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You may automatically imagine things like running, aerobics, going for a swim or to the gym, when you think about exercise. There is however, another, simpler, perhaps underrated way of getting lots of health benefits from exercise, and all you need is your own two legs.
General fitness and weight loss
Regular brisk walking is a good way to improve your general physical health, as it reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. Walking increases joint flexibility, muscle strength and the efficiency of the heart and lungs.
The Department of Health recommends we all do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five times per week. Even if these episodes are broken up into brisk, ten-minute walks it can still help improve cardio respiratory fitness.
Walking has an aerobic effect on the body so it burns calories, helps reduce body fat and aids weight loss. "Walking one mile can burn up at least 100 kcal of energy and walking two miles a day, three times a week, can help reduce weight by one pound every three weeks," says the Ramblers Association.
The higher the intensity of the walk the more energy is required, so brisk walks will give maximum benefit. Brisk walking means not overexerting yourself, but keeping things at a moderate intensity, being slightly out of breath while still being able to hold a conversation. But even if you feel like taking it slow, this is far better than doing none at all.
Build up your bones
Approximately 3 million people suffer from osteoporosis in the UK, a condition where the bones become porous. A loss of bone density increases the risk of fractures particularly to the hip, wrist and spinal areas. In addition to eating a balanced diet including adequate amounts of calcium, it is important to ensure we take regular weight bearing exercise, which encourages the bones to stay strong.
The National Osteoporosis Society recommends performing weight bearing exercise such as running, aerobics, tennis or brisk walking for 20 minutes three times a week. Research has shown walking to be beneficial in warding off the onset of osteoporosis and reducing the risk of fractures.
The sunshine vitamin
Food is not the only place we get vital nutrients. While vitamin D is present in foods such as cod liver oil, some fish and fortified breakfast cereals, an important source of it is sunlight. UV rays activate vitamin D synthesis in the skin, and this is the method by which most of us meet our vitamin D requirements.
Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption, which in turn is important for strong bones. It is also thought to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. We need sun exposure if we are not getting adequate amounts of vitamin D from our diets, and walking provides a way to regularly spend time outdoors.
Calories are not the only thing walking burns off -- an energetic walk is a great way to burn up the stress chemicals our bodies produce (such as adrenaline) when we are anxious or under pressure.
A sustained build up of stress chemicals over long periods of time is linked to ailments such as heart disease, skin problems, lowered immunity and high blood pressure. Going for a walk also provides a diversion from the stressors and tensions in your life, and gives you a chance to clear your mind, calm down and relax.
There is much research to suggest that regular exercise helps ease symptoms of depression and is a viable alternative to antidepressants. The Mental Health Foundation says that exercise lifts your mood, boosts self-esteem and reduces anxiety, as well as helping to prevent the onset of depression in the first place. Unlike antidepressants walking has no side effects.
A joint initiative of the British Heart Foundation and the Countryside Agency, 'Walking the way to health' (WHI) offers organised walks designed specifically to have a positive impact on people's physical and mental health. To find a health walk near you, see their website (www.whi.org.uk).
A means of transportation
We were given legs for a reason, namely to get us from one place to another. Legs are the cheapest form of transport we will ever have. Unfortunately, many of us seem to have forgotten this and don't walk anywhere of any distance.
Walking is a good example of incidental exercise -- it has a purpose other than helping us to get fit and is a good way to incorporate exercise into our lives without really trying.
Sitting in the car in traffic is not the most enjoyable activity in the world and there isn't an awful lot you can do to amuse yourself while you are at it. Petrol prices, road congestion, pollution, parking nightmares; walking is a far better alternative.
See the world differently
As toddlers, we make a great effort to learn how to put one foot in front of the other so we can embark on our exploration of the world around us; taking our first steps is such a milestone in our development. This should serve to remind us of why we should walk more -- we get to see things.
When we use the car or public transport we miss out on so much -- sights, sounds and smells. When walking we see and notice things we never even knew were there. One thing's for sure, whether you choose to walk in the town or in the countryside, you'll get to see things you'll never see inside a gym or sitting on your exercise bike in front of the television in your living room.
There's nothing to it
Walking is not difficult; it is especially good for people who are afraid of being 'sporty'. You don't need to invest in any special equipment or clothing (except perhaps a good pair of walking shoes). You won't feel self-conscious doing it and you don't have to be super fit to do it either.
You can build up your distance and intensity at entirely your own pace, taking it one step at a time (pun intended), however you feel most comfortable. You are in total control. You can walk alone or make it more social by taking family, friends or pets with you. Walking can be many things: functional, enjoyable, relaxing, invigorating; you truly can make it your own.
It does not matter if you choose a quick 10 mins walk in your lunch hour. Walking can become a stable habit that continues whole life and the health advantages can be more at any age.