Walking: An age-old strategy to boost your health

The Bottom Line

  • Most older adults do not use walking as their main mode of transportation.
  • Walking can lower the risk of heart disease, benefit those with chronic conditions, improve physical ability/function, and reduce pain.
  • Try Nordic walking or listening to music to enhance your walking routine. 

Long ago, walking was one of the few forms of transportation available to humans. Modern times have brought new ways of getting around, leading many of us to be much less active than our ancestors (1). Older adults in Canada are more likely than any other age group to live a sedentary lifestyle (2). These days, nearly 70% of people aged 65 to 74 get around by car most of the time, while 5% use public transit. Even fewer – 3% – bike or walk as their primary mode of transportation (3).

Despite its waning popularity among older adults, walking has many positives. Here are four research-based examples of the health benefits of walking, with two additional tips on how to enhance how you engage in this activity. Click on the links for more information about recent research and study findings.

1. Improves heart health

In older adults who were previously inactive, walking for 20-60 minutes per day, 2-7 days per week can reduce some risk factors for heart disease – including body fat, blood pressure, body mass index, and body weight (4;5).

2. Benefits people with existing chronic conditions

Walking groups can also provide great opportunities to socialize and increase motivation to be more physically active (6). For older people with chronic conditions like arthritis, dementia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease, walking in groups can improve blood pressure, heart rate, body fat, fitness, walking speed, and reduce symptoms of depression (7).

3. Helps with stroke recovery

One to 6 months after a stroke, walking training (including musical feedback and treadmill training) can help to improve walking speed and distance more than traditional walking training. Six or more months after a stroke, any type of walking training helps improve walking ability, speed, and distance. Additionally, walking training may assist in improving people’s self-care abilities post-stroke (8).

4. Reduces pain and improves physical function

For people with chronic musculoskeletal pain, walking can improve pain for up to one year. In fact, walking provides more effective pain relief than other common interventions such as education, usual care, other exercise, relaxation, or massage. Walking can also improve overall physical function in chronic pain sufferers (9).

So, here are a few tips to incorporate walking into your everyday life!

1. Try Nordic walking

Nordic walking uses poles like those used in cross-country skiing. This style of walking may provide a better total body workout than regular walking because it incorporates the arms and upper body (10). It also increases cardiac fitness despite being perceived as less challenging (10), and burns more calories (11).

2. Put on some tunes

Music can also provide a great boost to your walking routine. Without thinking about it, you may find yourself stepping up the pace to keep up with the beat. Before you know it, you may be walking with greater speed, stride length, rhythm, and symmetry than ever before (12;13).

If you want to stay healthy and mobile well into old age, lace up those shoes and put one foot in front of the other. Walking is a great way to boost your health!

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  1. Statistics Canada. Journey to work: Key results from the 2016 Census. [Internet] 2017. [cited August 2018]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/171129/dq171129c-eng.htm 
  2. Statistics Canada. Directly measured physical activity of adults, 2012 and 2013. [Internet] 2015. [cited August 2018]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2015001/article/14135-eng.htm 
  3. Statistics Canada. Main form of transportation, by age and sex, 2009. [Internet] 2015. [cited August 2018]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-008-x/2012001/t/11619/tbl03-eng.htm 
  4. Murtagh EM, Michols L, Mohammed MA, et al. The effect of walking on risk factors for cardiovascular disease: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Prev Med. 2015; 72:34-43. doi: 10.1016/j.ypnmed.2014.12.041. 
  5. Lee LL, Mulvaney CA, Wong YK, et al. Walking for hypertension. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021; 2:CD008823. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008823.pub2. 
  6. Hanson S, Jones A. Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2015; 49:710-715. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2014-094157.
  7. Kassavou A, Turner A, French DP. Do interventions to promote walking in groups increase physical activity? A meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2013; 10:18-30. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-10-18. 
  8. Peurala SH, Karttunen AH, Sjogren T, et al. Evidence for the effectiveness of walking training on walking and self-care after stroke: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Rehabil Med. 2014; 46(5):387-399. doi: 10.2340/16501977-1805. 
  9. O’Connor SR, Tully MA, Ryan B, et al. Walking exercise for chronic musculoskeletal pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2015; 96:724-734. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2014.12.003. 
  10. Morgulec-Adamowicz N, Marszalek J, Jagustyn P. Nordic walking - A new Form of adapted physical activity (a literature review). Human Movement 2011; 12(2):124-32.
  11. Church TS, Earnest CP, Morss GM. Field testing of physiological responses associated with Nordic Walking. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2002; 73(3):296-300. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2002.10609023.
  12. Nascimento LR, de Oliveira CQ, Ada L et al. Walking training with cueing of cadence improves walking speed and stride length after stroke more than walking training alone: A systematic review. J Physiother. 2015; 61(1):10-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jphys.2014.11.015.  
  13. McGee WL, Clark I, Tamplin J et al. Music interventions for acquired brain injury. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017; 1:CD006787. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006787.pub3. 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.