It requires no costly gym membership and no personal trainer. It melts away fat and will create the same emotional high as jogging. Little wonder, then, that walking is now the nation’s favourite fitness activity, with the latest results from Sport England’s Active People Survey revealing that one fifth of the adult population regularly heads out for a walk of 30 minutes or longer.
According to exercise scientists and medical experts, walking is the most natural of all workouts. “Human beings are designed to walk,” says John Brewer, Professor of Sport at the University of Bedfordshire. “Biomechanically and physiologically, walking as often as you can is among the best forms of activity to improve fitness and health.”
Certainly, there is no shortage of research to show that a daily walk offers much more than a slimmer waist (although that is a side-effect, too). Walking has been shown to prevent everything from gallstones and strokes to sleep problems and can even help to cut cravings for cigarettes in people trying to give up smoking. Last month the American Association for Cancer Research found that men who walked four or more hours a week had a 23 per cent lower risk of death compared with men who walked less than 20 minutes a week. Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that daily walking for six months had a profound effect on reducing the deep abdominal fat that settles around the vital organs and adds to the risk of heart disease.
Because walking is a weight-bearing exercise, it is also essential in countering the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. “Bones are like muscles in the way that they get stronger and denser the more demands you place on them,” says Lucy Knight, a personal trainer and the author of Walking for Weight Loss (Kyle Cathie). “The pull of a muscle against a bone together with the force of gravity when you walk will stress the bone, which responds by stimulating tissue growth and renewal.” Indeed, so potent are the disease-fighting benefits of daily walking that JoAnn Manson, professor in the department of epidemiology and health at Harvard University, describes it as being “as close to a magic bullet as you will find in modern medicine”. Manson says that “if there was a pill that could lower the risk of chronic disease like walking does then people would be clamouring for it”.