The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to find different ways of staying active, and walking has been a popular choice: affordable, accessible for many and low-impact with the added bonus of getting you out of the house during lockdowns.
Now that restrictions are being lifted, is it still worth maintaining that walking habit? Dr. Peter Broadhurst, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Sunnybrook, and Kaleigh Starritt, an occupational therapist at Sunnybrook, share some of the physical and mental health benefits you can expect from walking regularly, and it might be enough to convince you to keep it up.
Your body can experience significant physical benefits from a consistent walking routine.
“We know that people who do a regular walking program … have been shown to have reductions in their resting blood pressure, resting heart rates, their total cholesterol levels,” says Dr. Broadhurst. “And then we see increases in their ability to distribute oxygen successfully to the different tissues in the body.”
Of course, walking is not an option for everyone and there are physical limitations that can prevent a person from taking up a regular walking routine, says Dr. Broadhurst.
“When we think of various types of mobility impairments, some people can’t walk, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t locomote—another term we sometimes use—which is how you get from point A to point B,” he says. “Walking is obviously the most conventional way of doing that, but it’s not always applicable to every person out there.”
Get that heart rate up
Dr. Broadhurst says anyone over 18 can follow Canada’s exercise guidelines and aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, in increments of 10 minutes or more.
He says the benchmark of 150 minutes a week, whether it’s 30 minutes a day most days of the week, or longer walks fewer days of the week, will help with “hitting that threshold that we like to see, that we know from studies will have that proven benefit.”
Dr. Broadhurst says moderate activity will elevate your heart rate to 60-70 per cent of your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart is 220-your age (e.g. 220-45=175). Wearable technology such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch can measure your heart rate, but you can also gauge it yourself.
“For moderate activity, you’d be breathing heavily in between words,” says Dr. Broadhurst. “For more vigorous activity, you probably aren’t carrying on any real conversation because you’re focusing more on breathing.”
Mental health benefits
Kaleigh Starritt works in Sunnybrook’s in-patient mental health unit where once a day, Monday to Friday, patients participate in “wellness walks,” 45-minute walks on the hospital’s grounds (or indoors if it’s raining) that have become one of the unit’s most popular programs.
“Without fail, it’s the favourite group, always, on the unit,” says Kaleigh.
In addition to the physical health benefits of walking, Kaleigh says the mental health benefits are equally as important.
“If you think about anxiety and you think about stress, often we want to move our bodies anyway, even if it’s just pacing in the hallways,” she says. “But actually getting outside, getting your ‘vitamin green’ from nature, perhaps having the opportunity to connect with someone you are walking with — all of this provides psychological benefits as well.”
“Moving your body is so critical,” Kaleigh says, and a regular walking habit can become a “really great, healthy coping mechanism.”
“It just slows things down a little bit. It clears your mind, it gives you that space in your mind that we need so desperately because we’re generally so plugged in all the time.”