During the stay-home measures necessitated by the Coronavirus crisis, many people have had to find alternative ways to maintain their exercise programs and relieve stress, and in doing so have rediscovered the joys and benefits of walking.  Treadmills, formerly known as places to pile things, as well as neighborhood walking trails, have likely never seen so much traffic.

But walking is not just something you have to settle for when the gyms are operating at limited capacity (or you’re just not comfortable going there yet.)

Walking is the cheapest, most accessible form of exercise available, and research shows it’s also highly effective, offering both physical and mental health benefits, which are both extremely valuable during these times of social distancing.

While it may take a little longer to reach your fitness and weight loss goals than it does with more rigorous forms of activity like running or HIIT, walking may actually be the better exercise choice for some people.  The low impact nature of a walking workout makes it perfect for those with back issues, knee, ankle or other joint pain, as well as for those who are currently overweight or just beginning a fitness program.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that people who adhered to a regular walking program showed impressive improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol ratios, resting heart rate, weight management and endurance.  Further research shows that walking improves cardiac health, and reduces the risk of stroke, cancer and chronic disease in men and women.

The mental benefits of regularly walking include improved overall mood (reduction in depression and anxiety,) and better memory and concentration. During social distancing, this is very helpful for those predisposed to low mood or anxiety who may be feeling more dramatic effects of isolation. Walking also provides a proven boost in a person’s creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. This can be particularly useful to those now working remotely in an environment that might not be conducive to productivity as their usual workplace.

Studies show the mental health benefits of walking increase when hiking or walking in nature.  The increased focus on your footing required when navigating unpaved surfaces or inclines combined with the soothing sights, smells and sounds of an outdoor environment prevent rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts) and open up the mind.

As with any form of exercise, mixing up your routine increases the challenge to muscles and mind by offering different physical and mental stimuli.  Switch from paved trail to gravel path if there’s one nearby, or take your same route in the other direction or at a faster pace. Replicate this challenge on a treadmill by experimenting with different incline settings and speeds or walking backwards.

Moderate-to-brisk walking offers more immediate fitness and weight loss potential than a leisurely stroll, but a recent study by American Cancer Society researchers found that any level of walking can lead to lower mortality risk and longer lives than remaining sedentary. Even a brief 10-minute walk after meals has been shown to reduce blood glucose in those with type 2 diabetes than a single more lengthy walk during the day.

Walking is great alone or as an addition to an existing higher intensity fitness program, providing active recovery exercise after intervals, and an effective way to work out soreness on rest days.

It’s a mistake to think you have to spend big bucks on gym memberships and fitness equipment to stay fit, and likewise to assume it’s not “worth it” to get off the couch or out of the desk chair just to walk. If you’re already a regular exerciser, incorporate walking into your existing routine.  If not, any movement is good for you. You may be surprised to discover that your journey to better health and fitness began with a single step.