Last week, I had a new client who came in with chronic low back pain. He has a job that tends to keep him at his desk or in his car, and he feels he is not getting enough exercise with the home program he is doing for his back pain. So he asked about adding in some “cardio.” When I suggested walking, he was concerned. “But can I get my heart rate up enough to do any good? Won’t that create more impact on my back? Shouldn’t I do something like an elliptical so I can work my arms too?” These are all great questions that I tend to field on a regular basis. Although there are other modes of exercise that might make you work harder, get the heart rate up higher, and make the other muscles “feel” more tired, walking is fundamental to human movement, and something we do daily—and need to continue to be able to do for many years to come. Why is walking so great? I’ll give you 5 great reasons below.
- Walking is a whole body activity. When you walk—really walk, (not to be confused with “museum walking,” identified by lots of stops and starts) you swing your arms in opposition to your legs. This not only means that you are moving through the hips and shoulders, but also creating a gentle oscillatory movement along the entire spine. Do you sit at your desk too much? This may be “just what the doctor ordered!”
- Walking is the “opposite of sitting.” By definition, walking requires that you are upright, on your feet and moving through extension at your spine, hips, knees, and ankles—all of which are flexed (bent) when you sit.
- Walking is easy on the joints. As you put each foot down in the “heel strike” phase of walking, there is enough impact through the body to help us fight bone loss as we age, but no so much that we create significant damage to the spine, hips or knees.
- Walking gets your heart rate up. You know it’s good for you to get your heart rate up. Just like any other muscle, if the heart is fit from regular exercise, it doesn’t have to work as hard when the body is at rest. That means almost every daily activity is easier on you, and you don’t feel so tired all the time.
- Walking is useful. We have to walk to get from place to place anyway; why not create the opportunity to walk a little more? You can park farther away from the store and walk there and back. You can even park farther away when you go to work, the gym, the post office… well, you get the idea!
Granted, a good walking program may not make you the fittest person at the office, but it will give you so many of the benefits we want from our exercise programs: better heart health, better spine health, better mobility in the spine, hips and shoulders (than you would have from sitting all day) and less wear and tear on the joints than many other modes of exercise.
The one caveat on walking is this: if you can’t walk well, you should not use walking for exercise. That is, if walking is dangerous for you due to balance problems, or if you have to limp or use an altered gait, you’ll need to find another way to exercise. Otherwise, walking should be a major part of your day. 1 long bout of walking daily for 20-30 minutes is great, but peppering additional short walks throughout the day is even better. Do you have to sit a lot for work? Maybe you can take a short walk every time you get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink. Could you do it once an hour? Twice an hour? Even 5 or 10 minute walks to extend the joints, breathe deeply and use your muscles will help you feel less stiff, more energetic and give your brain a much-needed break. So stand up tall, take a deep breath, grab your dog, and lets go for a walk!