Are you sitting down? You won’t be sitting for much longer. I can guarantee that by the time you’ve finished reading this, you’ll either be on the move, or itching to get up and … walk.
Yes, I’m back to my favourite subject: the extraordinary power of being on foot (there’s still time to sign up for our upcoming webinar on how walking changes lives – follow the link at the end of this post).
I’ll be honest: the constant refrain that we only need 30 minutes of movement a day is making me a bit cross. At one level it’s accurate – a mere 15 minutes a day can add three years to our lives. But for optimal health, we need to be more ambitious.
A new study presented at a recent American Heart Association conference, confirmed – yet again – that the more steps we do, the longer we live and the better our health. Of course any steps are good, but this study of 40,000 women over a period of four years found that those who regularly took walks of 2000 + uninterrupted steps were 32% less likely to die than women only clocking up short bursts of steps. As one writer put it: “Having a higher daily step count shows a linear association with living longer, meaning the health and longevity boosts we get from walking are linked with how much walking we actually do…the numbers matter.”
The minute we move, hundreds of chemical reactions take place in our body. Immediately, our bodies begin to shift and process fats including cholesterol (both HDL and LDL) and trigylcerides.
When we walk, our biggest muscles – those in our legs, glutes and back – produce a lipase that breaks down triglycerides. Why does this matter? Because high levels of circulating triglycerides harden our arteries and thicken our artery walls, a condition known as arteriosclerosis, which raises our risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. It’s one of the conditions that killed my father.
A body that doesn’t break down triglycerides is also less likely to process glucose – leading to type 2 diabetes. You see, movement also improves the body’s response to insulin. When we lie on the sofa excess glucose lingers in our blood. But when we walk, our muscles take that floating glucose and make use of it – so no blood sugar spike. Which is why I try and take a short walk after a large meal, even though lying on the sofa might feel a more obvious choice!
So. All we need to do for our bodies to disperse artery-clogging fats and damaging blood sugar spikes is to get up and move.
But it’s not only our heart and arteries that benefit from regular walking. It’s our lungs too. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) ‘Breath’ – the latest book on respiratory health. Author, James Nestor, is adamant that our lungs are the overlooked puzzle piece in longevity. His meticulous research found the condition of our lungs to be the most important indicator of our health and potential lifespan.
Nestor’s views are supported by Dr Martin Whyte at Kings College Hospital who explains (in Peter Walker’s absorbing book ‘The Miracle Pill’) that when we move, our breathing changes dramatically. We take deeper breaths, a process he calls ‘clearing and ventilating.’ Whyte compares sedentary lungs to a room in which the windows are never opened. Moving, however, enables our lungs to become ventilated: dust, germs and debris are literally blown away. Why is this important? Because when debris settles in our lungs, they become floppy – a condition known as atelectasis which makes us much more vulnerable to infection. My father had this too.
For strong lungs, we have to move. Preferably for more than 30 minutes a day. Preferably for a few minutes during each seated period of 30-40 minutes.
Nor is it only our lungs that improve when we walk. The very second we start moving, our muscles begin an elaborate and beautiful process of chemical conversions which puts our cell’s batteries – our mitochondria – to work.
As we get older, our mitochondria become sluggish. Poor-performing mitochondria have been linked to furred arteries, high blood pressure, heart attacks, type 2 diabetes and the cellular mutations that lead to cancer. To keep our mitochondria in good working order, we must keep moving.
This isn’t all that happens when we walk. Recently, scientists discovered that our skeletal muscle also plays a role in our hormones, regulating many of our glands like the pituary and the thyroid. As Walker explains ‘Muscles secrete hormones.’ A lack of movement unbalances our hormones, as well as unbalancing our system of cytokines (an amino acid chain that regulates our immune system and also relies on regular movement). So yes – walking also helps our immune system.
When we don’t move enough, our bones weaken, increasing our chances of osteoporosis. But now it appears that weak bones might mean more than a future of hip fractures and hospital stays. A study arrived on my desk last week linking hearing loss to low bone density. When researchers analysed data from 144,000 women over 34 years, they found that the risk of hearing loss was up to 40 percent higher in women with low bone density or with osteoporosis.
How can this be? The researchers speculated that weakened bones protecting the nerves and structures involved in hearing might be to blame. The truth is … no one knows. We know only that our bodies – every little bit of them – need to move.
And not just our bodies. It appears that our brains also need our bodies to be in regular motion. When scientists studied the heart-healthiest people in the world – the indigenous Tsimane people of the Bolivian Amazon – they found that, despite high levels of inflammation, the Tsimane had fantastically healthy brains. By scanning the brains of hundreds of Tsimane people (746 of them, aged 40-94), they found an average rate of brain loss that was 70% slower than the brain loss of people living in the West. Accelerated brain loss is, of course, an indication of dementia as well as of general cognitive decline.
Here’s the odd thing: scientists have assumed brain aging is linked to inflammation. We’ve written about it before: inflammaging. Indeed, we regularly write about the dangers of inflammaging. Have we been wrong all along? We don’t know. The researchers don’t know. They only know that:
“Our sedentary lifestyle … may be accelerating the loss of brain tissue with age and making us more vulnerable to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” (Hillard Kaplan, professor of health economics and anthropology at Chapman University who has studied the Tsimane for nearly two decades).
Isn’t it ridiculous that people with no access to healthcare – and high levels of inflammation from respiratory, gastrointestinal, and parasitic infections – have better brain and heart health than we do? Of course, diet plays a part too. The Tsimane eat lots of fibrous vegetables, and plenty of fish and lean meat. All of it hunted, fished and foraged on foot.
Which brings us neatly back to movement. There’s a wonderful quote in Walker’s book that sums up all of this in a nut shell: “Anything that gets worse as you grow older gets better when you exercise.”
Are you standing up yet? Moving around? Yes, me too… In fact I’m off for a walk. For the sake of my heart, my hormones, my hearing, my bones, my muscles, my immune system, my brain, my mitochondria. And just about everything else…
But if 30 minutes a day isn’t quite enough, what is? As I write this, the American Fight Aging Newsletter has appeared in my inbox – as if by magic. I’ll quote its answer to my question: “It has been estimated that 3-5 times the recommended 150 minutes of weekly physical activity reaches the maximal healthspan benefit.” That means somewhere between 450 and 750 minutes per week, rather than the Government’s paltry 150 minutes.
That’s a daily yomp of 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Or 3 – 5 daily walks of thirty-minute each. Perhaps we should leave the last word to one of the oldest women in the world: “The secret to my longevity is having a glass of red wine with lunch and dinner and walking an hour every morning,” said Mary Sarti, who recently turned 107. Bravo!
Next up I’ll be writing about the little-known benefits of using our eyes correctly as we walk. Prepare to be amazed!
LAUNCH WEBINAR: WINDSWEPT, HOW WALKING CHANGES LIVES: 20 JUNE 2021 6.00pm
Please book a ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-age-well-windswept-webinar-tickets-156965061725?aff=ebdssbeac
The webinar will be around 40 minutes, with a chance for questions at the end. Subjects covered will include:
- The extraordinary walking histories of past women (and why we know so little about them);
- Why walking is such a powerful tool for our body, brain and mood;
- The human brain on nature;
- Why the human (and particularly the female) body is built for endurance;
- The power of walking alone and how to be safe;
- What happens to our brains when we walk with others;
- Never get bored: different ways to walk
We look forward to seeing you there! And for those unable to watch live we’ll send you a link after the event (you need to sign up to enable us to do this).