I’m falling apart. Or at least it feels like that much of the time. Just five years ago I was in great shape. I was pretty much pain and disability-free. I had no limits on physical activity. Now, after a bout with cancer, the development of chronic sciatica in both legs, the unexpected appearance of atrial fibrillation, and not one but two developing abdominal hernias, I just can’t exercise the same way I used to.
At first, it was just a matter of scaling back. I still went to the gym two or three times a week and attended a couple of Taekwondo classes. I swam every day and did yoga at least once a week with my partner. I did high intensity interval training every day.
With atrial fibrillation comes an increased risk of stroke, so I’m on a blood thinner. I have to avoid things that risk bleeding or bruising. On top of that, the faster my heart tries to beat, the less efficiently it does. My doctor has me on a beta blocker as well, which brings down both my max heart rate and blood pressure. I can’t get my heart rate into training range anymore.
Aerobic fitness is one of the most important aspects of health at any age, but especially in the older years (I’m 66). Aerobic capacity (measured as VO2 max) is one of the best predictors of all-cause morbidity and mortality. Circumstances have forced me to consider alternatives, so I’m back to basics.
Just how good is walking for keeping a person, especially an older person, fit? Better than I thought, as it turns out. In fact, walking may be better for you than running as a fitness tool.
First, walking is vastly better than sitting around. I never used give any thought to walking because I did so much robust physical activity, it hardly seemed worth considering. But now it’s one of the few activities available for me to intentionally maintain mobility and fitness.
Biking is low impact, but even biking is too dangerous for a heart patient on blood thinners; a dear friend of mine who was also on blood thinners took a spill on his bike a couple of years back and died when they couldn’t stop the bleeding in his brain. (And yes, he was wearing his helmet.)
The aerobic machines at the gym are a reasonable alternative, but I still can’t get my heart rate up fast enough to make good use of them. Because of the hernias, I can’t lift anymore, so going to the gym feels increasingly pointless.
Get a dog
I wouldn’t have taken walking seriously had it not been for a visit to Fiji last year to house-sit for my sister. They have a dog who needs to be walked every day, so I took Spike out for a half hour every morning and every afternoon. How much good did the walk do me?
Keeping up with Spike, a Rhodesian ridgeback, wasn’t easy at first, proving that walking as serious exercise is not a stroll in the park. Not with a dog bred to hunt lions, anyway. I worked up a sweat and suffered sore muscles initially. Just as if I had taken up jogging.
Research shows that when energy expenditure is equal, walking and running reduce our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, to the same degree according to the American Heart Association.
Studies also show that walking lowers blood pressure and has a beneficial effect on cholesterol. I kept an eye on my blood pressure and glucose and sure enough, they improved. My weight and cholesterol stayed about the same, but I was at my ideal weight to begin with and my cholesterol has always been low.
Although you burn more calories per hour running, you also subject your body to damaging impact and risk of injury. Walking is easier for those who suffer from back and joint pain. So if you are already at your ideal weight, it appears that walking produces all the benefits of running without the wear and tear.
In the long run (pun shamelessly intended) walking may be a better strategy for maintaining health and mobility.
Walking produces other unexpected benefits. Take vision, for instance. Walking is associated with lower intraocular pressure which helps prevent glaucoma. Other studies find that walkers are considerably less likely to develop visual impairment, though this association doesn’t prove causation.
The association is strengthened, however, with the observation that aerobic exercise reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slows early dementia presumably thanks to an increase in the blood flow to the brain.
Walking reduces the effects of stress, producing higher levels of endorphins. It is also associated with fewer strokes.
Increasing circulation to other organs along with the brain would be expected to help maintain better health all around. Walking, it turns out, is even more effective than running in improving glucose tolerance and preventing type 2 diabetes. Six times more effective, in fact.
In some countries, (India comes to mind), it is customary to go out for a walk after a meal. Walking has a beneficial effect on digestion and elimination, so it isn’t surprising that walkers suffer a lower risk of colon cancer as well. Again, this does not prove causation. Walkers no doubt do other things that help prevent cancer. But it stands to reason that a digestive system that works better probably gets less cancer.
Bone density and lean body mass
Loss of minerals in the bone and sarcopenia (loss of lean body mass) are concerns in the aging populations. Regular walking has been shown to help prevent loss of bone density and muscle mass. It can reduce the risk of hip fracture in men by 62%, according to one study.
I have to admit that my loss of mobility has affected my mood significantly. It’s disappointing not only to be unable to run and participate in the sports I used to, but to realize that this may be my life from here on out is downright depressing. I’ll never do the kind of things I used to, let alone the amazing things you see on “People Are Awesome” clips.
But in walking outdoors, with or without a dog, I’ve discovered the opportunity just to appreciate the beauty of nature. Being outside is a full sensual experience, a feast not just for the eyes but the other senses as well, if you pay attention. I just feel better when I walk and take a little time for quiet contemplation every day.
I’m shifting from running as an investment in my health to walking as a platform for enjoying the beauty of life.
How much walking should you do?
Recommendations vary widely. I’ve seen 15 minutes a day, a half hour five times a week, and setting an alarm to make you get up and move every 90 minutes. But I was unable to find any good science to indicate a cut-off value below which walking is worthless and above which it lengthens life and health span measurably. It’s one of those things that even a little is good and more is better, but that’s about all you can say.
I’m on my own, so I’ve defaulted to the strategy of finding a way to walk regularly in a manner that I can enjoy for the rest of my life. It pretty much mirrors my daily walks with Spike in Fiji.
Now to find a dog…