What if I could give you something that would reduce all types of diseases and even lower the risk of premature death? This special something, if taken daily, could also potentially cut down on anxiety, improve your creativity and brain function. The side effects include a lower body mass index, clearer complexion, and creating a meditative state. How much would you pay for it?
Walking School Bus
When I was younger, there was this popular caricature: picture a person later in their years, white hair, and pants/skirt pulled up over their bellybutton. They’d say to the complaining child, “When I was your age, I walked five miles, one way, to get to school.” The child would then roll his/her eyes before setting off to walk or bike to their nearby destination.
I’m sure we are all aware that there’s some significant truth in that statement, but walking to school isn’t as historical as we’d like to believe. As early as the 1980s, 60% of students walked or biked to school if the distance was two miles or less. Now the stat is closer to 15%. This is part of the argument for Walking School Buses, the most refreshing idea ever where mostly senior citizens walk a group of children to/from school each day. It’s a win-win for apparent reasons. The adults get all the altruistic benefits and, for adults later in years, a touch of youthfulness and usefulness. Students get the time outdoors and movement before and after school. Parents get liberated from the ridiculously long and soul-draining carpool lines. The other benefits may be less known but are equally important.
Walking as the Magic Pill
Walking outdoors for 20 minutes is a healer and it can also protect you from sickness. According to Harvard Health, “A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder.” This may be because 30 minutes of brisk walking may increase white cells, natural killer cells, and immune system warriors. Growing white blood cells makes complete sense because walking seems to also reduce the risk of breast cancer.
In many cases and studies, walking is shown to improve health better than any pill, prescription, or medicine. And this is not just the case for the common cold, the flu, and potentially breast cancer - along with being overall healthier, walkers are found to have a reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It also contributes to a healthy body mass index (BMI). No surprises here, but an intriguing fact is that obesity-promoting genes were cut down to half in participants who walked an hour daily in a recent Harvard study. The BMI may also be reduced because walking cuts sugar cravings, especially the sugar cravings that are a reaction to stress.
The bottom line is that walkers are less likely to die of all-cause mortality or premature death. This includes folks who begin walking at 80 years old. In a study that looked at 80-year-olds for ten years, “overall survival was highest for subjects walking in open air for four times weekly for at least 15 minutes in comparison to subjects walking less than four times weekly (40% versus 22%).” Long story short, whether few or many years on earth, walking is an incredible predictor (regarding what can be predicted) of mortality and longevity.
Beyond the Physical: Walking as Meditation
If the benefits of walking were simply skin deep, there would be reasons to put on your gym shoes (sneakers). But walking is also a stress reliever and a mood lifter. When I feel creatively blocked, blue for no reason, or a slight anxiety build-up - I head for a walk.
This was prescribed for me when I was a child. I attended an elementary school on a religious campus with a nunnery and all. It was a lovely tree-lined community. Fun fact: I got married on this campus. Anyways, I used to break out in horrible hives when a “pop” quiz was called, a weird social interaction was had, or something too dramatic for my preteen mind to process occurred. My parents were told to give me a form of prescribed Benadryl but the nurse at this school, if my memory serves me correctly, was a nun (super spiritual). She would have me sit down in her office, an extremely modest, but also calm space. She’d say a few positive things to me in a soothing voice and then have me walk around the building until my hives “magically” went away. At the time, the walking-induced neurotransmitters (endorphins) being released into my brain felt like magic.
And so over twenty years later, when I have a slight migraine or an eczema flare-up, I tap (my dad is an E.F.T and visualization counselor), pray, hydrate, and begin to walk. A Stanford study captured my experience by showing that walking, regardless of indoor or outdoor, increases creative output. And not only does it increase creativity, but walking also creates calmness in the body and mind similar to meditating. In other words, walking is meditative. For an in-depth analysis and research on the brain (specifically cognitive thinking) and walking, read this study. Long story short, walking increases both our ability to remember and to pay attention (executive function) - this is true in geriatric folks as well.
Then to add, walking hosts the same benefits that come with most forms of exercise or activity: prevention of constipation, relief in depression symptoms, the release of the stress hormone, improved sleep, and a clearer skin complexion.
In theory, a walking school or work bus is ideal for children and adults. Before school/work, you're increasing cognitive skills and executive function and then after your school/workday, you're enjoying the meditative and calming benefits in addition to all the health benefits including longevity, lower BMI, and lower sicknesses rates. For some, the WSB is not an option, and so where do we go from here? Based on research, walkable-intervals are the key, aiming for 10,000 - 15,000 steps daily. Going higher than 15k is terrific, but maybe tough for folks that don’t “walk” for a living or take long-distance runs.
Here are some ways to get in the steps. As I learn more, I will update:
Short on time? Try daily interval walks or combining speed walking and leisure walking. My favorite intervals aren’t timed, but lamp post to lamp post.
Do you have some time? A leisurely morning and evening walk for a more extended period will do the trick.
If you don’t have a time block, break up your hour. Try your hardest to never sit for longer than 60 minutes throughout your day. My personal brain break habit (for myself and my students) was 50 minutes of work and a 10-minute break. On more extended workdays with more laborious tasks, I’ve always done 52 minutes with a 17-minute mental break. Remember being outside is nice, but indoor walking has most of the benefits.
Find a hill and/or hike to climb often. If you can't get in the steps during the workweek, on your days off head up a mountain. Hiking gives you miles and the hills provide endurance.
Run your errands, clean your home, and go get your food. Walking around the store, parking far away from the destination, putting away the things in your space are all ways to get in the steps.
Walk with friends via phone or face-to-face. Make it your practice that whenever you are going to spend longer than five minutes talking during the day, combine it with walking.
Combine audiobooks, podcasts, and music with walking. When you are listening: walk. Let your headphones become your indicator to walk indoors or outdoors.
Here's to the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Edited by Ashley Yancey