Heidi Dzygryniuk was worn out. As a busy flight attendant, she was physically and mentally exhausted from being away from home and in airplanes, airports and hotels for days at a time. Her diet was irregular; she wasn’t able to get regular exercise, and when she was home, she felt too tired to work out. Then, on one of her rare days off, she headed outside to take a walk—and experienced an instant change.
That walk helped “restore my mind, stimulate my senses, and invigorate my soul,” she said.
Dzygryniuk had discovered for herself what more and more scientific studies support: If you want to feel better immediately and improve your health over the long term, get outside and take a walk.
Get up and go
Most people know that eating better and getting more exercise will usually mean better health. The difficulty comes in adding physical activity into our often-busy, energy-depleting lives. A lot of research suggests that simply walking outside could be enough to improve health.
The American Heart Association links living a sedentary lifestyle among the most important risk factors for heart disease—the others including high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, diabetes and an abnormal lipid panel. Some research estimates that as many as 250,000 deaths per year are due simply to physical inactivity.
Walk Your Way to Better Health
There is at least one thing that health organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical, the American Heart Association and the Arthritis Foundation all appear to agree on: the importance of physical activity to overall health. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week is enough for most adults to notice health benefits. Some suggest that benefits can be noted at as little as 60 minutes total per week.
A 2013 study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology that analyzed 33,060 runners and 15,045 walkers highlights some interesting findings: When runners or walkers exercised enough to burn an equal number of calories, the walkers experienced a similar reduction in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and likely heart disease, even though their form of exercise was less strenuous.
Additionally, 2010 research from the Cardiovascular Health Cognition Study suggests more walking may be associated with less cognitive impairment. They found that walking just six to nine miles per week resulted in increased brain gray matter nine years later.
Are You Getting Enough Vitamin G?
Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin analyzed the mental health of Wisconsin residents, with some intriguing results published last year. They found that people living in neighborhoods with a greater amount of green space—trees and other vegetation—had significantly fewer symptoms related to depression, anxiety and stress.
A small 2015 study in Lithuania looked at participants with coronary artery disease who walked for 30 minutes a day in a city park or an urban street and found that systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, exercise duration and heart rate recovery improved slightly in both groups after only seven days. The group that walked in the park had a significantly greater reduction in heart rate and diastolic blood pressure, as well as improved exercise duration and heart rate recovery.
Exposure to nature may even be important before birth. Decreased rates of low birth weight and preterm births were noted when mothers had greater access to parks and green space, according to the Positive Health Effects of the Natural Outdoor Environment in Typical Populations in different regions in Europe study.
Take a Walk—Just for the Health of It
Taking a half-hour walk outdoors most days of the week may reduce your risks for heart disease, aid in weight loss, improve cognitive functioning, impact cortisol levels, and even positively affect birth outcomes. Many have also found improvement in subjective measures of vitality including enthusiasm, positive attitude, calmness and energy.
As always, use caution before beginning any new exercise regimen. It is best to consult with your health care provider before beginning or increasing physical activity.
About the Author
Jonci Jensen, N.D., is a faculty member at Bastyr University California, where she teaches courses on medical philosophy and the practice of naturopathic medicine in both an academic and clinical setting. She writes and speaks publicly about the healing power of nature.