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Since UK covid restrictions have been lifted, you may have noticed your daily step count going back up. But, question: why is walking so good for you?
Our social lives, commutes to work and leisure activities were all locked down by Covid-19. For many of us, so were our step counts. Of course, this sudden inactivity was a small price to pay for countering the spread of covid, but it nonetheless made it harder to gain the benefits of walking.
“A lack of movement affects our physical health, including our mobility and metabolism, as well as our mental health, such as our mood and brain function,” says Ben Le Vesconte, running coach, personal trainer, and Head Barefoot Movement Coach at Vivobarefoot. “Movement is crucial for a healthy body and brain. It shaped our bodies over millions of years. If we don’t move — a lot — we end up with dysfunctional, likely painful, and injured bodies.”
Daily movement is also essential for us to maintain a healthy weight. So if you’ve gained a few pounds over the last couple of years, that’s totally natural and you mustn’t beat yourself up about it. A survey by Public Health England reveals that more than 40% of UK adults gained weight during the pandemic and the average increase was half a stone (just over 3kg).
Now that covid restrictions have eased, you may have noticed your step count bounce back, even if you only have to be in the office a few days a week. When we’re out and about, it can be easy to clock up 10,000 steps without thinking about it.
Interestingly, data from walking safety app Follo shows that people are increasingly choosing to walk to work for a range of reasons, including the surge in petrol prices, reducing carbon emissions, physical and mental health benefits, and the ongoing risks of Covid-19.
Keep reading to find out the positive effect your daily wanderings will be having on your body and mind, the benefits of walking, and the small ways you can build more of it into your daily routine.
Benefits of walking: 5 pros of lacing up more
1. Maintains metabolism and heart health
There are all kinds of benefits to walking, but on a basic physical level, it can improve our stamina, burn excess calories, make our hearts healthier, and even improve our posture. “Regular walking has a wonderful cumulative effect on our bodies and brains,” says Le Vesconte. “Movement is crucial for metabolism and cardiovascular health.”
2. Easy on our hearts, lungs, and joints
Walking is a form of moderate-intensity or low-impact steady state (LISS) exercise. This means that while it contributes to increased cardiovascular and heart fitness, it puts less stress on your heart and lungs than high-intensity activities, like a HIIT or circuits class.
“As a type of low impact steady-state cardio, walking puts less stress on your joints and as a result is accessible for all different fitness levels and ages,” says Yves Benchimol, CEO of WeWard, an app that rewards your daily steps with discounts at brands like FarFetch, ASOS and coffee shops. “It’s one form of low impact steady-state cardio that is an easy way of staying healthy — it can even increase life expectancy!”
3. Keeps stress and anxiety at bay
The benefits of walking can have a major impact on our mental health too, providing fresh air, a change of scenery, and time spent in nature. “Movement can also help control stress, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, addictions and slow down the ageing process,” says Le Vesconte. “In the elderly, movement has even been shown to stimulate brain growth.”
4. Provides connections with others
Going for a stroll can be a great way to get some alone time, whether you feel like getting lost in your own thoughts or tuning into your favourite podcast. But walking can also be an amazing way to connect with others, whether that’s a friend or new people via a hiking group.
5. Better for the environment
Travelling by foot is the most sustainable form of transport, with zero carbon impact. This is what inspired Benchimol to set up WeWard, as the app’s rewards system encourages people to swap public transport or car travel for walking. According to Benchimol, WeWard has already saved 246,950 tons of CO2 and rewarded its users with £2 million.
How much walking do I really need to do?
The World Health Organisation recommends doing 20–40 mins of walking (or another moderate intensity form of exercise) every day in order to maintain cardiovascular health.
“However, this translates into only about 2,000 to 5,000 steps per day,” says Le Vesconte. “Research has shown 30–50 mins of vigorous activity (like running) per day is potentially optimal, as long as we have built up activity gradually.”
Even 30–50 mins of vigorous daily activity pales in comparison to how much our ancestors moved each day, Le Vesconte explains. Studies show that humans once walked between 16k–17k steps a day, which equates to about 130–140 mins of walking or 90–95 mins of running.
While we don’t need to aim for numbers quite that high, daily movement is essential. And importantly, you can’t make up for a sedentary lifestyle in the gym. “Yes, we can mix in other exercises but an hour in the gym does not counteract sitting for the rest of the day,” says Le Vesconte. “Regular breaks for movement, walking, mobility, and strength are aligned with the evolutionary history which shaped our physiology and our health.”
How can I walk more?
Whether you’re working from home, the office or not working at all, Le Vesconte says that going for a stroll every morning, lunchtime, and evening is a “simple step to better health”. If your commute involves a stretch of walking, you may find that you are moving in this pattern already. The trick is to keep it up even on days spent mostly at home.
“Walk to work. Walk to lunch. Walk home. Then add in more activities which you ENJOY,” says Ben Le Vesconte. “I encourage everyone to get out for a ‘good’ walk before they start their day. We always feel better after a walk. It helps to distinguish between home and work time. Whatever works to get you out the door, do it!”
A note on safety
Understandably, many women feel unsafe walking alone, especially after the horrific murders of Sarah Everard, Sebina Nessa, and Ashling Murphy shone a light on the prevalence of male violence against women. A 2021 survey by YouGov revealed that women feel more unsafe walking alone than they did three years ago, with more than two-thirds of women now feeling in danger.
While this is definitely not an issue that women should have to fix, one of the ways we can gain a little peace of mind is by using a street safety app. For example, walking safety app Follo will monitor your journey and alert your loved ones if it detects any worrying signals, like if you stop moving, suddenly start moving at high speed, veer off route, or lose device connection.
What is ‘foot health’ and why is it important for walking?
Feet need to be conditioned in the right way in order to function optimally, but many shoes are poorly designed to support this. In the US, 90% of foot surgeries are performed on women and 75% of those surgeries are caused by narrow, stiff, heeled shoes. We all know that high heels can result in problems, but trainers can have a negative impact on foot health, too. Common foot problems, back, and knee pain are extremely rare in indigenous populations.
“The job of the foot is to provide sensory feedback for skilful movement,” says Ben Le Vesconte. When we walk barefoot, we walk more skilfully by taking shorter strides with a softer heel stroke rather than an abrupt heel strike. Taking shorter steps also means we take more steps, which burns more calories.”
He recommends wearing shoes like those designed by Vivobarefoot, which are wide, thin, flexible, and made to align with the shape and function of the foot. “Walking in Vivobarefoot increases foot strength by 60% in six months as well as improving stability and physical function,” says Le Vesconte. “Minimalist footwear has even been shown to reduce knee pain. Simply put, we tread softly when we can feel the floor.”
The brand has also just launched a new health service, Vivohealth, which provides tools to help you live a less sedentary lifestyle.
4 simple tips to help you get your steps up
1. Aim for three walks a day
When working from home, try to stick to Ben’s rule of taking a walk in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening. Could you treat yourself to a coffee from a cafe you can walk to? Remember, getting out for a walk first thing will help set you up for the day.
2. Get rewarded for your steps
Download WeWard and get rewarded for your steps in discounts at brands like FarFetch, ASOS, and coffee shops. The app claims its users walk 24% more with WeWard.
3. Embrace bad weather
Try not to let bad weather get in the way of you reaping the benefits of walking. Dress appropriately and try to embrace whatever the UK skies decide to throw at you! Le Vesconte keeps the following Bob Marley quote in mind to get him outside in all weathers: “Some people feel the rain, others get wet,” or this one from Alfred Wainwright, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”.
4. Make walking a social activity
Rather than meeting a friend in a cafe, why not take your brew to go and enjoy the benefits of walking together? Walking can also be an amazing way to make new pals through a hiking group, such as Ramblers or Black Girls Hike. There are plenty of scenic hikes in the UK if you’re in the mood for an adventure.
Got it? Ready? Set? Steps.