocks and badly tore his hip cartilage.
“I had an X-ray and a surgeon said to me, ‘You have real problems with your hip over there, and if you want to walk properly, you’re going to have to have your hip replaced.'”
He was only 54 years old.
For a man whose life was racing, it was a bitter pill to swallow, especially when his surgeon had told him that if he got back into running, he would wear out his artificial hip faster.
“If I had my time again, once I hit 40, I would reduce that (his running frequency) to three or four times a week,” he said.
“It’s a very effective way to get in shape, to run. And I loved it and felt good about it, and you always feel really fit and full of energy after that.
But Bideau, who is not a man to do things by halves, starts walking with enthusiasm.
“Even when I’m abroad or traveling, I still walk for at least an hour every morning and afternoon, and up to another hour in the evening,” he said.
Now 62, he says he walks about 20 kilometers a day.
“A lot of times when I start I feel really stiff and I’m around 90, but once I come back and my body relaxes and I get moving, I’m ready for the day,” Bideau said.
“I have cleared my mind of all thoughts lingering from the day before and all plans for today and the next day are alive and well and ready to be undertaken after this walk.”
He can’t lie. He says he prefers running.
He says walking for him doesn’t give him the same pleasure, although it offers many of the same benefits.
“You have this feeling, the endorphins. You feel like you’re alive and active and breathing, and you’ve started your day,” he said.
This is the same point made by Professor Bishop and Suzanne Crane.
You don’t have to be a Nic Bideau and walk 20 kilometers a day to benefit from walking. You don’t even have to walk 10,000 steps (a figure that was ripped out of thin air as a marketing exercise in the 1960s to sell a Japanese pedometer).
Professor Bishop places more emphasis on the cumulative effect of regular walking.
“The recommendations are to try to get around 150 minutes of activity a week. And once you get there, that’s when you can start working on the intensity a bit.”
Crane said those looking for a place to start exercising should consider parkrun.
“It’s not a race, it’s about getting people out and making them feel comfortable,” she said.
Indeed, the average parkrun time has become slower, which Crane says is due to more people completing the five-kilometre walk than before.
“The benefits to the community are increasingly important – from people who have health problems to people who need social inclusion and who are alone,” she said.
“You can do things that everyone does and enjoy life. Being able to hang out with people is important.”
So why not go for a walk?
ABC Sport partners with parkrun promote the benefits of physical activity and community involvement.