While it surely goes without saying that walking and hiking outdoors is beneficial to one’s personal health in numerous ways, you’ll be surprised to learn of a whole range of less evident areas that profit from a good old wander. Stretching your desk-weary legs not only gets the heart pumping and the blood flowing, but it also sharpens your mental senses and abilities, staves off depression and anxiety, plus it provides a much-needed dose of fresh air. All it takes to gain these boosts is a few regular walks each week, but longer journeys, such as those on an actual overnight walking trip, help in even more interesting ways too. However, let’s digress just for a moment and cover off on the basic, more obvious health benefits to start with.
Strength and Fitness
Regular walkers and hikers of course experience both improved leg strength and greater overall cardiovascular fitness. A weekly or daily regimen will see one’s stamina and energy increase over time. And it isn’t merely the muscles in one’s legs that undergo a positive change. Walking, especially up and down stairs and hills, has a flow on effect to other areas of your musculoskeletal system. Don’t be surprised to find that your lower back, previously crying out in a dull, burning agony after long days stuck in the office, is suddenly feeling more limber and flexible. So too has the pain receded from your neck, shoulders and upper back as they swing naturally with the rhythm of your steps each day. Gradually your resting heart rate will likewise improve, dropping to a healthy 60-70 beats per minute, continuing to benefit your body between walks.
Get your 10,000 Steps a Day!
Over the past few years we’ve been bombarded with news headlines, doctors and ‘health experts’ imploring us to get our ‘10,000 steps a day.’ While I thought this was a bit excessive at first – both the number of steps and the headlines shouting it out – I’ve since come to realise the importance in getting enough movement each and every day. Admittedly difficult in our advanced economies, we must try and at least get moving in some way, shape or form for around thirty to sixty minutes each day. While 10,000 sounds like a lot, for your walker of average height and stride length this equates to covering only about 7 kilometres (4.5 miles). Although that may still sound like quite a distance to some, think about it like this: Let’s say you walk to and from the subway for work each day. That’s at least two kilometres right there. Most people cover between five and six kilometres per hour when walking on flat, even ground. As such, all it takes to get your daily limit is to walk for about 30 minutes during your lunch break and another 20-30 minutes in the evening or during other breaks at work. Achieving this goal most days will also bring along the added bonus of keeping your doctor and your ‘Fit Bit’ happy!
Weight Loss and Muscle Gain
Getting your walk in each day aids in losing weight and keeping it off for good. Taking at least 10,000 steps per day has been found to help you lose up to one pound per week, or even more depending on the individual. Shedding a bit of extra baggage may start off as a daunting task, but as you progress you’ll gradually feel more light-footed and nimble, making it easier to continue the task and turn it into a regular habit and routine. In the process you’ll also put on lean muscle in your legs, core and even lower back, aiding in strengthening your body overall. For me personally a major bonus is the ability to have a bit of a guilt-free treat, food or drink related, knowing that the associated calories have already been burned away. Just ignore the naysayers out there who say that you cannot outrun or out walk a bad diet! This is crucially important for any long-distance walkers looking to undertake a trek such as the Speyside Way Whisky Trail in Northern Scotland. As the walking route passes numerous Scotch Whisky distilleries, you’ll have more than earned your Jonnie Walker while being a bit of a Johnnie Walker yourself.
Improve your Metabolism
As you walk longer distances more regularly, your body begins to require more energy, resulting in a boosted metabolism. If you’re trying to lose weight and feel lighter, springier and more energised in general, this benefit will have a knock on effect for your overall health and wellbeing. Not only will regular walking increase your metabolism, but it will also help to strengthen your heart and even aid in better regulating your cholesterol. Studies show that moderate, regular walking can both lower your LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol while increasing your HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol. Not surprising, however, when you visualise what the physical activity of walking is really doing. As your heart gets up off the couch and works harder (but in a non-taxing manner), it forces blood through your body at greater speeds over a longer duration, literally getting everything moving again as the blood extends to the very smallest capillaries in your outermost muscles before making the return trip to your heart to repeat the process again and again.
Going for a walk, especially in the evening time after dinner and before bed, can be invigorating for your digestive system. This stimulation aids your digestive tract in handling and processing the meals you’ve consumed throughout the day. Various studies have highlighted the ways in which walking can aid this area. One such study revealed that walking helps increase the rate at which food travels down your digestive system and through the stomach. It’s also been found that walking after meals assists your body in better regulating blood sugars. This is good news for all the walkers out there, but is of particular note for anyone who is a diabetic or at risk of contracting type 2 diabetes due to their current lifestyle and/or genetics. Burning up excess blood sugars by walking soon after a meal helps keep these sugars from building up in your body and eventually being stored as unnecessary body fats.
Get a better Night’s Sleep
If you’re suffering from insomnia or are having difficulties actually getting to sleep in a timely manner most nights, walking may be your answer. Going for a walk, especially in the evening, can help release tension from the day. This can enhance the work done by the sleep hormone melatonin – especially true if you take in a good bit of sunlight and watch the sunset while out on your stroll. As melatonin is produced from the chemical melanin, increasing your skin’s melanin levels through exposure to the sun while walking outside can in turn increase your levels of melatonin. Furthermore, one cause of troubled sleep is going to bed too soon after eating. With a post-meal walk to help your body digest before sleeping, you stand an even better chance of getting some good shuteye. Yet another example of how walking brings about numerous interrelated health benefits.
Good Dose of Vitamin D
Speaking of sunlight, what better way to douse yourself in the sun’s warm glow than by taking an extended stroll outdoors? And it doesn’t even need to be a completely sunny day either. Even on an overcast day, more than three quarters of the sun’s rays, including all of its UV light, pass straight through even the thickest cloud cover. This means that walking for an hour outside in winter still provides the benefit of bathing your skin in sunlight, so take those mittens and scarf off for a few minutes even if it’s beginning to get a bit brisk out there. Maintaining healthy levels of Vitamin D in your bloodstream doesn’t require hours of walking or sun baking either. All it takes is between ten and thirty minutes of skin exposure to the midday sun at least a few times per week. This is achievable even in places like Scotland and Ireland! And those of us hailing from the two aforementioned countries, where red hair, blue eyes and freckles are more commonplace, need even less than this to keep our Vitamin D levels nice and healthy.
Again, perhaps it goes without saying after everything I’ve just mentioned above, but stepping out into the great outdoors for thirty minutes, an hour, or a full day is going to puff your lungs right up with a healthy dose of fresh air. All too often these days we sit cooped up inside our offices, homes, trains and cars, inhaling stale and recycled air. We don’t even open our windows anymore at home, what with the constant messaging about limiting drafts, improving insulation and increasing the heat retention of our houses year-round. Yet if we stay indoors too much, like the air trapped inside we become stale and stagnant, lacking the energy and motivation to do anything but continue to stay slouched over our computers or slumped in our all too comfortable sofas. A regular complaint (see also: excuse) I’ve heard from friends and family over the years is that they’re too tired from work to get out and go for a wander. However it’s not the work making them worn out and lethargic, it’s precisely their lack of movement in the first place that has brought on this malaise. To be honest, at first it is difficult to fight the urge to veg out on the couch, but with practice you can turn your daily or weekly walks into a regular habit. Once you’ve solidly reached this stage, it will no longer feel like a chore, but instead your body and mind will begin to crave this regular activity and you’ll quickly spring to your feet as they begin to propel you forwards, out the door and on your way for another bout of walking.
Speaking of reasons why not to walk, another excuse I’ve heard is a lack of time due to work and other life commitments in general. However, when it comes to something as important as your own physical health, there is always a way to make time for a brisk walk outside. In terms of finding enough time to embark on a multi-day or overnight walk, however, this may require at least a weekend or more often than not a whole week. But there’s no better way to spend your annual leave away from work than hitting the beautiful walking tracks of Europe. There are numerous waymarked hiking and walking trails all over countries like Scotland, Ireland and England. What’s more, all three of these countries, especially along their western coastlines, benefit from an endless supply of fresh Atlantic air as they are buffeted with the prevailing westerly winds coming across the seas.
If you’re serious about reaping the benefits of walking, why not check out some pre-planned walking holiday packages from a European tour operator like Hillwalk Tours?
|Hiking Tours in Ireland, Scotland, England and Camino|
|Self-guided tours from €299! Accommodation and bag transfer included.|