Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many people found themselves scheduling a daily walk to keep their lives more structured. For good reason: The benefits of walking are far-reaching—both for people just looking to get in a few more steps and for those intending to make it a workout.
Take Jenna Stern, a Philadelphia-based trainer and founder of the body-positive online fitness studio The Philasophy, who found herself running more mileage than ever earlier this year as a way to cope with pandemic-related stress and the closure of her gym. Soon, though, the whole top of her foot swelled up—she suspects a case of tendinitis from tying her shoes too tightly.
So Stern went back to the basics after the pain and puffiness subsided: For two weeks, she slowed her roll and walked instead. Now, walking remains a regular part of her routine, and something she wholeheartedly recommends to clients.
Chicago-based trainer Kelly Amshoff had a similar revelation several years ago. She once thought only sweaty, hard-core workouts—the kind that left you sore the next day—were effective. Once she got pregnant with her first daughter, however, her mindset changed. “I understood that this isn’t correct, and that moving your body is the goal,” she says.
Another child and a few years later, she’s back to teaching Tabata and other classes through her site ImWithKelly. But she still views her near-daily walks as essential, a chance to move her body while reconnecting with friends or catching up on audiobooks.
But you don’t have to wait for an event like an injury or pregnancy to rediscover the joy—and reap the rewards—of simply putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s something more and more people are realizing: Users uploaded three times as many outdoor walks to Strava this last year as the year prior, according to the athletic platform’s Year in Sport report released in mid-December.
There are tons of benefits of walking that can persuade you to lace up, but before we get into that, there are a few quick tips to keep in mind before you head out.
Tips to keep in mind when walking
For one, going out for a walk can be less straightforward than it may seem. Not everyone has access to safe sidewalks, green spaces, or parks, which can make simply going out for a walk less accessible to those who live in some communities than in others. For some, safety can be an issue, which may affect what times they’re able to walk at, places they’re able to go, or even if they’re able to take their walk outside at all. So, those types of considerations may play into how you handle walks and other outdoor exercise.
Another safety consideration has to do with injury risk: Wearing proper-fitting shoes can help prevent injury, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says. You should choose a shoe that gives enough room in the toe box so you can wiggle your toes, maintains about a half-inch of space between your longest toe and the shoe’s tip, and provides stability through the arch, adequate shock absorption, and a smooth tread. And if you’re walking in low-light, early morning, or evening conditions, you should also be sure to wear reflective gear so motorists can see you, as SELF reported previously.
As for how long you should walk? That’s completely up to you: On days your body is craving movement, you might benefit from an hour-long walk. On others, you might feel a mental health boost simply from taking a five-minute stroll around the block to break up your workday. In fact, the latest version of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans report removed the stipulation that exercise bouts must be at least 10 minutes in duration to “count” as part of your exercise total. (The guidelines recommend a total of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week for health benefits.)
Whether you’re squeezing in a quick jaunt or are setting aside time for a longer stroll, lacing up can do your body—and your mind—some good. Here are 12 benefits of walking that might make you want to slip on your sneakers right now (and some tips to make sure you get the most out of it).
1. Walking can be great active recovery.
Every action has an opposite reaction—and similarly, every high-intensity interval comes with a recovery period. Walking, instead of sitting down or standing still, keeps your muscles warm and your heart pumping. You can also take a few steps between strength movements to add a low-impact cardio boost, Jayel Lewis, a certified international personal trainer and business coach in Philadelphia, tells SELF.
Walking also works as standalone active recovery sessions on days you’re not doing speedy runs, strength routines, or HIIT classes—and there should be days you’re not doing them. Not only does walking give your body a break, but it actually might speed up your recovery, by boosting blood flow through sore, fatigued muscles.
“You cannot hit it hard seven days a week; that is not sustainable,” health and fitness coach Jackie Dragone, creator of the coaching business The Program, tells SELF. “You need to have days where you do pull back a little bit, where you acknowledge that your body needs rest but you can still keep moving.”
2. Walking may help your aching body feel better.
Using walking to give your body a break from hard training can ward off overuse injuries in the first place, and it’s also an effective way of managing various aches. A 2018 study of 246 adults in the journal Evidence-Based Practice found walking worked as well as physical therapy in treating low back pain. In another study of over 1,500 adults from Northwestern University, just one hour of walking per week delayed disability in people who already had joint pain.
In order to reap these benefits, though, maintaining proper form is important: Most of our strides have adapted to years of injuries and regular habits like sitting, Jill Miller, a yoga and fitness instructor and co-creator of the online video series Walking Well, tells SELF. As a result, many of us end up leaning forward, not engaging our hamstrings, and landing on a bent knee instead of a straight one, says biomechanist Katy Bowman, M.S., Miller’s partner in Walking Well. This puts excess pressure on the front of your thighs instead of the back of your legs—your hamstrings and the muscles around your hips—where it belongs.
To offset some of the strain, try rolling your body beforehand with therapy balls, foam rollers, or other self-massage tools, Miller suggests. You can also prep your body with a dynamic warm-up, including moves like bodyweight squats, lunges, and forward folds, Amshoff says. Afterward, stretch your hamstrings (here’s Bowman’s guide on why, and how, to do it).
3. Walking may help you manage a wide range of diseases.
Think of just about any health benefit you’ve ever heard you could get through exercise, and chances are there’s research showing walking may help get you there. In one small 2016 study published in Creative Nursing, just 10 weeks of walking 20 minutes per day improved women’s blood pressure, cholesterol, and other measures of heart health. The American Institute for Cancer Research advises 30-minute brisk walks, five times per week, to lower your cancer risk.
If you do have an illness or chronic condition, walking is often more accessible (and sometimes more palatable) than other forms of exercise. And it still brings big benefits—for instance, improved function and reduced fatigue during breast cancer treatment, better blood sugar control (when done after eating) if you have diabetes, and improved quality of life if you’re a cancer patient or survivor.
4. You can use walking to safely catch up with your friends.
Mid-pandemic, our social activities are far more limited. But we know connection matters—in fact, loneliness has also been called an epidemic, and it’s been linked to a shorter life. “One aspect of our physical health that’s often overlooked is our need for others,” Bowman says.
Fortunately, public health officials believe COVID-19 spreads less easily outdoors, meaning it’s likely safe to exercise outside if you take the proper precautions like social distancing and wearing a mask. So a socially-distanced walk with friends can serve double duty, offering a much-needed chance to catch up while you also get fresh air and exercise.
“Even though we are still social distancing, you can wear your masks and meet friends or even just say hello to people along your route,” Lewis says. “That gives you camaraderie and satisfies your need to see people.”
5. Walking can bolster your mental health.
Moving your body can help shift your mindset in a big way. In one 2018 study of 66 young adults, a single 10-minute walk led to significant improvement in their self-reported moods.
While many people with mental health conditions like anxiety or depression are often told to “just work out!”—something which can be annoying and unhelpful, since in many cases, that’s not enough to treat the conditions—there is research to suggest that physical activity can be one element amid a broader group of habits that can be helpful. In fact, according to a recent research review of 55 published papers in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “there may be sufficient evidence to promote walking to prevent and treat these conditions.”
Setting a goal to walk, and then doing it, also boosts something called self-efficacy, Leeja Carter, Ph.D., assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology at Long Island University-Brooklyn, tells SELF. It’s a belief in yourself that, with time, further improves your health and well-being, she says: “Following through with that—being like, ‘I actually did it’—can give you a deep sense of confidence about what you can do and how you can do it, and that you could potentially do it again tomorrow.”
6. You can connect with nature.
Humans have an inherent connection to the natural world, and walking in a park or near a body of water can make you feel even more centered. When compared to a jaunt along a busy road, forest walking had significantly greater psychological benefits, according to a Northwestern University study of 38 participants. Another larger study, in the aptly named journal Ecopsychology, found group nature walks were linked to fewer depressive symptoms, less stress, and an overall brighter mood.
If it’s safe, you might even try taking some strides barefoot, Martha Patricia Montes, a certified trainer with Chicago Latin Fitness, tells SELF. “This works muscles in the feet, legs, and hip usually unavailable when wearing shoes,” she says. And that’s not all: “At a deeper level, we connect to earth.” (Of course, as we mentioned above, not all people have access to safe, green conditions to walk. But, in some good news, studies show even watching nature videos has positive effects on your emotions, so cueing up a forest walk on YouTube could help even if you’re stuck indoors.)
7. It’s bonding time with your pooch.
The average dog owner walks an extra 22 minutes per day, a small British study of 43 pairs of dog owners and non-dog owners found. That’s enough to reap health benefits for you and your pup—walking also helps your pet’s joints, digestion, weight, and behavior. Plus, it’s just plain fun, too, and a great way to spend some quality time with your dog, whether you’re one of the many who adopted a pandemic puppy or are just getting some extra one-on-one time with your loyal family pet.
Depending on the dog, you might walk more slowly than you would on your own. But if you want to bring in a little more intensity to your dog walk, you can amp it up by doing bodyweight movements—think squats, lunges, or jumping jacks—while your canine companion stops for potty breaks, says Montes.
8. You might ease your eye pain.
When you stare at a screen all day, your range of focus narrows to the few feet in front of you. This fatigues the muscles that help the eye focus, contributing to digital eyestrain. While this usually doesn’t harm your vision in the long run, it can contribute to symptoms such as headaches, sore eyes, and blurred vision.
Strolling outdoors, however, “requires that you use long-range vision, as well as constant scaling of obstacles or terrain out in front of you and on either side,” Miller says. The more often you observe what’s going on in the wider world, the better your brain and eyes work together to process it, according to a small 2019 study in PLoS Biology.
9. It’s low-key enough to squeeze into a busy day.
Unlike other exercises, you might not get sweaty—so you don’t always have to schedule a shower between that and your workday, Amshoff points out. If you’re working from home, it offers a welcome escape, either for a quick midday break or as a way to start or end the workday. And you might not even need to change clothes—just swap your slippers or work shoes for well-fitting walking or running shoes, she says.
You can also use brisk walking to run errands or as a warm-up before another physical endeavor, whether that’s another workout or a manual task like snow shoveling, Montes says. Or, multitask like Amshoff with her audiobooks and calls, or Dragone, who often listens to business podcasts while she walks.
However, there’s also a huge benefit to, at least sometimes, turning off all your inputs and simply giving yourself silence and space, Carter says. Especially in a year like this one, some peace and quiet represent a serious form of self-care.
10. But if you want to, you can crank it up a notch.
Walking counts as exercise nearly any way you do it. However, it’s helpful to designate your main purpose beforehand, Lewis says. If you’re mainly looking to unplug, leave the technology at home and don’t push the pace.
On the flip side, there are ample ways to add some intensity and turn your walks into a walking workout. For instance, do some walking-based intervals—walk faster for one minute, then slower for two, on repeat. Or put on your favorite playlist and walk easy on the verses, faster on the chorus, Stern suggests. You can also try a weighted vest, or stop every half mile and do a bodyweight circuit, Amshoff says.
11. You can use walking to connect to your community…
Most people aren’t traveling as much—if at all—these days. Fortunately, walking offers a chance to act like a tourist in your own neighborhood. You might hit those outdoor attractions you never get a chance to check out—chances are, there are fewer crowds right now—or even discover a hidden gem. Stern, for instance, found a brand-new path right in the middle of Columbus Boulevard in Philly that she describes as “like a secret garden.”
You can also forge deeper bonds with your neighbors, more vital than ever in light of COVID-19’s effects. Stride door to door to check in from a distance with any neighbors who are outdoors, carry food or other supplies to those who need them, or take the time to pick up a few pieces of trash on the surrounding streets. “It’s healthy for your body, your vibe, and your spirit,” Carter says.
12. And, identify things to make it better.
If you’re new to strolling around your community—and are just now really checking out what it has to offer—you may soon realize that it can be a fertile breeding ground for identifying things that could benefit from some change. As you stride, look out for areas that need attention—say, a route that could use brighter lighting, or a busy street that needs a crosswalk or a path nearby. Then, send requests for improvements straight to your city council representative or park district chairperson. You can also check online groups for your neighborhood, like one on Facebook or via Nextdoor, to see if any of your neighbors have already flagged the issue. That way, you can join forces.
Whether you’re taking to the streets to improve your community, boost your fitness, or calm your thoughts, adding a walk to your day can be a feel-good change to your normal routine. Consider it an act of fitness self-care for your body and mind.