Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Why some scientists call walking the new “superfood” capable of reversing aging and boosting health

Spanish explorer Ponce de León spent years sailing around the world looking for the Fountain of Youth. But according to the latest research, he might have found it if he had searched on foot. While the benefits of walking are well known – from reducing blood pressure to lessening the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes – new scientific findings say walking is a powerful tool capable of slowing the aging process and even reversing it.

walking is a powerful tool capable of slowing the aging process

Data published by the Mayo Clinic in the medical journal Cell Metabolism showed that aerobic exercise that included brief sprints (aka high-intensity interval training) can reverse age-related impairment of the mitochondria – important cell structures that provide 90 percent of the energy needed to sustain life and organ function.

Among study participants aged 65 to 80, mitochondrial function improved by a whopping 70 percent. Lead author of the study, Sreekumaran Nair, said, “Based on everything we know, there’s no substitute for these exercise programs when it comes to delaying the aging process. These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine.”

walking is an ideal antidote to sitting, a major health hazard afflicting many adults

“Earth shattering” was the term used to describe the results. You might want to forget about your kale salads and pomegranate juice; the new superfood just may be walking. Along with its cell reparation abilities, walking is an ideal antidote to a major health hazard afflicting many aging adults – sitting, which increases the risk of everything from high blood pressure and cholesterol levels to death. In fact, physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.

Regular walking leads to enhanced mood and reduced anxiety and depression, while helping to offset fatigue and, to some degree, even symptoms of pain. No gym membership required! The newest way to supersize its benefits is to make walking a total body workout: You can add hand weights to build muscle strength, which is lost through aging, or use walking poles, boosting the number of calories burned and improving the tone of the body’s core.

The benefits of walking complement all spectrums of health including physical, psychological and social well-being

“Walking is the most common form of physical activity with many obvious, and not so obvious, health benefits,” says Dr. Agnes Coutinho, a registered kinesiologist and acting head of the kinesiology program at University of Guelph–Humber, Toronto. “The benefits of walking complement all spectrums of health including physical, psychological and social well-being.”

Some of the benefits are immediate (lowered blood sugar, for example), while others are more long term and can fend off common age-related illnesses, such as obesity, high cholesterol, vascular stiffness, joint pain, inflammation and mental stress. That’s plenty of incentive to start putting “take a walk” on your to-do list now.

But how much do you need to walk in order to reap health benefits? It all depends on your personal goal. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology says that adults of all ages should accumulate a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity per week. “This activity should be moderate to vigorous intensity (causing you to breathe harder and sweat a little), and can be performed in bouts of 10 minutes or more,” says Dr. Coutinho.

Based on this recommendation, a goal to maintain good health could include 30-minute walks at least five days per week.

Setting the right pace

Although the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines (PDF) recommend moderate to vigorous intensity, such as brisk walking, again, it all depends on personal goals. Everyone should do what they can regardless of their current level of fitness.

High-profile walkers include stars such as Brooke Shields, Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Julia Roberts and Suzanne Somers, and supermodels Heidi Klum and Elle Macpherson. Toronto-born celebrity fitness trainer Harley Pasternak, who has whipped the bodies of Lady Gaga, Bono and Jennifer Hudson into shape, calls walking “the most effective form of exercise.”

Pole to pole for an extra fitness boost

For those with arthritis in the knee or hip, one option is to try ACTIVATOR™ poles, designed by an occupational therapist for patient rehabilitation in long-term conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spinal ailments and Parkinson’s, as well as recovery after hip or knee surgery. “Urban poling” has been shown to reduce impact on knee and hip joints, improve walking speed and increase muscle strength, which can prevent falls.

“Urban poling” has been shown to reduce impact on knee and hip joints

Walking devotee Bob Ferguson, discovered first-hand the benefits of using poles. “In the past I had difficulty walking to the park just half a block away. But with these poles I walked five times farther,” he says. “It only took me about 25 steps to get my stride, and off I went. Walking was an exercise I definitely needed but was not getting. It gave me stability and confidence. When I got home I felt like I could take on the world.”

To maximize the health benefits of walking, the key is to do it regularly, according to Dr. Coutinho. Also consider incorporating walking poles to engage the upper body.

“When we walk we use only the lower part of our body. When we add poles we engage our abdomen, back, shoulders and arm muscles – burning more calories and creating a resistance workout for the muscles in both the upper and lower body, with every step,” she says. “Adding poles provides a better cardio-respiratory workout, activates core muscles and has a greater effect on lowering blood sugar.”

The key to long-term success is setting your own pace

The key to long-term success is setting your own pace – literally! For those with arthritis or other conditions that may limit the ability to walk, taking it slower is definitely better, because a slower pace may reduce stress on the joints. “Everyone should do what they can; anything is better than nothing, but all within personal limits,” says Dr. Coutinho. “A brisk walk for 60 minutes will burn a similar amount of calories to jogging for 30 minutes. The goal is to keep moving.”

If you need a bit more motivation, consider this: Walking may add as much as seven years to your life, according to the European Society of Cardiology, based on evidence of study participants who walked for 20 minutes daily for six months.

Looking for a longer, healthier life? Just walk this way…

5 types of walking for fitness

  1. Pole/Nordic walking: Initially developed as off-season training for skiers, it involves using the arms to push down on poles as you walk. It uses 63 percent more energy than regular walking.
  2. Brisk walking: This is the easiest form of walking, and great for beginners. Set your own pace and work up to 5 km/h.
  3. Power walking. For those with a higher level of fitness, the aim for pace should be 7–9 km/h. This burns about as many calories as jogging but is kinder to the feet and knees.
  4. Racing walking. This Olympic sport takes walking to extremes with races that can be as long as 80 km.
  5. Strength walking. If you’re hoping to tone your arms and upper body while you walk, you can use hand weights (no heavier than three pounds in each hand) to boost your workout.
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Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist based in Paris, Ontario, who has contributed to many leading media outlets, from the Washington Post to Canadian Living.