Walking - The Best Exercise?

I came across an interesting piece today in the online newsletter, The Onion, that I thought is well worth sharing with you all:


Study Finds Placing One Foot Forward, Then The Other, Remains Best Method Of Walking

ITHACA, NY—Confirming long-held suspicions surrounding bipedal commuting, researchers at Cornell University published a study Monday that found stepping forward with one foot, followed by taking the subsequent step with the other foot and then repeating the sequence as necessary, remains the best method of walking by a large margin. “Our findings show that 99.9 percent of respondents strongly preferred putting one foot forward, usually but not necessarily while moving an opposing arm in conjunction, compared to other methods such as moving both feet forward at once, moving only a single foot forward indefinitely while the other is dragged behind, or taking a series of three quick hops before jumping in the air and spinning completely around while clicking their heels together,” said lead researcher Dr. Hirokazu Miyazaki of the department of biomedical engineering, who used motion-tracking sensors to monitor the gait structures and motive rhythms of more than 1,400 participants during the course of the 18-year, $26.5 million study. “While techniques such as dragging your knuckles on the ground and effecting a sort of mild gallop will certainly take a person from point A to point B, our research proves all such alternative methods are far less efficient than the conventional approach of placing one foot in front of the other.” In a related report, researchers at Marquette University have found that closing one’s eyes and then quickly reopening them remains the most effective method of blinking.


Okay - for those of you who may not be aware, The Onion is a satirical news website, but reading this piece made me think about how so many people view walking as simply a natural activity of daily living and not so much as a viable and effective form of exercise.

When I began my professional physical therapy education program 37 years ago, I quickly decided I wanted to concentrate on the evaluation and treatment of running injuries. Being a runner myself, I had a natural interest in the topic, but I also found the study of gait in general to be fascinating.

Gait is defined as a manner of walking or moving on foot, and understanding all the components of this requires a substantial amount of knowledge of anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics, and much, much more.

Running differs from walking in some obvious ways, but the basic concepts are essentially the same. Much research has been published on the topics of running efficiency, energy expenditure, faulty movement patterns that lead to injury, and more.

And since the “running boom” of the late 1970s, there has been much debate about which form of exercise — running, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing, weight-lifting — is considered the “best” form of exercise. Most of the time, the criteria used when trying to answer this question is the effect of the activity on cardiovascular (heart/lung) health, with perhaps some consideration of bone health (i.e., prevention of osteoporosis) and general muscle strength.

All of the activities listed above share at least on thing in common: they require a certain amount of extra effort as compared to normal daily functional activities. That extra effort (what we in the field call “overloading”) is what leads to improvements in heart/lung function, and muscle and bone strength. So the natural conclusion that many people come to is that, since walking is considered a “normal daily activity,” it would not be considered to fall within that definition of exercise.

The fact is, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Numerous studies have shown that sustained, brisk walking confers just about all of the same benefits as running, biking, x-c skiing, and swimming. (The one exception might be weight-lifting; walking will not improve muscle strength to the same degree.)

Now, to be sure, there are some differences. For instance, you would have to walk the same distance as a runner to derive the similar improvements in C-V function, calorie expenditure, weight loss/control, lowered blood pressure, reduced risk for almost all types of cancer, mental health, and more, so you would naturally be out there 2-3 times as long, but even just a 30 minute walk, 5 days/week would make a significant difference in your general fitness and health.

In fact, almost 10 years ago, when the country was in the midst of the healthcare debate that eventually led to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a study was published by a physician who used computer modelling to show that if every American walked that amount, we most likely wouldn’t have had to have that debate because the decreased costs for our nation’s health care that would result from this (less obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes) would have negated the soaring insurance premiums that set off the crisis!

Walking may require more time than running (or biking, swimming, etc.), but on the plus side, there is generally less risk of injury associated with those more strenuous activities, so that’s something to take into consideration. And let’s face it — just about everyone can walk 30 minutes day, 5 days/week. Running or those other activities are not for everyone (I hate swimming!), and if you really dislike something, you won’t sustain it for long. But I don’t know many people who would say they genuinely dislike walking.

Walking may not be the “best” exercise, but that’s a subjective measure that has to take into account your goals and likes. But it certainly is the best “minimum” exercise that everyone should be able to do. There really is no excuse…