Walking for Exercise: Why 30 Minutes a Day Can Transform Your Health

Walking can save your life.

Unfortunately, half of all Americans don’t get the amount of exercise they should – 150 minutes a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and several other federal health organizations. That lack of exercise leads to an increase in all sorts of health problems ranging from diabetes to premature death.

Amanda Sterczyk, an ACE-certified personal trainer, says our sedentary lifestyles are a combination of a lack of activity and a proliferation of devices intended to make our lives easier.

“The World Health Organization has identified physical inactivity as the fourth global risk factor for premature death, behind high blood pressure, smoking, and high blood sugar,” Sterczyk said. “And researchers have tracked an increase in obesity that correlates directly with an increase in the acquisition of labor-saving devices like dishwashers and garage door openers.”

The simple act of walking 30 minutes a day, however, can change all of that. While walking isn’t the most appealing form of exercise, its affordability, accessibility and impact on our health are well worth the time you invest in it, our experts say.

How Walking 30 Minutes a Day Can Benefit Your Health

When you compare to the calorie burning potential of a good run (about 250 calories in 30 minutes) to walking (about 250 calories in 80 minutes), you might wonder what benefits there are to such a gentle exercise. And we think that’s a great question.

We’ve found that our tendency, especially in things like working, is to judge an activity by its efficiency. We want the option that gives us the most benefit in the least amount of time. But that’s not how walking is. Think of it like a savings account. Every time you walk, you put a few bucks in the piggy bank.

After, let’s say, one year of walking 30 minutes five times a week, that once empty savings jar is now packed full of money.

Now, all of this is based on some simple science. When you walk, you’re using a lot of key body parts, says Suzanne Dixon, an Oregon-based registered dietician and epidemiologist.

“When you consider the physiologic changes that occur with walking, it makes sense you can gain major health benefit from this simple, accessible activity,” Dixon said. “It engages the largest muscle groups in the body, improves blood flow, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels and sensitizes the body to the effects of insulin.”

We also heard the same thing from Dr. Alex Robles, founder of WhiteCoatTrainer.com, a fitness site for doctors.

“With every step you take, the muscles of your legs, get activated and need a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. This is provided by your lungs which work harder to keep bringing the oxygen to your body when you’re in motion,” Robles told us. “Your heart also has to work harder to deliver that oxygen and nutrients in the form of blood.”

But these are just the basics. Researchers have found that the simple act of walking on a regular basis can have some pretty profound effects on your long-term health.

» Related: Running vs. Walking: Weight Loss, Injuries and Health

1. Walking Is Great for People with Ongoing Arthritis

A 2014 article by the Centers for Disease Control pointed out that arthritis patients who walk have been proven to show signs of “improved arthritis pain, fatigue, function and quality of life.”  In fact, a 2001 overview study reported that aerobic activities like walking decreased hospitalizations and work disability.

We believe walking is an excellent solution for those who deal with ongoing arthritis. Though the idea of exercising is counter-intuitive when you’re dealing with join pain, it’s proven to provide relief.

However, this doesn’t mean you should keep walking if you have arthritis and you’re experiencing pain, says board-certified orthopedic surgeon Dr. Barbara Berginink.

“Walking might not be as good for someone with arthritis, or other painful conditions of the weight-bearing joints, but then neither would jogging. I generally recommend walking at a relatively slow pace … a slower pace is more natural for the human body,” Berginink said.

2. Walking May Reduce Your Cravings for Sweets

Scientists from the University of Exeter in England conducted a simple study with 78 people who consistently ate chocolate. Participants didn’t eat chocolate for two days.

Then, about half of them walked 15 minutes on a treadmill before doing a simulated work task. The other group didn’t walk at all. Chocolates were available in the simulated work environment.

The results? Those who walked were 50% less likely to consume chocolate while working.

Now, this type of experiment isn’t the most exact. They didn’t identify what happens in the body to curb the sweet tooth after exercise. But we do believe there is something important there and that it never hurts to replace your chocolate cravings with a 15-minute walk.

3. Walking Can Reduce Genetic Obesity Effects by Half

A study published in 2012 indicated that 1 hour of brisk walking every day can reduce the effect of obesity-inducing genes by half. On the flip side of the coin, the study revealed that the effect of these genes was increased by half when subjects did not exercise but remained sedentary.

We think this is an important study because it shows you both sides of the fitness spectrum – what happens when you do walk and what happens when you don’t. We also believe that, based on this study, people who may feel powerless over their genetic tendency toward obesity can find hope in a brisk, 1-hour walk each day.

And remember, you don’t have to do the entire hour in one shot. You can break your walk into four 15-minute chunks.

Berginink pointed out that those who are dealing with obesity have to be smart about walking. The weight that’s put on your knees could put you at a higher risk for injury.

“Larger thighs can put your knees at a mechanical disadvantage,” she said. “If a person already has a degenerative joint disease of the hips, knees, ankles or feet, it might not be a good idea to walk for exercise.”

4. Walking May Reduce the Risk of Post-Menopausal Breast Cancer

In 2012, researchers published a study in which they discovered that women who walked 7 hours or more per week had a 14% less chance of getting breast cancer than women who walked 3 hours or less.

We believe these results are an encouraging sign for women because it proves that you can increase your chances of not having breast cancer simply by walking about one hour a day. In fact, women who did more strenuous exercise had a 25% less risk of getting breast cancer than the least active women in the study.

5. Walking May Help You Avoid Getting Sick

The National Institutes of Health published an article about how exercise can cut down on your sick days.

There’s a possibility that all the heavy breathing from exercising flushes out bacteria and viruses from your airways and lungs. Also, the rise in body temperature you experience while walking could help fight off bacteria.

Though these principles are true for exercise in general, we think it’s important for you to know that you can get these benefits from just 20-30 minutes of walking per day.

6. Walking Can Help With a Lot of Other Health Issues

We came across a great article by Mayo Clinic about the benefits of walking. Aside from what we’ve already listed, walking can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and lower your chances of a heart attack.

Sterczyk pointed out that you can reduce the chance of premature death just by getting up and walking for a few minutes at a time at various points during the day.

“The activity our bodies crave and need can happen in minuscule increments. Indeed, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association reported that physical activity that was accumulated in sporadic bouts throughout the day still reduced the risk of early death,” she said. “The total amount of daily physical activity is more important than how you accumulate that activity.”

Dixon said that the health benefits we get from walking are as much about avoiding the health complications of a sedentary lifestyle as they are about how far or how much we walk.

“Sitting too much during the day and for prolonged periods of time without standing up is linked with higher risk of numerous chronic diseases, including obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and unhealthy cholesterol levels,” she said.

Walking Is a Great Way to Jump-Starting Your Fitness Habits

Have you ever walked into a gym just to check it out and felt instantly overwhelmed by all the machines and the intense people using them? Weights rise and fall. Treadmills hum. Ellipticals rock back and forth. It can be intimidating.

Now, imagine walking into a CrossFit-style gym where there’s a lot of super intense action going on. Sweat is pouring off bodies. Teeth are gritting. These types of places aren’t for the faint of heart, and definitely not for the average person who’s looking to start an exercise routine.

The truth is, if the average person decides to start exercising, they usually end up in one of the two scenarios we described. And, there’s a good chance they’ll feel intimidated or overwhelmed. That’s not a good start to a new lifestyle.

We believe that walking is the key to jump-starting your fitness habits for many of the reasons we’ve already talked about. But we also think it’s a great exercise for you start with (or transition to) because the barriers to entry are really low.

Walking requires no membership fee, no special equipment (unless you want a pedometer), no special location or facility and nearly anyone can do it. It’s an activity that’s available to people no matter how much money they make, where they live or what they do for work. Few exercises offer the huge health benefits at such a low cost.

“Exercise sounds daunting, people often feel it requires a gym or fancy equipment, and many think you have to meet certain goals or set aside specific time to do it. Because of these barriers, many people never even get started,” Dixon said. “Thinking of how to gain health benefit from simple movement or physical activity, such as walking, removes these barriers. Instead of feeling that every opportunity to move your body must be exercise, incorporating more movement into your life bit by bit can be do-able and will improve health.”

How to Make Walking a Little More Fun

We’ll totally admit that walking isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

Here are a few tips for making it fun:

  • Use a step counter: Fitbit and other companies make small devices that track your steps. 10,000 a day is a good target.

  • Mix it up: Find local hiking trails, volunteer to walk a neighbor’s dog or walk to a local shop. Making walking a part of your daily routine will make it easier to be consistent.

  • Change intensity levels: If you want to add a challenge, carry a pair of small dumbbells, walk up flights of stairs or bump up your pace.

Each of these options appeals to a different sort of person. We think it’s best that you find the variable that connects with you the most. If you’re competitive, find another pedometer user and keep track of how many steps each of you logs each day. If you’re a visual person, changing up the route to include new scenery will be helpful.

Bottom Line

We believe that research shows walking is a pretty phenomenal way to begin your journey toward better health. But it’s not just about beginning an exercise routine; continuing a habit of walking is equally as important to your overall wellbeing.

We know that we live in a world where paid memberships to the gym are the norm. New apps and high-intensity workout programs are trending like crazy. But these types of workouts and memberships aren’t for everyone.

The beauty of a consistent lifestyle of walking is that it’s something that nearly every age group can do. Families can walk together. Kids can walk. Grandparents can walk (even if it’s at a more leisurely pace). And everyone benefits from it.

When we’re looking for a new workout or exercise plan, it’s easy to get caught up in finding the silver bullet…that one workout that tops all the others.

Our advice is this: if you’re just starting out and you want an easy routine where you won’t feel out of place or overwhelmed, walk. Your body, the research shows, will thank you with every step you take.

“Humans evolved into hunter-gatherers. We walked long distances and have to look out for food sources in our environment,” Berginink said. “Walking is the perfect exercise for humans, and when we veer from walking, we are likely to suffer.”

In the meantime, if you’ve thought about a holistic approach to better health, we’ve written some great guides on how to care for your body:

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.

Walking for Exercise: Why 30 Minutes a Day Can Transform Your Health