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Physiological and Psychological Benefits of Walking

By Deanna Pomfret | Aug. 04, 2020, 4:28 p.m. (ET)

Benefits of Walking

I was recently “caught” walking while out on a run. The person who saw me said “well, you're smiling” suggesting the walk can’t be that bad. It’s funny how as runners, sometimes walking can be perceived as fatigue, failure to run or quitting.

Walking is essential to running especially if you are training for a triathlon. There, I said it.

Walking to take a break or keep fresh during a run is part of a much bigger picture. Dialing it down to a walk through water stations during a 5k or an ultra helps slow down your heart rate and you can better absorb the fluids and fuel you are taking on. Or maybe a walk is all you’ve got time and energy for today. Walking is not taking the easy way out or even a cop out. Walking can take your physical and mental game to new heights.

There’s overwhelming evidence that walking produces health benefits in people especially the older population, individuals who are not currently active and those interested in maintaining a healthy weight. Here are some suggestions on how to take these learnings and apply them to a different context, the already active individual.

Your heart is still working whether you are walking, cycling or swimming. Point is, if you can get outside and walk you are training your cardiovascular system. These cardiovascular benefits are not limited only to when you walk. They show up in your daily life and in your other sports.

Take it to nature. Whether it’s the woods or near the water, exposure to this environment has shown reductions in stress and improved self-reported fitness and mental well-being.

A short walk can help you recover faster. Cortisol is a marker of stress. If you are threatened or challenged physically or emotionally your adrenal glands release more cortisol to help you respond to this stimulus. In the past it was essential to survival in the chase for food and to avoid danger. Today we have many stressors, some that can be avoided and others that are necessary for adaptation and growth. Much of our training for sports is a deliberate stressor, one that is necessary for growth in fitness and performance. This combined with so many of life’s other stressors can easily overwhelm us and prevent us from moving forward.

Walking is considered anabolic or stress reducing. Walking can help manage these stress hormones. A walk in the woods has shown decreased cortisol levels in subjects from numerous studies. This is important for athletes who are seeking an opportunity to recover quicker, spend time with loved ones and continue to move their bodies forward.

This is also extremely important for people who struggle with chronic stress or diseases related to adrenal function such as Addison’s disease. Get out and walk, even if it’s 10 minutes a day.  It reduces stress.

Walking has also been shown to improve one’s own body image. Too often we are too hard on ourselves. We focus on what we feel we should be doing rather than what we are doing. Some people may think that a lighter, stronger version of themselves is a better version of themselves. Appreciate where you are now and embrace what your body can do today and build from here. Walking can help you tune into what is possible today and this is what helps you cross the finish line. Belief in yourself just as you are.

If you are an endurance athlete, like myself and so many people I work with, then you know the importance of training your body for the long haul. Our hearts are working at a quicker pace, our metabolism is working to supply energy and our bodies are taking the impact. Walking counts as part of your overall daily activity. It’s time on your feet and time well spent. Get out for a walk as often as you like and enjoy all the benefits.

Editor's note: This article originally was published Aug. 28, 2018. 

Deanna Pomfret has coached fitness enthusiasts, runners, swimmers and triathletes since 2005. She is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Road Runners Club of America Certified Running Coach, Certified Functional Strength Coach and Owner and Swim Technique Analyst with Athletic Pursuits LLC. Deanna presents at clubs and symposiums on various fitness and motivational topics.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.