I’ve said it more times than I can count – exercise is essential for better health. And one of the best, most accessible forms of physical activity is walking.
For brain health, heart health and every other kind of health I can think of, taking a walk most days, even if it’s just around the block, does your body lots of good.
Added to that, researchers have found that three little tweaks to your walking regimen that can put more oomph into these health benefits. Best of all, the improvements are a snap to work into your daily walking routine.
One of the most important benefits of walking and other types of exercise is that it helps control blood sugar levels and can be an important way for people with diabetes to keep their blood glucose down. In a new twist, researchers in Denmark have found that by changing walking speeds you can improve your blood sugar maintenance.
The Blood Sugar Benefits of “Interval Walking”
Turns out if you vary your walking speed instead of continuing at a steady pace, the body’s cells will take in more sugar – thanks to the influence of insulin – and keep too much glucose from accumulating in the bloodstream.1
The researchers call this style of walking “interval walking.”
In their tests, they had the interval walkers alternate back and forth between walking vigorously for three minutes and then easing back to a leisurely stroll for another three minutes. Using this pattern, the interval walkers took five one-hour walks a week while a control group walked at a steady pace.
After four months, the blood sugar levels in the interval walkers were, overall, lower than in people who always walked at a moderate, steady pace. Their physical fitness was also more robust. What’s called their “insulin sensitivity” – how effectively their cells responded to the release of insulin – was also improved.
Bubble Gum Power
Another way to get more bang for your buck when walking?
Believe it or not, all you have to do is chew gum while you’re on the move!
I know, this sounds like the old joke about whether or not you can chew gum and walk at the same time, but researchers in Japan have found that if you chew while you move around, you burn significantly more calories, lose more fat, and your heart rate climbs higher. What’s more, in their tests, many of the people chewing gum naturally walked faster and farther.
The researchers conclude that chewing gum influences the sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that controls movement) and increases “walking rhythm with a consequent improvement in the health-related effects of walking, which in turn helps to maintain weight.”2
You may not realize this, but walking qualifies as a “weight-bearing” exercise. That’s because as you walk you move muscles in an effort that works against the pull of gravity and thereby strengthen your bones.
Many studies have shown that because bone responds to the stresses of moving against gravity, people who exercise have stronger bones with extra “mass.” Along with walking, some of the best bone-strengthening activities include jogging, hiking, dancing, stair-climbing, tennis and weight-lifting.
On the other hand, when you bike or swim you get fewer bone benefits – the water supports your body – and on a bike you glide along without having to resist gravity’s pull as much. According to a study at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, one way to increase the bone benefits of walking is to go for a walk after eating and do at least some of your walking downhill.
“The best exercise for your bones is the weight-bearing kind, which forces you to work against gravity,” says researcher Kathleen Borer. “When you walk downhill, the pull of gravity is greater.” (Count me as a skeptic. I think when you walk uphill your muscles get a harder workout.)
What’s more, while some people have been taught to avoid exercise after eating, Dr. Borer says there are actually nutritional benefits to hitting the pavement—or the gym — after a meal. “Exercising after eating,” she explains, “may help nutrients from the food get absorbed into the bloodstream.”
Walking after a meal maybe, but I’d still avoid swimming right after eating just to ensure you don’t suffer cramps. Doctors used to say that digestion diverts blood flow to the stomach, increasing your risk of dangerous muscle cramps. While doctors today have largely abandoned this advice, which I heard constantly when I was a kid, many suggest that it’s still safer to wait 30 minutes and give your food more time to digest.
And, as I’ve often said, whatever exercise you decide to work into your daily routine, be sure to do some kind of physical activity consistently. All the research shows that folks who are more active enjoy better health, live longer and usually have a happier outlook on life.