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Improve Cardiovascular Fitness with Walking

Purpose: Walking may improve cardiovascular health, musculoskeletal health, brain health, cognition, and mood.


This Background section covers the benefits of walking, which include improvements to the cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, and brain. While there are many benefits to walking, a sedentary lifestyle may have the opposite effect on health. The Practice section will help someone to create strategies for incorporating walking into their lifestyle.


Walking is shown to improve the cardiovascular system. This is in part due to the heart becoming stronger to adapt to the demands of exercise and also by improving the health of the blood vessels and molecules in the bloodstream. Walking can stimulate the production of a molecule, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which improves the growth of the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to every cell. Furthermore, walking can stimulate the production of a molecule, skeletal myofiber vascular endothelial growth factor (smVEGF), which travels to the brain and promotes the growth of new blood vessels and cells in the brain. 


Walking is shown to improve cognition and mood and protect the brain against aging. This is in part due to stimulating the production of a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the creation of new cells in a part of the brain involved in learning and memory. Furthermore, while a sedentary lifestyle has been associated with a decline in openness, extraversion, and agreeableness, an increase in activity through walking is shown to reverse this and enhance openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness.


Attention restoration theory is the theory that time in nature has a restorative effect on a person’s well-being. According to this theory, for a natural environment to have a restorative effect, it should provide a sense of being removed from normal life and surroundings, it should contain fascinating visual and sensory elements, and it should feel expansive as if capable of becoming fully immersed in it. A walk in nature can also decrease symptoms of mild forms of depression and anxiety-related conditions. A study with a cohort of 33,908 adults over eleven years found that 12% of all future cases of depression could be prevented with at least one hour of physical activity each week.


Walking increases activity in the brain regions that are involved in memory, spatial navigation and divergent thinking. This activation supports the ability to contemplate solutions to problems and may explain why walking enhances creativity. 


In observing one of the last accessible hunter-gatherer groups, the Hadza, biologists used GPS tracking to find that the males walked an average of 11 kilometers (6.84 miles) a day and the females walked 6 kilometers a day (3.73). What may be a surprise, is that when tracking daily expenditure of energy (and taking weight and body fat into account), the Hadza used less energy than an average Westerner despite moving much more. This suggests that the body adapts to the demands routinely placed upon it to use energy efficiently whether that is walking or sitting in an office.


By the year 2050, it is estimated that 80-90% of all people will be living in towns and cities. Currently, in the United States it is estimated that people spend 87% of their time inside of a building. While some cities are enjoyable, safe, and comfortable to walk in, others can be dangerous and uncomfortable. A walkability index is a rating of how easily a person can do all of the tasks of everyday life on foot, compared to other forms of transportation. The practice section below will address how to overcome barriers to walking, which may be useful for someone living in a town or city with a low walkability index.

Practice: This practice may help someone to improve cardiovascular fitness with walking.

A step counter, such as a smartphone application, can help keep track of daily walking patterns. To get the maximum health benefits from walking, speed should remain moderately high (about 3.3mph or 5.3kph) over the distance travelled, last for at least thirty minutes, and occur at least four times a week. The moderately high speed should feel as if it is just below a speed that would require continuous monitoring to prevent stumbling or falling. This is the speed that is shown to have the best effect on cognition.


The act of standing can relieve stresses on internal organs and cause changes in blood pressure and brain activity. Since new regions of the brain are activated to provide greater stability and motion, new thoughts may arise, leading to enhanced problem solving and creativity. Standing is also the first step before walking and is a good place to start. Psychologists at Stanford University had participants walk indoors, walk outdoors, and sit and found that performance on creativity and problem-solving tasks increased several-fold for walkers compared to sitters. Furthermore, those who walked outdoors did better than those who walked indoors.


Posture can affect mood, so using an open posture when sitting, standing, and walking may foster a more positive mood. Please review the WavyFields topic “Develop Healthy Posture” for information about developing healthy posture. 


Interpersonal synchronisation can occur when people walk together. The strides, breathing, heart rate, and brain mirroring functions become more in sync, helping to create a stronger connection to the other person or people. A study of elderly people found that those who spent approximately 150 minutes walking per week had a better sense of overall well-being. The walks provided exercise-related health benefits while providing an opportunity for social encounters with neighbors, friends, and passerbys. When going for a walk, keep open the possibility of social encounters.


If someone lives in a city or town with a low walkability index then it may feel uncomfortable to leave the house to walk outdoors. If this is the case, taking transportation to a safe location may be one option. Another option may be walking around the house or living space while allowing the mind to wander or visualizing a scene to be walking in. If walking in a social group can increase the safety of leaving the house, then schedule a time to walk with friends, family, or neighbors.


If someone lives in a city or town with a high walkability index, then they may use this as an opportunity to walk to the store, to work, to a friend's house, etc. Public parks or green spaces can be nice to walk around in. When out, allow the mind to wander or try to view the surroundings with awe and in a new light.

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