The U.S. Surgeon General wants YOU to get off the couch and start moving. In the new Step It Up! program, Dr. Vivek Murthy urges walking or wheelchair rolling for all Americans. He’s not alone—the Centers for Disease Control touts walking as the closest thing to a wonder drug without any side effects, says April Davis ’97, ’09, ’12 MS, clinical assistant professor in the WSU Spokane Program in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. Like Panacea, the mythical Greek goddess of universal remedy, walking has something for everyone.
Since Kenneth Cooper first popularized aerobics in 1968, millions of Americans have taken up running, cycling, and other intensive exercises as the way to achieve cardiovascular fitness and overall health. Walking can seem counterintuitive.
Yet from ancient times physicians have praised, and prescribed, the healing powers of more moderate exercise. It was only in the early 1900s with the advent of germ theory, vaccinations, and antibiotics that medical exercise began to wane. Davis and others are calling for a revival.
Davis oversees the annual Health and Fitness Clinic held in Spokane each October through May. Free to the public and staffed by student clinicians, the program offers one-on-one lifestyle coaching, detailed diet plans, and exercise routines that promote moderate activity like walking.
Doctoral student Alissa Underhill says walking is often underrated. “People think it can’t do much for you but I firmly believe walking gives the same benefits as more strenuous activity; it just takes a little longer.” She’s seen the results: weight loss, lowered blood pressure, balanced lipid levels, and more.
Davis says studies show walking just two and a half hours per week leads to a 30 percent reduction in heart disease risk—that’s only 21 minutes each day or 30 minutes a day for 5 days.
Physical therapist Ed Robertson agrees. A manager of the Summit Therapy satellite clinic at WSU Pullman, Robertson says, “Walking is sustainable till the end of your days. The risk of injury is low and almost anyone can do it even following an accident or illness. Some studies suggest that 60 percent of all runners will be injured in any given year. So, if people dialed down that activity a little bit, they could likely do it forever.”
A 15- to 20-minute walk can also provide emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits, similar to meditation or prayer. “For many people, the best ideas come to them either in the shower or on a solitary walk,” says Robertson. “Those are often the only opportunities during the day for free association—making subconscious links and connections that might not occur while staring at a spreadsheet or computer monitor. And lunchtime walks with co-workers offer a chance to decompress and vent that helps preserve our sanity,” he adds.
Walking, especially in nature, is known to alleviate depression by raising endorphin levels, which leads to better sleep patterns and improved mood, Davis says. Studies show that exposure to natural light and terrain allows the brain to recuperate in preparation for renewed mental effort later.
She says the effects are so tangible that many doctors have come full circle, once again picking up the pad and prescribing that age-old remedy: “Take a long walk and if you still need to…call me in the morning.”