I actually began this blog post over a year ago but never finished it simply because other topics came up that ended up taking precedence. Today, with the Covid19 virus changing everything about our lives (certainly in the short term and very possibly in longer term ways we’ve only begun to consider) the case for walking as exercise is suddenly very timely. The accessibility argument for walking is an obvious one but as the most basic form of exercise throughout all of human history, walking for exercise may just fit into a larger societal shift happening now as well. Taking a walk is just one of the many simple, inherently free and accessible things we are rediscovering as we are all forced to pair our lives down to basic necessities. It’s possible that our lives and habits will return to exactly what they were pre-Covid19 but I find that unlikely. And if that means making more out of less, rediscovering the tried and true basics of life, and becoming more self-sufficient, as communities and individuals, then maybe that’s not the worst thing.
Regardless of where we end up as a society after this crisis runs its course, I would argue that reconsidering the way most of us view walking is more important than you think. I don’t mean to imply that anyone is really against walking for exercise, but it tends to get relegated to a place somewhere below “real” exercise, by gym enthusiasts and sedentary non exercisers alike – with the same result – neither group ends up deeming it worth the effort. But what if this is a serious miscalculation that is in fact contributing to our country’s very real inactivity crisis (Health and Human Services Dept. numbers now classify a staggering 28% of all Americans over the age of 6 as completely inactive a.k.a – sedentary.) Unfortunately most studies also show this level of inactivity trending up or at best holding steady. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that the fitness industry is booming! Valued at a whopping $30 billion dollars with a growth rate of 3-4% annually over the past decade, according to a 2018 study by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) the fitness industry is doing just fine. Gym memberships, fitness classes, and the sheer variety of ways to work out have all skyrocketed over the past decade. So why is this fitness frenzy not making a dent in our inactivity crisis or obesity incidence? I have a theory that I think bears some consideration and it has to do with our general estimation of walking as an exercise.
First of all, there will always be a portion of the population that simply will not participate in organized fitness for one reason or another, whether it be the inability to afford it, a lack of time, or even just self consciousness. Gym memberships have steadily grown by 22% over the past 15 years (which is certainly a good thing!) with 1 out of every 5 people currently owning a fitness club membership of some kind. However, that still means that 80% of the population will never step foot in a gym or fitness studio. And when you consider that only 18% of those with memberships actually use them consistently the percentage of the population truly participating in the fitness boom is even lower than 20%. (All statistics courtesy of the IHRSA) Another factor in the mix is evidence that young millennials and generation Z’ers are willing to spend a lot more on fitness than other age groups (both compared to other generations at the same age and currently) – meaning that the growing fitness industry spend is really only benefiting a small percentage of the population.
Which brings me to my second point – just how much is the fitness boom truly benefiting the younger generation that is actually participating in it? In the short-term physical fitness is certainly being achieved but what about in the longer term? Is a hardcore HIIT or CrossFit habit sustainable over time? And if not, what happens next? The answer to that question will have to be born out over the next several decades but it’s a question worth asking. Particularly considering the fact that millennials and gen Z’ers are willing to go into debt to pay for boutique fitness classes and will likely spend more on fitness memberships over their lifetimes than they will on their collage educations (according to a recent survey by Compare Cards for Lending Tree.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking gyms, fitness classes, or the industry in general. I have been an enthusiastic participant in the gym/fitness culture for a good portion of my life and think that striving for peak physical fitness is a worthy goal. I enjoy the competitiveness of a tough class or gym session and I know from experience that intense exercise produces real results. My question is not one regarding effectiveness but rather sustainability. What happens to the hardcore gym goer when life gets in the way? And anyone over 30 (particularly with kids) will attest to the fact that life does get in the way! When it is no longer practical or possible to go to the gym 5 days a week and pay a class pass for exciting new and challenging classes every month, what is the alternative? Do most gym enthusiasts have an alternative? The question can’t yet be definitively answered for this current generation of fitness enthusiasts but anecdotal evidence suggests that sometimes dedication to a very intense and regimented form of exercise can actually make you less likely to exercise at all if and when that level of exercise is no longer available. Psychologically it’s actually a form of perfectionism that I nearly fell pray to myself.
Like many dedicated gym goers (and perfectionists) I was conditioned in my late teens and early 20s to feel like I wasn’t exercising unless I was at the gym lifting weights or taking a challenging fitness class. I even took classes in college to become a certified group fitness instructor myself (although I never ended up using the certification unless you count substituting for the YMCA step class teacher on 3 separate occasions.) For nearly a decade I religiously worked out at the gym and/or participated in challenging group workout classes. I remember a period of several months 17 years ago after I moved to Buffalo to attend the University there (before I’d found a job) that I had the time to work out 2 hours a day every day! I now can’t even imagine having that sort of time (and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t use it all at the gym either!) At that time, I couldn’t have imagined not going to the gym regularly but in the end, marriage, children, and career ambitions changed my habits and priorities just as easily as they do anyone else’s. It’s not that I didn’t still want very much to go to the gym but you just don’t when you have a 1 year old at home and you’ve already been away from him or her all day at work – an extra 2 hours a day away from home, 3 days a week suddenly has an insurmountable opportunity cost. Being an incurable perfectionist I felt sure that at some point I would have to find a way to fit the gym back into my life. It seemed like the only “real” way to stay healthy and in shape. Over the ensuing years I tried my hardest to reclaim a little time for the gym or a class with limited success – workout videos at home have been my longest running workout success story, post children (and I’m definitely not knocking them!) And as any other perfectionist knows, impossibly high standards, rigid expectations, and zero time to achieve those expectations is a great recipe for frustration and ultimately abdication of the whole thing! Thankfully for me I have a great mom who is not a perfectionist at all and just happens to be an expert at fitting in fitness, after raising and homeschooling nine children over the course of 35 years. And the one thing she has always, always done, from the time it was just me and my two older siblings in a double stroller, to this very moment, is take a walk every day. With the dog or without the dog, in 3 feet of snow or beautiful weather, she has found a way to take a walk nearly every day for 40 plus years. I grew up taking it for granted that you should walk every day if you can, so I did. Even when I used to spend a lot of time at the gym I would find opportunities to get outside and walk for a bit, even if it was just around campus an extra time. And while I still didn’t put a lot of stock in the exercise factor of walking I found that it became my constant by default when I had no time to do anything else (which was and still is, most of the time.) And one day I woke up and realized that not only was I not degenerating into an unfit blob by simply walking for exercise but my daily walk had become something I absolutely treasured! Not just a stand in exercise for lack of something better but an essential part of my life and health – mind body and soul. This may sound like an overstatement but I don’t think it is and I also don’t think I’m the only one out there with a near religious devotion to walking. The reality is, millions of us have been faithfully taking daily walks for years – whether it’s simply strolling around a few blocks with the dog or some serious old fashioned power walking. Quietly, without fanfare, or an Instagram following to cheer them on, people walk every day. I tend to think there is something to this level of dedication to the humble exercise of walking and there is new evidence that shows that we might just be underestimating the true fitness benefits as well.
We are learning more and more that exercise is in fact medicine and even a little bit goes a lot further than conventional science once believed. Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, Doctor of Sports Medicine at HSS, put it this way “If a drug was invented that had all the benefits of exercise, people would fight to get their hands on it.” When viewed as medicine it is easier to see the incredible value of exercise as a 100% effective treatment for nearly every ailment, with zero side effects! And new studies are showing that you don’t need to achieve peak physical fitness to reap many of the benefits of exercise. In fact, a recent study of people who spend most of their day sitting showed that those that got up, stretched, and walked around even for very short periods throughout the day had trimmer waists, lower BMIs, and better scores on diabetes and heart disease indicators, than those that stayed seated. I found that truly surprising and quite incredible! We aren’t talking about those who ran marathons vs. those that sat all day, we’re talking about those that got up and walked around the office for 3 minutes every few hours vs. those who didn’t! Now, obviously more exercise than a 3 minute stroll around the office is ideal but I think it’s important to recognize just how beneficial even the smallest amount of exercise is. If we value even the small opportunities to move our bodies we are more likely to do just that more often rather than creating an all or nothing scenario by setting up unrealistic workout expectations that we are unlikely to achieve or sustain. And studies as well as common sense tells us that incorporating more movement into our daily routines is more sustainable and habit forming than whipping ourselves up for a big, tough, workout periodically throughout the week.
And that, of course, is how we come back around to walking – it is the ultimate doable, accessible and therefore sustainable exercise with the lowest quit rate compared to all other types of exercise! While walking won’t sculpt your muscles in exactly the way CrossFit will, it does stack up against the more intense forms of exercise surprisingly well, particularly in terms of overall health benefits. James O’Keefe, Medical Director of the Cardio Health & Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute believes that brisk walking may ultimately be better than running and other more strenuous forms of exercise because it effectively reduces disease risk factors (diabetes. high blood pressure, cancer, etc.) without the high wear and tear on the body of high impact exercise. I would go further and argue that walking has many benefits uniquely its own, beyond being low impact and accessible. New studies on walking seem to discover more cognitive and emotional benefits all the time – from improved memory, to faster cognitive function, to lower rates of depression. Some of these benefits come with other forms of exercise as well but there is some thought that they are particularly fostered by walking due to many factors.
Firstly let’s not forget just how wonderfully pleasant walking really is! For most, there are very few negative emotions connected to walking and for good reason. Walking is meditative by its nature, with a soothing rhythm that grounds us in our bodies and allows us headspace in a way that other exercises that require more concentration do not. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that every great idea I’ve ever had has come to me while walking and it is certainly the surest fire way to break through writer’s block that I know. Another serious perk of walking is the fact that it almost always involves being outside in nature, which we all know is a medicine all its own. Even on the coldest days of upstate New York Winters I find that I never regret getting outside, even if it’s just for a short walk. In an age where technology has removed the necessity of interacting with the earth, for most human beings (for food, shelter, etc.) I believe that it’s more crucial than ever to find ways to get outside! Another less obvious but real benefit of walking outside is the opportunity to use our long distance sight. This may sound strange at first but if you think about it, we spend most of our time in front of computer screens viewing things from very close up – our eyes need to be able to alternate between long and short distances to stay healthy. That is one of the reasons looking away from your computer screen every 20 minutes or so is recommended. Lastly, I personally think that walking gives us an elemental sense of freedom. This may sound a bit dramatic on its face but I don’t think it is. As little humans walking is the first form of independence we experience – the ability to take ourselves somewhere all on our own. We get another taste of this when we learn to ride a bike and then eventually drive a car but walking remains the first and only source of freedom innately our own. I love the feeling that it’s just me, with my two feet on the earth, and the horizon stretching out in front of me. There really isn’t anything else like it.
And it makes me wonder, if more of us knew just how great walking really is for us, physically, mentally, and even spiritually, would more of us do it? Would non-exerciser types feel good about giving themselves credit for even the lightest walk and therefore be encouraged to do more? And would hard charging gym devotees then be able to deem it worth their time and be less likely to “fall off the exercise wagon” completely when life gets in the way of the gym? And if more of us did it, would we all discover just how enjoyable it really is, and keep doing it? Because ultimately the only way exercise really sticks for the long term is when you stop thinking of it as exercise and it just becomes a part of your daily routine – some might even say, the best part!