Walking is Powerful
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Whether you're just starting a walking
program or you're already a regular walker, your health likely played a role in
your decision to get fit. Maybe you want to lose a few pounds or protect your
heart from disease or keep your bones strong and your joints limber. Walking
can do all this and more.
But when we talk about walking for health,
we must look beyond the physical benefits. After all, health is a rich fabric
spun from physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual threads. If one of these
threads becomes frayed for any reason, it can weaken the entire fabric. What
you eat, how much you sleep, how you handle your personal and professional
relationships, how you view the world and your place in it -- all of these
things influence whether or not you feel vital and strong. They also have a
real impact on your body.
The same can be said of walking. It
supports health in every sense -- physically, mentally, emotionally, and
spiritually. It enriches and balances your life. And it just plain makes you
feel good. No wonder the Greek physician Hippocrates deemed walking to be
"man's best medicine."
One Step at a Time
To get a complete picture of how walking
supports good health, you must start at the cellular level. A daily walk keeps
certain cells -- your immune cells -- tuned up for action, ready to whip
viruses and battle bacteria. In fact, some experts believe that walking may be
one of your best weapons for fighting off infection and disease and getting on
the road to recovery fast.
Strong statement? Maybe. But a number of
studies have shown that a moderate walk not only relieves the stress that may
trigger or aggravate an illness but also stimulates your immune system, your
body's main defense against disease. In one such study, a 45-minute walk (about
3 miles) increased the activity of certain immune cells by about 57 percent.
The cells' activity level returned to normal about 3 hours after the walk.
Now researchers don't know for sure whether walking can make you heal
faster, but some studies suggest that people who walk consistently develop
fewer illnesses than people who are sedentary. The fact that walking is a
moderate activity may be key to its immune-enhancing effects. Indeed, other
studies show that long bouts of intense exercise -- like an hour of
pavement-pounding, heavy-breathing running -- can actually suppress your immune
system and make you more susceptible to infection.
This brings up a
question that I often hear from fellow walkers: When you're under the weather,
should you continue your walking program or take off a few days until you feel
better? One expert recommends this rule of thumb: If you have a headache or
runny nose, or if you're sneezing, you're okay to walk as long as your
temperature is normal. In cases of fever, sore throat, or coughing, you should
rest until your symptoms subside.
Even if you feel well enough to
continue walking, skip the marathons, races, and fun walks for the time being
-- unless you have your doctor's okay to participate.
Gaining Ground Against Cancer
If walking has a beneficial effect on the
immune system, then might it have some protective effect against any type of
cancer? The research so far seems promising.
In one study, laboratory
rats were given a chemical that induces breast cancer. Half of the rats were
put in cages that allowed them free access to an exercise wheel. The rats could
run on the wheel any time they got the urge, and they did so frequently.
Compared with the rats that didn't have a wheel, those that did developed
one-third fewer cases of breast cancer. What's more, their tumors appeared much
Exercise in general keeps cropping up as a factor in cancer
prevention and treatment. Scientists don't yet understand how exercise might
deter tumors, but they do know that people who work out regularly seem to get
cancer less often than those who don't.
For instance, three separate
population studies found that men with physically demanding jobs, such as
carpenters, plumbers, gardeners, and mail carriers, are less prone to colon
cancer than men who sit all day. In another study, Harvard University
researchers determined that men who engage in about an hour of vigorous
activity every day reduce their risk of prostate cancer by 47 to 88 percent.
And researchers at the University of Iowa Cancer Center in Iowa City found that
women over age 65, a group that accounts for 50 percent of all breast cancer
cases, are less likely to get the disease if they exercise moderately. In fact,
the more active these women are, the lower their chances of being diagnosed
with breast cancer.
While no one can say for certain that walking
every day protects against all kinds of cancer, enough evidence has been
uncovered to persuade the American Cancer Society to recommend regular exercise
as one possible way to reduce your risk. And if you or someone you know is
receiving treatment for cancer, walking may be the ticket to a steady recovery
and the speedy return of strength and energy.
For example, walking
may counteract the fatigue and weakness that are associated with high-dose
chemotherapy. Traditionally, patients have been told to rest to recuperate from
chemo. But extended bed rest leads to loss of muscle strength and
cardiovascular fitness, which only worsens fatigue and weakness -- so much so
that they can linger for years after treatment. So a team of German researchers
tried a different approach: They encouraged patients to exercise regularly
after completing chemotherapy. People had not only more energy but also a more
positive attitude toward recovery.
The benefits of exercise for
cancer patients are psychological as well as physical. One study of women being
treated for breast cancer showed that their levels of depression and anxiety
dropped dramatically after 10 weeks of regular exercise -- 30 to 40 minutes, 4
days a week. This finding is especially encouraging because breast cancer
survivors face a significant risk of depression and anxiety.
What Else Can Walking Do for You?
To be sure, scientists have only begun to
scratch the surface in understanding the benefits of exercise -- not only for
fighting cancer and boosting immunity but also for enhancing all aspects of
human health. Interestingly, most studies of exercise use walking as the
activity of choice. And they have revealed some extraordinary information about
what this most fundamental of workouts can do.
- It supports weight loss and weight
- It reduces the risk of heart
disease and stroke.
- It fends off diabetes by improving
the body's ability to use insulin.
- It eases the pain and stiffness of
- It keeps bones strong, which
- In women, it relieves premenstrual
and menopausal discomforts.
- It improves sleep.
- It builds strength, flexibility,
- It enhances mental function.
- It counteracts anger, depression,
As you can see, you have a lot to gain just
from lacing up a pair of walking shoes and putting one foot in front of the