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Spaziergang this Spring!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Years ago, I lived in Germany as an exchange student.  When I arrived at the Hamburg airport, I did not speak a word of German.  Fortunately, my host family patiently taught me the language and customs of their country.  When my host mother could tell I was getting worn out and stressed from translating and attempting to communicate, she would often ask, would you like to go for a "spaziergang," which loosely translates to a leisurely stroll.  Traditionally, this would often occur in the late afternoon, early evening, or on a Sunday afternoon.  We would head out to the local park and walk along the river or to one of the many wooded trails in the forests surrounding the small German village where we lived.  Over time, I came to realize that "spaziergang" meant more than a walk.  It meant a time to take your mind off things, to relax, to laugh and chat with family and friends, to appreciate and notice the world beyond yourself.  It taught me early on the therapeutic value of walking outdoors.  I always felt better physically, emotionally, and mentally when we returned from our strolls.

What constantly amazes me is how science ultimately confirms what generations have known for decades or even centuries.  In this case, that walking has multiple benefits.  It is absolutely one of the best forms of exercise, but it is also good for the mind and soul. Recent reports from the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health, and Berkeley Wellness all agree that walking for fun and fitness can reap huge benefits for old and young alike.  Here are some of the highlights from those reports:

Metabolic benefits and lower risk for chronic disease.  Mile for mile, brisk walking can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease as much as running.

Healthy arteries. Sitting for long periods has many adverse effects on the body including an increased risk for cardiovascular disease over the long term. But taking short (5-minute) walking breaks every hour or so can prevent this sitting-induced arterial stiffening.  

Blood sugar control. Walking after meals helps control blood sugar in inactive older people with pre-diabetes and diabetes.  Walking for 15 minutes half an hour after each of three daily meals was better for 24-hour blood sugar control than walking for 45 minutes in a single daily session.

Less lower back pain. Various studies have shown that for people with chronic lower back pain, walking can be as beneficial as a strength-training program targeting abdominal and back muscles.  Some studies indicate that walking outside is more beneficial than a treadmill as it engages the muscle groups differently.  

Creativity. Studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that students experienced a boost in creative thinking during and right after walking, compared to sitting. Walking, especially outdoors, “opens the free flow of ideas,” presumably via both physical and psychological effects, the researchers suggested.

Improved mood and attitude. In a British study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, university office workers reported increased enthusiasm and relaxation and reduced stress after 30-minute lunchtime walks. Walking was done in groups, so the social aspect may have played a role.

It counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes. Harvard researchers looked at 32 obesity-promoting genes in over 12,000 people to determine how much these genes actually contribute to body weight. They discovered that, among the study participants who walked briskly for about an hour a day, the effects of those genes were cut in half!

It helps tame a sweet tooth. A pair of studies from the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk can curb cravings for chocolate and even reduce the amount of chocolate you eat in stressful situations. And the latest research confirms that walking can reduce cravings and intake of a variety of sugary snacks.

It eases joint pain. Several studies have found that walking reduces arthritis-related pain, and that walking five to six miles a week can even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place. Walking protects the joints — especially the knees and hips, which are most susceptible to osteoarthritis — by lubricating them and strengthening the muscles that support them.

It boosts immune function. Walking can help protect you during cold and flu season. A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health.  If you have questions or article suggestions, contact Lorraine at or 585-335-4327.  

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