Walking health benefits: The gateway to fitness

For this running advocate, walking had little appeal. Fitness expert James Fell explains what made him enjoy it and why everyone should include walking into their exercise routine.
By James Fell
woman walking with dog winter snow outdoors Getty Images

Until recently, I rarely walked anywhere. I either ran, cycled or drove. For someone who loves to run, walking just seems so…slow! Why walk when you can run, I always thought. Then came a time when I couldn’t run.

I’m (hopefully) training for the LA Marathon on March 18. Unfortunately, I’ve developed a potentially derailing ankle/tendon issue. So, for the first time I can’t run (although I’m getting some help from my friend Dr. Reed Ferber at the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary — so hopefully things will work out).

Although I can’t run, I've been able to walk. I figure walking is a good way to keep me active beyond my usual weightlifting, and it will help sustain my aerobic conditioning while perhaps keeping my ankle loose. Oh, and it'll get me out of the house for some fresh air keeping me from getting restless with cabin fever and from sinking into injury despair.

I just couldn’t believe that I actually liked it.

When I run, I’m going hard and my mind is usually occupied with “one foot in front of the other.” Pushing myself requires a high degree of mental focus, so I don’t exactly get to daydream much.

On that first walk, I dressed appropriately for the cold and brought along my iPod. Then I set a brisk pace and let my mind wander. I ended up going quite a bit further than I intended simply because I was having a good time. I’d forgotten just how enjoyable it can be to think about…stuff. The soundtrack was good, too.


My wife has been hesitant to run with me because she knows she’d eat my dust. Most people do. However, we’ve started walking together and it has been great, although she was momentarily disappointed when I said the pace would be too fast to allow for holding hands.

Once running is permitted again, I’m going to continue walking with my wife. And it's not just great for the temporarily injured: if you’re inactive, walking is just about the best thing you can do to get started on a fitness regime.

Five reasons to start walking
1. Almost anyone can do it. Activity levels are at an all-time low and sedentary behaviour is a leading cause of disease. Walking costs close to nothing, unless you need to get a specific pair of walking shoes. It is the single most popular form of exercise in the entire world. More people use walking for their physical fitness than anything else, so there’s got to be something to it.

2. It’s a lot healthier than you think. Here is an excellent video by Dr. Mike Evans at the University of Toronto. It has attracted millions of views via social media. Though pretty long, it's tremendously enlightening. If you’re currently inactive, set aside 10 minutes and watch the whole thing. Really. Watch this video. I mean it. 3. It’s fun. This surprised me because I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to exercise. When I run or cycle there is generally a lot of planning and psyching up involved. I need all the right gear and to make sure I’m properly hydrated, nourished, etc. For walking, it’s a pair of shoes and whatever protection I need from the elements and I can be out the door in a minute on a whim. It’s low stress, requires almost no planning and it’s not that physically or mentally taxing. It’s a break from all the tough stuff that life throws at you.

4. It’s social. At least it can be. You can go with a spouse, a friend, a child or a dog. Walking is something that can easily be done together.


5. It can lead you to bigger things. First note that if all you ever do is lots of walking, you’re still doing better than most and reaping major health benefits. Nevertheless, I’m a big believer in gateway behaviours. Say you’re inactive and start walking, and you like it, and you keep doing it. You go further, faster, more frequently. You get good at it. You build confidence and establish a routine. Well, that confidence can lead you to try other things. Perhaps cycling, jogging, weightlifting, swimming or Pilates. It can also get you thinking more about what you put in your mouth. Walking regularly has the ability to make you more mindful about your health in general. You may choose healthier foods, decide to cut back on alcohol or quit smoking.

In short, the walking path can be the path to a better, healthier life.

Now go watch that video.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.


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