6 head-to-toe benefits of one simple action

One simple activity can exert a tremendous influence over your health, lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s, protecting your heart, defending against cancer, decreasing your risk of disability, controlling your weight and increasing your life expectancy.

Scientific research proves the health-power of this activity, but most people don’t seem to understand how much it can improve their lives.

Medical researchers have been astonished by the health-promoting effects of simply walking every day. While most Americans seem addicted to a couch potato lifestyle, scientists have proven that a daily walk (or, even better, several walks a day) improves the health of just about every part of the body.

And if you think you already know all the head-to-toe benefits associated with walking — think again…

Brain protection

Research at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania shows that walking can slow the development of memory problems and even slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We found that walking five miles per week protects the brain structure over 10 years in people with Alzheimer’s and MCI (mild cognitive impairment), especially in areas of the brain’s key memory and learning centers,” says researcher Cyrus Raji, Ph.D. “We also found that these people had a slower decline in memory loss over five years.”

Raji’s study showed that physical activities like walking are associated with larger brain size. Cognitively impaired people needed to walk at least 58 city blocks, or approximately five miles, every week to prevent brain shrinkage volume and slow cognitive decline. People with normal brains needed to walk at least 72 city blocks, or six miles, per week to maintain brain volume and significantly reduce their risk for cognitive decline.

Heart protection

An exercise like walking also supports the health of the cardiovascular system and keeps the heart and arteries functioning better.

In a study where doctors worked with overweight heart patients, they found that long walks were the perfect way to lose weight and improve cardiovascular health.

“The higher-caloric exercise, consisting of almost daily long-distance walking, resulted in double the weight loss and a greater fat mass loss than standard cardiac rehabilitation exercise,” says researcher Philip A. Ades, M.D., director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. “And probably most importantly, these patients improved their insulin sensitivity to a greater degree.”

Weight Loss

If other people in your family are overweight, you may have inherited a tendency to gain weight. But that genetic inheritance doesn’t have to be your immutable destiny. A walking program can cut that genetic liability by 50 percent, according to a study at the Harvard School of Public Health. On the other hand, if you bury yourself in the couch all day, watching television and snacking, you’re just telling your obesity genes to pack on the pounds.

“While previous studies have looked at how physical activity affects genetic predispositions, this is the first study that directly looked at the effect of the sedentary behavior of television watching on the body mass index (BMI) of individuals with a genetic predisposition to obesity,” says Qibin Qi, Ph.D., study author and a postdoctorate research fellow in the department of nutrition at Harvard.

“In our study, a brisk one-hour daily walk reduced the genetic influence towards obesity, measured by differences in BMI, by half. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle marked by watching television four hours a day increased the genetic influence by 50 percent.”

Walking toward health

A wide range of research on walking has established other impressive benefits:

  • A study at Vanderbilt University shows that walking can reduce a woman’s risk for endometrial cancer by as much as 40 percent. “This adds to the growing body of literature indicating that high levels of physical activity are associated with reduced risk of some cancers, including endometrial cancer,” says lead author Charles E. Matthews, Ph.D.
  • Older adults can decrease their risk of disability and increase their likelihood of maintaining independence by 41 percent when they walk regularly, according to research at the University of Georgia.
  • Brisk walking can lower the risk of cancer progression in men diagnosed with prostate cancer, according to a study at the University of California, San Francisco and the Harvard School of Public Health. “The important point was the intensity of the activity — the walking had to be brisk for men to experience a benefit,” says Erin Richman, Sc.D., the first author on the study. “Our results provide men with prostate cancer something they can do to improve their prognosis.”

One foot in front of the other

The human body needs to walk and exercise every day to stay healthy. In contrast, the couch potato lifestyle kills. As one scientist who has researched the benefits of walking puts it, you should “walk often and walk far.”

You’ll be glad you did.

Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.