In a recent study, researchers linked surprisingly positive health effects to a type of exercise you have probably tried before.
No, it’s not cardio, HIIT training, weight lifting, or cycling. It’s walking. Specifically, a certain variety of walking.
After analyzing movement patterns and self-reported health scores of 125,885 adults, researchers noticed some curious distinctions between the way one walks and its effect on health. According to the data, “walking with a purpose” makes people walk faster and feel healthier more than walking for leisure.
In the paper, people who walked primarily to places, like to work or the grocery store, reported better health than people who walked for fun, relaxation, or just the fun of it. They also got to where they were going quicker than those on a leisurely stroll.
Gulsah Akar and Gilsu Pae, study co-authors and city and regional planning researchers at Ohio State University, published their findings on July 27 in the Journal of Transport & Health. They said that overall, the findings demonstrate that walking, for any reason, makes people feel healthier.
Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many people’s commutes have changed from a cross-city trek to a move from the bedroom to the kitchen table, Akar says there are ways to put this research into practice.
“We suggest staying active!” Akar says. “Walk around the block, or better yet, ‘walk to work’ every morning.”
“Instead of commuting from one room to another in your house, take a detour, just get out and walk in your neighborhood as if you are commuting to work, then come back home, and start your work in your office space.”
In the past, public health researchers have largely overlooked walking for transportation purposes, while transportation researchers have overlooked walking for recreation, the team says.
To fill these holes and figure out how walking— for utilitarian or recreation purposes — impacts health, Akar and Pae examined data from the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, a dataset collected from April 2016 to May 2017 in the United States. This is the main national source of data on travel behavior, which includes all of the trips in all modes and purposes from a large sample of US residents.
Specifically, researchers looked at trips from home to work, from home to shopping, from home to recreation activities, and walking trips that did not start at their homes. The study includes data from more than 500,000 trips.
Participants in the 2017 survey also submitted information on their individual and household characteristics regarding economic, demographic, and geographic factors. They reported their age, gender, race, household income, educational attainment, work status, and physical activity participation. The researchers also analyzed the population density of where participants lived.
Instead, participants self-assessed their health status, ranking how healthy they were on a scale of 1 to 5. These self-assessed health scores are a frequently used metric that can predict mortality, the authors say.
Walk This Way
Overall, the findings suggest walking for any duration or purpose, but especially walking to work, makes people feel healthier. Across the board, people who walked more frequently and for longer, for whatever reason, had higher self-assessed health scores.
The team did notice some varying effects from different types of walking.
“We find that the benefits of walking mainly come from home-based walking trips,” Akar says. “An additional 10-minutes of walking for home-based work trips increases the odds of being in a higher health outcome category by six percent, while this effect is smaller for home-based other trips — about three percent.”
This surprised her.
“I was thinking the differences would not be that significant, that walking is walking, and all forms of walking are helpful,” Akar explains. “That is true, but walking for some purposes has a significantly greater effect on our health than others.”
On average, people who walked for work also walked faster, about 2.7 miles per hour, than people who walked for other reasons. People who walked for recreational purposes, an after-dinner stroll or afternoon jaunt, walked about 2.55 miles per hour.
These findings suggest city planners should consider how to create interventions that encourage people to walk within, to, and from their neighborhoods, Akar says. This could manifest as more sidewalks or rest areas for commuters and recreational walkers.
Ultimately, the study demonstrates that moving, in general, improves how you feel — and that shift can translate into positive health outcomes. Getting these benefits doesn’t require a taxing sweat session in the gym: Midday walks or trips to the grocery store can add up to meaningful health gains.
“When it comes to health benefits, intensity is not the only factor,” Akar says. “Walking can have significant impacts on public health outcomes by helping individuals meet the recommended physical activity goals within their daily routines, without any monetary cost, and the need for new skills and extra planning.”