Walking to health

If a daily fitness walk could be put in a pill, it would be one of the most popular prescriptions in the world because it has so many health benefits.

If a daily fitness walk could be put in a pill, it would be one of the most popular prescriptions in the world because it has so many health benefits.

Walking can reduce the risk of many diseases - from heart attack and stroke to hip fracture and glaucoma. These might sound like claims on a bottle of snake oil, but they're backed by major research. Walking requires no prescription, the risk of side effects is very low, and the benefits are numerous:

l Managing your weight - Combined with healthy eating, physical activity is key to any plan for long-lasting weight control. Keeping your weight within healthy limits can lower your risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, sleep apnoea, and osteoarthritis.

l Controlling your blood pressure - Physical activity strengthens the heart so it can pump more blood with less effort and with less pressure on the arteries. Staying fit is just as effective as some medications in keeping down blood pressure.

l Decreasing your risk of heart attack - Exercise such as brisk walking for three hours a week - or just half an hour a day - is associated with a 30 to 40percent lower risk of heart disease in women.

l Boosting "good" cholesterol - The level of high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Physical activity helps reduce low-density lipoproteins (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) in the blood, which can cause plaque build-up along the artery walls, a major cause of heart attacks.

l Lowering your risk of stroke - Regular, moderate exercise equivalent to brisk walking for an hour a day, five days a week, can cut the risk of stroke in half, according to a Harvard study.

l Reducing your risk of breast cancer and type 2 diabetes - The 20-year Nurses' Health Study links regular activity to risk reductions for both these diseases.

In another study, people at high risk of diabetes halve their risk by combining consistent exercise with lower fat intake and a 5 to 7percent weight loss.

l Avoiding your need for gallstone surgery - Regular walking or other physical activity lowers the risk of needing gallstone surgery by 20 to 31percent.

l Protecting against hip fracture - Consistent activity diminishes the risk of hip fracture.

Many other studies indicate a daily brisk walk also can help:

l Prevent depression, colon cancer, constipation, osteoporosis, and impotence;

l Lengthen life span;

l Lower stress levels;

l Relieve arthritis and back pain;

l Strengthen muscles, bones, and joints;

l Improve sleep;

l Elevate overall mood and sense of well-being.

And, regarding a training routine, remember this: keep it steady, because a steady routine is the most important factor in getting the most out of your exercise programme.

Walking for at least 30 minutes a day, five or more days a week is recommended. Check with your doctor on the level of exercise that's best for you. - AARP