Hiking to health: the physical and mental health benefits of walking

Walking, hiking, rambling or roaming: whatever you call it – it’s free, it’s enjoyable, walks take you through some of the most scenic countryside on offer and it is good for your physical and mental health and well-being. Walking has long been recognised as a gentle yet extremely effective means of exercise, accessible to all ages and levels of fitness. Cardiovascular and calorie burning is only one part of the health benefits walking offers. Explored here are some of the beneficial properties of putting on those hiking boots and getting you and little one outside for a walk.

Happy feet, happy heart:

Walking has long been recognised as an aid in improving cardivosacular health, reducing blood pressure and descreasing the risk of heart disease. Even a short walk each day can have major benefits and it is never too late to start. A study by New England Journal of Medicine found that walking was inversely related to coronary events with women going for walk for 3 or more hours a week at a brisk pace were 30-40% less at risk. The study also showed that sedentary women who became active later in life also reduced their risk of heart related illness compared to other women who remained sedentary – so get those boots on ladies and get out for some walks! Men too can benefit, with the Honolulu Heart Study showing that mortality rates of non-smoking retired men who walked 2 miles (3.2km) or more a day were half that of those who walked less than 1 mile (1.6km) (New England Journal of Medicine, Jan 8th, 1998)

Fighting fit

Walking has been linked to reductions in diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers. A study carried out at University of Glasgow suggested that 30 minutes of walking a day could significantly reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, with a high level of physical activity associated with a 20-30% reduction in the risk of developing the disease. ‘(Physical activity and the prevention of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus’; Gill & Cooper;Sport Medicine, 1st October 2008). The World Cancer Research Fund recommends the equivelent of 30 minutes brisk walking a day in order to help reduce incidences of cancer, with greater length of exercising yielding greater benefits. They have found convincing evidence that increased activity reduces the risk of colon cancer and probable evidence that it has an impact on reducing breast and endometrial cancer. Getting out for walks also helps in the fight against osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercises like walking, helps produce an increase in bone mass, with Dr Rozental of Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre recommending 20-30 minutes of walking 3 times a week to help maintain good levels of bone density. Walking outside also helps boost levels of Vitamin D – itself linked to playing a role in the prevention of a large number of major diseases.

Get out for walks in the green to beat the blues

How many times do you hear people say they need to get out for some fresh air to clear their thoughts? Walking has an undeniable therapeutic effect on the mind. Research backs this up with those staying active benefiting from reduced depression and anxiety and an increased sense of well-being.  ‘Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health’ (Mind, 2007) report looked at the effect of green exercise such as walking and gardening on mental well-being. 94% of participants in the study reported an increased feeling of well-being after taking part in green exercise, with 90% of participants commenting that the combination of exercise with the natural environment was important in determining how they felt. A further 71% reported feeling a decrease in depression after walking through a country park, 90% said they felt increased self-esteem and 88% felt an overall improvement in their mood after the walk. The Mental Health Foundation even promotes the use of gentle exercise such as going for walks as the equivalent of a mild anti-depressant in treating depression, as set out in their information leaflet ‘Up and running’ (MHF, July 2005).

Spice up your sex life with a walk through the fields!

No – this is not a recommendation to heat things up al fresco but you may be interested to know that research indicates that walking by day can liven up the bedroom by night! A nine year study of 600 men undertaken by Dr Irwin Goldstein of Boston University School of Medicine showed that those men who continued exercising or started exercising from middle age reduced the risk of impotence. Unlike smoking, alcohol consumption and other factors, it is never too late for men to benefit from increased exercise with Dr Goldstein’s study suggesting an invigorating 2 mile walk a day would go a long way to prolonging men’s sexual life.  Numerous other studies also reinforce the link between exercise and sexual health and activity, with factors such as improved energy, circulation, and feeling good about yourself all resulting from exercise and boosting sexual activity.

So what are you waiting for?

As if all the above were not reason enough to grab your coat and your baby and head out that door for a walk right now, walking is also fantastic postnatal exercise. It is gentle enough to ease postnatal ladies gently back into exercise whilst at the same time helping to lift spirits and provide increased mental well-being. The existence of parent and baby walking groups also plays an important part in helping form support networks for new parents and an outlet for sharing experiences and socialising through group walks. Walking is also great for baby. The great outdoor helps to stimulate the senses. Social contact with others on walks can help to speed along speech and other social development and any parent can attest to a good walk helping to settle a restless baby! Walking also helps increase baby’s levels of  vitamin D – an important factor in their development and qualitative research has shown that parents feel taking children out for a walk regularly can reduce crying and moody behaviour. Whatever you call it, the health benefits of walks and hiking are undeniable for all ages.







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