Have you ever been told to “walk it off”? You’re not alone! Be it after stubbing a toe or expressing feeling out of sorts, friends and family often times suggest going for a walk will make us feel better. But it’s not just our friends and family who have walking on the brain or should I say feet...? Walking, as a form of exercise, is of great interest to researchers, in addition to being commonly prescribed by health care professionals. And it’s easy to understand why.
Aside from being a generally safe and accessible activity, walking’s list of benefits is impressive (1-6). Previously inactive older adults, stroke survivors, and people with chronic pain are some of the populations that have been shown to reap the rewards of walking, which include reductions in certain risk factors for heart disease—such as blood pressure, body mass index, and body weight, improvements to walking speed and distance, and the betterment of physical functioning, respectively (3-6). As more research is conducted, this list may continue to expand, making the case for incorporating walking into one’s daily life even more important.
A recent systematic review on the effects of walking on lipid levels in women living with overweight or obesity adds more evidence to the conversation (1). You may be wondering: 1) what lipids are, 2) why their levels are important, and 3) why the focus is on women, and specifically those living with overweight or obesity. To start, lipids are types of fat or fat-like substances found in our blood, such as triglycerides and cholesterol. When lipid levels are abnormal (either too high or too low), our risk for heart disease—a leading cause of death—increases (7;8). Those who carry excess weight are at a greater risk of having abnormal lipid levels (such as high cholesterol), and women are especially vulnerable because they are more likely to die from their first heart attack and develop heart failure after their first heart-related event (1;9-11).
So, can an activity as simple as walking help women keep their lipid levels in check?
What the research tells us
The review, which excludes women taking lipid-lowering drugs—such as statins—found a few positive results.
First, walking can reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly known as “bad” cholesterol, as well as total cholesterol in women living with overweight or obesity. What’s more, the effects are seen without additional diet or weight-loss interventions. Unfortunately, walking doesn’t appear to have a significant influence on high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels, commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol, or triglyceride levels.
It’s worth mentioning that the majority of the studies within the review were inline with physical activity guidelines that recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate or vigorous intensity exercise (1). Although the review found no difference between moderate walking and vigorous walking on lipid levels, the authors did recommend that those living with obesity engage in vigorous walking based on results of previous research around leisure-time physical activities in this population (1;12).
Overall, walking appears to be a safe and effective cholesterol lowering strategy, so lace up your comfiest sneakers and give it a go. However, first, consult with your health care team to develop a plan to add walking to your daily routine that works for you.