Exercise plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Of all forms of exercise, walking is the easiest, safest, and least expensive. It’s simply a matter of lacing up your sneakers and heading out. With many gyms and even parks still temporarily closed, walking is a perfect way to make sure you’re still getting the exercise you need. Walking can be a wonderful escape from lockdown, especially if you’re able to take your walk among nature. Daily walks boost your health in a surprising number of ways.
“Walking is the most studied form of exercise, and multiple studies have proven that it’s the best thing we can do to improve our overall health, and increase our longevity and functional years,” explains Robert Sallis, M.D., a family physician and sports medicine doctor with Kaiser Permanente.
Unlike other forms of exercise, walking has one of the lowest injury rates of any form of exercise and is even the most popular aerobic activity, according to a 2018 scientific report from the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. Those who do walk clearly benefit from it. A recent study published in October 2019, followed more than 44,000 Canadians and found that people living in easily walk-able neighborhoods had a lower overall risk of cardiovascular disease as opposed to those in less walk-able neighborhoods, who didn’t exercise as frequently.
Even a single session of brisk walking for 30 minutes leads to increased activation of several different types of immune cells. David Nieman, a professor of public health and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, has spent years analyzing the effects exercise has on human health and immune function. In a 2004 study, he and his colleagues discovered that just 30 minutes of brisk walking increased the circulation of natural killer cells, white blood cells and other immune system warriors. When explaining the importance of regular exercise, Professor Nieman explained, “If you have a housekeeper come in and clean for 30 minutes every day, by the end of the month, your house will look a lot better. I think the same thing that happens with the immune system and [illness-causing] pathogen clearance in the body.”
In addition to boosting your immune system, the benefits of walking seem to be endless. Here’s just a small sampling of scientific findings about walking from the past few years:
- Lower body mass index (BMI). In a study from the University of Warwick, those who took 15,000 or more steps a day tended to have BMIs in the normal, healthy range.
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The National Walkers’ Health study found that regular walking was linked to a 7 percent reduced risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Better memory and cognition. In a 2015 clinical trial, older adults in Japan in a prescribed daily walking exercise group had significantly greater improvements in memory and executive function, than those who were told to carry on with their usual routine.
- Lower stress and improved mood. In a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, university office workers took 30 minute lunchtime walks and reported increased enthusiasm and relaxation as well as reduced stress.
- Longer life. A 2014 study review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers found that walking for roughly 3 hours a week was linked to an 11 percent reduced risk of premature death when compared to those who did little or no activity.
Professor Nieman recommends 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day, such as a brisk walk, as it seems to be best when optimizing immune function. A brisk walk, about 3.5 to 4 miles an hour, burns nearly as many calories as running for the same distance at a moderate pace and confers similar health benefits. Keep in mind though, that 75 minutes or more of intense exercise may be over doing it. “When you go that long at a high intensity, stress hormones go way up, and the immune system does not respond well to that,” explains Nieman.
If you’re having difficulty doing 30 or 60 minute walks at the same moderate pace, you can try breaking up so you instead take several shorter walks throughout the day. Try to aim for brisk walk bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time. You’ll be able to get more steps in and decrease the amount of time you spend being sedentary, which is a big risk factor for heart disease.
Other types of exercise may be as beneficial as walking, however if you haven’t been as active due to COVID-19 lockdowns, walking is a great option to get yourself active again. You don’t need to worry about when the gyms open or having any special equipment. Start by just adding a few short walks, even for just five minutes, to your daily routine. It’s the perfect excuse to stretch your legs, get out of the house, and enjoy some beautiful sunshine.