Patients frequently ask me what is the best exercise, and my answer is “well that depends on what you want it to do.” Most people realise that exercise is good for them, but may not be clear on what sort of improvements they need.
Exercise produces a variety of benefits, such as stronger muscles, a healthier heart, and increased flexibility. It is also useful in the treatment of specific problems including high blood pressure, depression and diabetes.
To build a stronger healthier heart, or to burn off fat, use circuit training or aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging or cycling. To strengthen muscles generally, use some form of resistance training such as weight training, or body weight calisthenics like press ups or pull ups. For increasing flexibility, maybe a stretching class at a dance school, or yoga.
But what if you don’t have time for two or three different types of exercise and you are looking for a general exercise, something that will give you the greatest overall benefit for the time you can invest? Then my answer is simple, WALK.
In my opinion, walking is the best overall single exercise. It won’t increase your strength as much as weight training, and you won’t get as supple as if you did yoga, but if you are only going to do one form of exercise, then for its’ overall benefits, this is the one.
What’s so good about walking? For one thing most of us can already walk, you don’t need to spend time learning how before you can begin to reap the rewards. It’s cheap; all you need is some appropriate shoes, or if the terrain and climate allow, it’s even more beneficial to walk barefoot.
Walking produces very few injuries, you can do it from where you are, and it is relatively simple to build walking into your daily routine. Examples of how include parking a bit further away from work or the Post Office, or getting off the bus a stop or two earlier.
Brisk walking is an excellent low impact aerobic exercise, so it will help to strengthen your heart and burn off any excess fat. Walking also strengthens your biggest muscles, those in your legs and hips. The weight bearing nature of walking, particularly if you go up hills, loads your bones as well, so reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
The rhythmic movement of walking is a good mobility exercise for your spine, particularly the low back that causes problems for so many people. The increased breathing helps keep your upper back and ribcage free, while blowing waste gasses out of your lungs.
The rhythmic movement of the big hip muscles and diaphragm combine to produce a massage of your abdominal organs, making for improved bowel function.
Walking can be modified to suit a variety of fitness goals. As you get fitter you can walk further and you can walk a little faster. Varying the route can alter the exercise demands considerably, walking to the end of your street and back could be scaled up to a walk in the mountains. Hills place greater demands leading to greater gains in both strength and aerobic fitness. Walking on natural, uneven ground can be used to increase balance and give you a great core stability workout.
You can go for a solitary walk, giving yourself time to think, or walking can be an opportunity to socialise. Whether alone or with others, walking gets you out in the world, which can be therapeutic in itself. Many of us live hectic lives, isolated from nature, so walking outside can give you the opportunity to gain a healthier perspective on life.