When the weather warmed up this spring, Dr. Amy Howell Harte, Community Medicine of Geisinger, headed to the Montour Preserve for a multi-generational walk with her kids and her mother.
“That’s my stress release. I’m a walker and a runner,” she said. “This spring and summer, especially with the pandemic, we’re really trying to do that as a family, taking my kids and the dog and going outside and exploring.”
If the pandemic has shut your gym or closed your swimming pool, don’t let that keep you from exercising. Experts agree, the simple act of lacing up your sneakers and stepping outdoors for a walk can benefit our minds and bodies.
“Mentally and emotionally, walking can improve mood and spark creativity. It makes the brain sharper and helps reduce anxiety and depression and helps us sleep better,” said Janice Leeser, a certified personal trainer at the Lewisburg YMCA at the Miller Center. “Physically it helps lower blood pressure, reduces risk of chronic disease, improves circulation and digestion, improves posture, balance and joint mobility, and improves cardiac health.”
Walking with people, especially family members, can be particularly beneficial, Howell Harte said, adding, “It sets a good example for your children.”
“Walking is one of the most underrated modalities of movement and is an easy way to get active,” said Ben Wise, health educator at UPMC in the Susquehanna Region. “The combined physiological and psychological effects are quite impactful as getting outside and moving, especially when doing so with loved ones.”
Ashley Geiser, another health educator at UPMC in the Susquehanna Region, agreed.
“Walking is shown to improve circulation, elevate mood, reduce stress and anxiety, promote a healthy weight, regulate appetite and cravings and elevate cognitive functioning,” Geiser said. “It is helpful in avoiding countless chronic and acute diseases that plague the average American attributed to a sedentary lifestyle.”
Commonplace actions like mowing the lawn, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking farther away in a parking lot can be helpful, but in general the goal should be 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.
School-aged children should have one hour of physical activity a day, Howell Harte said, including actions that strengthen muscles and bones. Adults should aim for at least 30 minutes a day, plus two days a week of strengthening exercise. Adults over the age of 65 should also include exercises that improve balance. Walking is one good way to do that; balancing on one foot is another.
“The benefits of walking begin the moment you start moving,” Wise said. “There is no minimum effective dose, however, if a person is looking for improvements in a specific arena, such as weight loss or improved fitness, then the length and pace at which you walk becomes more important. This will vary person-to-person and should be something you talk to your provider about.
“A good recommendation for those without existing conditions that would restrict minimal activity, such as walking, would be increasing your current regimen’s total time or distance by 10 to 15 percent per week. If you aren’t walking at all, start with something that is manageable, approachable, and repeatable and build slowly from there.”
Even 10 minutes of walking can make a difference, Leeser said. She also recommended interval walking, which varies a minute at a brisk pace with a minute at a moderate pace.
“This will boost metabolism and increase cardiac endurance,” she said. “Plus, all of this helps to boost immunity.”
As simple as it is, walking aids mental health in a number of ways.
“Walking can improve your mood and stress levels by releasing feel-good chemicals called endorphins throughout the body,” Geiser said. “While developing a walking routine, you will become motivated by finding a sense of achievement by committing to a healthier lifestyle with exercise. Taking a walk gives you a chance to take time out of your busy day to enjoy nature and your surroundings. It also gives you time to reflect while your confidence, self-esteem, and energy levels improve.”
“It’s a time to connect with family and friends,” said Leeser, who sometimes takes her senior classes on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail just out the door from the Miller Center. “It’s really something you can do with anybody. It only requires a pair of good shoes.”
In fact, being located along the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail makes it easy for Miller Center employees like Drew Kelly to step out for a quick energy boost.
“It’s amazing,” said Kelly, communications manager of the Miller Center. “I do walk during the day. It’s accessible enough that you don’t have to make special plans. I love it.”
Noting the fresh air, physical and emotional benefits, and the chance to include time with loved ones, Howell Harte encouraged anyone interested in walking to step to it.
“There’s no time like the present to get started,” she said.
n Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Send e-mail comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com.