Why a Simple Walk is the Brain and Body Boost You Need

–Every Thanksgiving, my dad would push the family out the door right after the feast when any normal human would burp and take a nap. He’d grab his jacket from the hook on the wall, clap his hands together, and issue the decree we all knew was coming, “Okay, time for a walk!”

There was no use fighting it. Only the elderly got a pass. No one would get pie until we’d done our time outside. We’d trudge through the woods near our house, stomping the November cold from our feet. We’d spot wild turkeys and deer and a few raccoons. They looked on, nonplussed by our presence on their turf. By the end of it, we’d scrape our boots and walk through the back door feeling…better. We’d chased off the tryptophan and replaced it with a humming energy from the cold outdoors.

Everybody knows exercise is a necessary part of life, but it doesn’t have to be a run, hot yoga, or any other form of high intensity physical fitness. It can just be a walk and it really can do wonders. In a study reported on by The Atlantic, it seems that “regardless of whether exercise was vigorous (running) or not (walking), as long as participants used the same amount of energy, they saw more or less equivalent health benefits.” A walk might take a little longer than a run, but the boost to your health will be the same.

Once I’d hit adulthood, waking up meant waking for a run. My shoes and clothes would be waiting for me in the bathroom, because who has the mental capacity to sift through shorts and socks at five a.m.? It’s how I started my days. It stirred me up enough to be a functioning human and provided a mental clarity to get me through the workday.

Then I got pregnant with twins. Many women can run while pregnant, but I wasn’t one of them. I was high risk from the start. You don’t mess around with twins. So I stopped running. In all honesty, I thought it would be harder to give up than it was. I was tired. Man, was I tired, and my joints ached from the weight of growing two people in tight quarters.

Instead, I would walk slow laps through the park. I would walk on my lunch break. I would push my older son in his stroller in the cool of the afternoon. It was so much easier. You can walk anytime, anywhere. You don’t need special clothes or a set pace and it doesn’t take any psyching up to go for a walk. It might seem more efficient to run, as the American Heart Association recommends 25 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week to the 30 minutes of moderate exercise you would get walking five times a week, but this doesn’t factor in the overall ease it takes to build walking into your everyday life. If you live in an urban area, it can simply mean skipping the bus in favor of walking to work, or it could mean taking a stroll around the block during lunch while you listen to your favorite podcast. You can do it alone or with co-workers or with kids. It’s sneakers and a half an hour. It’s doable.

I also noticed less joint pain and less back pain through my walks. This isn’t surprising. Walkers always keep one foot on the ground whereas runners have a moment in every stride where they linger in mid-air. As a study from Harvard Medical School pointed out, “What goes up must come down. That’s why running is a high-impact activity. Each time they land, runners subject their bodies to a stress equal to about three times their body weight. In just one mile, a typical runner’s legs will have to absorb more than 100 tons of impact force.” That’s a lot of repeated pressure on your joints. It’s why the risk of injury is “20 percent to 70 percent” in runners and only “1 percent to 5 percent” in walkers.

I did wonder, however, if the benefits would transfer over after pregnancy. I wasn’t in a hurry to pick up running again while recovering from a c-section and managing three kids under three. Walking suited me and our new family, so I kept at it. It helped me settle me back into my pre-pregnancy weight without having to think much about it, which should be no surprise as according to a study by the American Society of Nutrition, walking is a key factor in long-term weight management.

Beyond the physical payoffs and the ease of it, I found that walking also influenced my creativity. When I walk, the environment reached all my senses. The smell of wet leaves, the transition under feet from pavement to gravel to dirt, the sounds of distant cars and birds, all of it served to give my creative mind room to roam. One study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that “walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.” It’s true. I get my best ideas outside.

It took me a long time to equate walking with exercise, but now that I do, it feels natural in a way that running never did. It’s organic. From lazy strolls after dinner to summer sunrise hikes, walking just happens. It’s twenty minutes on my lunch hour. It’s walking to the park instead of driving there. It’s a choice that has become natural and flexible and feels more like exploration than anything else. Running seem more like “exercise,” but walking, for our family, has proved to be the healthiest choice.

*Linking up with Amanda. This article originally appeared on Parent.co.

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