If you had to pick one healthy habit for 2021, here’s your best choice

If you are thinking about how to get into better shape this new year, why not keep it simple with a proven health intervention that’s easy to do and proven to improve people’s health and extend their lives?

It’s walking. And before you say “too bad it’s boring” and move on, read on a little more first.

First of all, let’s get the benefits out of the way.

Around 30 minutes of walking a day, whether all at one time, or in multiple sessions has been shown through studies to help people lose weight, improve their heart health, increase endurance and improve mental well-being.

An observational study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in the spring found that the more steps a person takes, the lower risk you have of dying from any cause.

Researchers observed 4,840 participants over the age of 40 for a 10-year follow-up period. They found taking around 8,000 steps a day was linked with a 51 per cent  lower risk of death from any cause compared with taking 4,000 steps. Taking 12,000 steps a day was linked with a 65 per cent lower risk than taking 4,000 steps a day.

Two people walk through Mountain View Cemetery in the early morning fog in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘It gets everything’

“Walking is systemic,” said Sally Stewart, who has been teaching exercise science at UBC Okanagan’s school of health for more than 30 years.

“It gets everything. It gets all your physiology and it also gets your mental well-being as well.”

Stewart says people who often live to 100 haven’t necessarily done so with intense exercise as part of their daily lives but have had lots of movement, such as walking.

She and others say walking as a main exercise routine could be particularly helpful for people now as there is continuing uncertainty around how to keep fit safely during the pandemic.

Spin classes may not be happening, nor triathlons or beach volleyball tournaments, but there should always be a way for nearly anyone to get a walk in and a way for it not to be boring.

“Getting out walking can be innately interesting,” said Vancouver resident Jenna Berlyn, a contemporary dancer, who does most of her commuting by foot in the city.

In 2018 she, admittedly, took walking to its extremes to explore her neighbourhood. She spent nine hours walking each block in Vancouver’s downtown core, some 43 kilometres until pain forced her to stop.

Now 23, Berlyn said if she were to do it again, she would have worn better shoes and trained more, but that the adventure ultimately led her to take up running, along with giving her a stronger connection to her city and other people.

“For me, it kinda felt like my surroundings were the performance and I was the participant,” she said.

She encourages others to do more walking for fitness but also use it as a way to live more in the moment, noticing the world around them for the mental health benefits, including enhanced creativity, that it can provide.

“It’s movement and it’s low impact and it’s easy to do,” she said.

So where to start?

Consider what Dr. Michael Evans, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family Medicine, known for his health videos on YouTube, had to say in one of his video essays about walking.

He challenged people to spend just a half hour a day walking, as a way to better health and a longer life, which he points out still leaves 23½ hours for sitting and sleeping.

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