“The most essential of all human movements is the ability to walk.” – Dr. Stuart McGill

There are certain biological needs that sustain human life. We need oxygen to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and shelter to sleep. The one that is least appreciated in our sedentary culture is movement, particularly walking. Humans are the only species that predominantly stands upright on two legs and moves through their environment putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the most essential of all human movements, since we do it from our first steps as babies into old age. Yet many people take walking for granted and don’t realize it can have one of the biggest impacts on our health. Countless studies show that walking can reduce stress, alleviate back and joint pain, and improve the quality of our sleep. Furthermore, there are a number of ways to optimize our walk that can give us an added boost to our fitness and well-being: walking outdoors in nature; changing up our route and pace; stepping onto a trail to negotiate uneven terrain; taking walks with family or friends. The more variation of movement, the better, as it counteracts the physical and mental health consequences of sedentary behavior.

Our Bodies Evolved to Walk

Compared to other primates, humans have many anatomical traits that make us very efficient upright walkers. Our legs are longer and hips are wider than great apes’, making for a longer, more stable stride. We also have a long, flexible lower back, a big knee hinge joint and large gluteal muscles that stabilize us while walking, jumping or running. One of the least appreciated walking features in our shoe-obsessed culture is our feet. Our feet have arches and short big toes that allow us to move from heel to toe, making us excellent long-distance walkers. However, our modern footwear, sedentary behavior and flat, paved environments compromise our posture and gait, leading to chronic injuries and making walking more difficult and painful. Hence, many of us are unmotivated or unable to do the most accessible of all human movements, mainly because we’ve been conditioned to sit in chairs most of our lives.

Since our posture and gait are involuntary movements (meaning they’re done without conscious thought), we don’t realize how prolonged sitting can affect our walking. When we spend most of our days hunched over our computers or slouched in our cushy chairs, our spine, shoulder, hip and knee joints become compressed and restricted in those seated positions, compromising our posture and walking gait. It’s not a coincidence that the more time spent sitting as we age, the more our walking resembles a clip from a zombie movie: a stooped, slow, shuffling walk without arm swing. On top of that, recent studies show that sedentary behavior is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as dementia.

Walking for Better Brain Function

Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, proclaimed that “walking is man’s best medicine.” He also knew that walking provided more than mere physical benefits when he suggested, “If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” He was alluding to what so many health practitioners would attest to today: walking is good not only for the body but also for the brain as it eases tension, can help us think better, and improves memory and attention. “When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain.” Many studies have shown that after exercise, even very mild exertion such as walking, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. And if we add more variation and challenge to our walks, the health effects are astounding.

Many of us get our aerobic exercise by walking or jogging at the same pace, usually taking the same route in our neighborhood, or going to the gym to use stationary exercise machines. This is certainly better than not exercising, but it’s definitely not optimal, especially for our brains. The most cognitively demanding task on a treadmill is deciding which channel to watch on the built-in TV screen. Also, taking the same route on flat, paved surfaces removes the demands of maintaining stability and adjusting speed that occur when we take our walks off the beaten path.

Take it Outside to Wake Up Your Wild Side

One of the simplest ways we can challenge our body and brain is to regularly change up our walking route and environment. If we’re always walking the same neighborhood route, our alertness is dampened by the familiarity of surroundings. “Familiarity breeds comfort and comfort breeds, well, mindlessness”. When distracted by the sights and sounds of cars, pedestrians, sirens, dogs barking, traffic lights, etc. — it bats our attention around and we become less mindful of our walking. In contrast, when hiking a trail or on varying terrain, we need to pay attention to our footing, otherwise we might end up tripping and falling. Plus, sensory nerves in our body relay messages to our brain, prompting changes in posture and gait to accommodate changing terrain. These adjustments happen automatically when negotiating a trail that is sloped or uneven. When adjusting our steps for turns, slopes, or rocks and roots in our path, we are constantly changing our pace, bending our knees and engaging our core, which improves our agility, balance and stamina. “The more we use those systems, the more we retain them as we get older”, making us less susceptible to falls.

Other ways to add variation and challenge to our walks include: testing our balance by walking on top of a curb, bouldering (stepping and hopping onto large rocks); wearing a weighted pack (rucking); going up and down hills or stairs; adding short intervals by picking up our pace; stopping to do calisthenics; slowing down to bring more mindfulness to our surroundings or focusing on our breathing. For more interventions to improve your walking, please click this link https://www.nutritiousmovement.com/13-ways-to-make-your-walk-more-nutritious/

If your neighborhood walk is your only option, try to mix it up somehow. If it’s a loop, go in a different direction. Walk on the other side of the sidewalk. Take regular steps down and up from the sidewalk. Change something, and it will make you more present in the moment. If you’re consistent and intentional by putting more effort and variation into your walk, you will not only burn more calories, but your overall health will improve exponentially! And, if you need motivation or if your confidence is low to challenge yourself on walks, find a friend (or coach) or a walking/hiking group who can inspire you. (See Off The Beaten Path: New Walking/Hiking Group Led By Coach Steve)

The Benefits of Walking Together

While our bipedal bodies allowed our ancestors to walk long distances in search of shelter and food, they usually did it while communicating with others from their tribe. Walking with others has a host of health benefits, plus it helps us stay motivated. During the early months of the pandemic, the safest, most accessible way to exercise was to get outdoors for a brisk walk, which I often did by myself, but it was more enjoyable with family and friends. Throughout the pandemic and continuing today, I meet up once a week with friends to play and walk 18 holes of golf. By the time I’m done, I have walked 5 to 6 miles on undulating and uneven terrain while carrying my 20-pound golf bag. But the best part of it is the camaraderie with friends. Socializing helps stave off isolation and loneliness, which is bad for our mental health.

While connecting and communicating during walking hasn’t changed over thousands of years, how and where we walk has. Just as our bodies are not built for prolonged sitting, they’re also not made for mindlessly strolling in a straight line on a flat, hard surface. We’ve evolved to move up and down hills, over varied terrain like dirt, grass and rocks, and without supported, cushy footwear. So, next time you go for a walk, get off the beaten path and put your hours of functional fitness practice to the test. After all, the purpose of our fitness classes is to not only help you perform daily life activities more easily, but also to make you better, more agile walkers. Happy trails! (See Coach Steve’s Favorite Walks around Davis)