A lot of people take up walking or running when they find they've put on a few pounds. But weight loss is just one of the many effects of putting your body in motion.
Walking is such good medicine, there's no pill or potion that can compete with the benefits you can reap from a consistent, challenging cardio walking program. According to the American Medical Association, 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, even some forms of cancer.
Next time you feel your resolve flagging, consider this long list of favors you'll be doing your body and brain every time you lace up your sneakers:
• Friendship: There's been an explosion of interest in distance events such as 5Ks and half-marathons, particularly among women. Whether they're competing to win or just hoping to finish, these women love conquering new goals and becoming fit while socializing, too.
• Mood enhancer: Numerous studies have found that for many people with mild to moderate depression, regular walking is just as effective as taking antidepressants. Emotionally, a walking program — particularly a group session — helps avoid feelings of isolation. Physiologically, exercise increases endorphins, neurochemicals occurring naturally in the brain which elevate the mood and reduce anxiety levels. All of which means you'll sleep better, too.
• Increased coordination. As we age, muscles, balance and posture can deteriorate, leading to falls that ultimately can be fatal. Regular walking establishes a continual heel-to-toe striking gait, which aids balance and overall body coordination. The long stride of a vigorous cardio walk, together with fast arm movement, trains the walker to practice balanced posture during forward movement.
• Bone density: By age 65, one in four women has osteoporosis, putting them at risk for debilitating fractures. The impact of walking, cardio walking and running can slow down and even reverse bone loss. Plus, the more muscle we gain surrounding the bones, the better protected our bones and vital organs are from accidents.
• Flexibility: During a cardio walk, you take long strides that improve flexibility in the hips and knees, while developing tendons and ligaments to protect from injury. A full arm swing does the same for shoulders and elbows.
• Metabolism: Cardio walking increases the body's ability to burn energy, not only during the walk, but for a time afterward, too, thanks to the muscles you're developing. In those with Type 2 diabetes, walking helps regulate blood glucose and improves insulin sensitivity.
• Digestive relief: The intestines are stimulated with vigorous cardio walking, since as you swing your arms, your body twists from side to side. Result: better regularity, especially if you're hydrating properly.
• Breathe easier: For sedentary individuals, by age 35 maximal oxygen intake has decreased by 10 percent from its peak; by age 45 it has decreased by 20 percent or more. Walking keeps lung tissues strong and increases the efficiency with which the muscle cells take oxygen from the blood. So, for instance, you'll no longer get breathless climbing stairs.
• Heart health: Cardio walking reduces both a high heart rate and blood pressure, two valuable markers of the heart working more efficiently. Increased circulation due to walking vigorously also helps lessen varicose veins and other related circulatory problems.