White Coat, Black Art·The Dose

What are the dos and don'ts of getting the most out of my daily walk?

Doctors say walking is one of the most meaningful things you can do to improve your health because it delivers a powerful range of physiological, cognitive and mental health benefits. So much so that Dr. Jane Thornton actually prescribes walking to her patients.

Doctors say walking is one of the best ways to improve your overall health

Family physician, Dr. Melissa Lem, on a walk in B.C. (Submitted by Dr. Melissa Lem)

If sports medicine physician Dr. Jane Thornton had to pick only one thing for her patients to do to get healthier, it's exercise. 

So she often hands a different kind of script to her patients: a prescription for walking. 

"A whole cascade of events occurs in your body just after you start taking a few steps," she told The Dose and White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman. "For many chronic conditions, walking is probably one of the best things we can do for our health."

Thornton knows a thing or two about exercise. She's a former world champion rower and Olympian, as well as a clinician scientist at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ont. 

A world championship rower and Olympian, sports physician Dr. Jane Thornton prescribes walking to her patients. (Submitted by Dr. Jane Thornton)

Despite being an elite athlete, Thornton says it's the humble walk that's a health superhero, delivering a powerful range of physiological, cognitive and mental health benefits.

Walking leads to "better and stronger blood flow" throughout the body, she told Goldman, plus a range of other benefits, including improved muscle function and pain reduction. It also protects brain size, preserves memory, improves reaction time and boosts our mood.

According to Thornton, walking can be used as part of a treatment plan for at least 20 to 30 conditions, including some cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, chronic back pain, depression, and peripheral artery disease. Some studies even suggest walking briskly for thirty to forty minutes a day can play a role in preventing certain types of cancer like colon cancer. 

People walk on the snow-covered street in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood. Doctors recommend walking at a brisk pace for 30 minutes daily. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

How far and how fast should you walk?

When Thornton writes a prescription for walking, she specifies frequency, intensity, and time. 

The international consensus is that people should aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which could look like about 30 minutes of walking a day, she said.

"That's not going to be the reality for a lot of people, especially when they're starting out. So I don't start there, generally speaking, when I give a physical activity prescription," Thornton told Goldman. 

Doctors say using poles like these urban pole walkers in Canmore, Alberta can be helpful. (Carla Beynon/CBC)

She counsels people to begin with what they can manage: if a slow ten minute walk is all you can do to start, you will still get plenty of benefits from walking — any walking is better than none, she said.

As for intensity, Thornton says you should walk at a brisk pace. That means your heart rate is a little bit higher, you may be breaking a sweat but you can still have a conversation. 

For people who are unable to walk or use their legs, the many benefits of walking can be achieved through rolling a wheelchair or other kinds of low-impact exercise, especially outside, Thornton added.

How to walk

It may seem obvious, after all most of us walk every day, but there are do's and don'ts for walking, according to Thornton.

  • Posture: Bring your gaze about 10 or 20 feet in front of you and keep your shoulders back and down, "swinging from your shoulders, letting everything kind of relax" and keep your core tight, and walk "as if someone is extending your spine, as if you're kind of being lifted from the crown of your head."

  • Cadence: Take more steps. Stepping more frequently puts less load on the joints. And consider using nordic walking poles as many people find them helpful. 

  • Shoes: Ensure your shoes fit well and you can walk without any discomfort. Thornton also recommends shoes with good grip for winter walking, as well as wearing brightly-coloured clothing or reflectors so you're visible to cars.

  • Pedometers/apps: Count your steps. According to Thornton, you're more likely to walk more. But you don't need an expensive app or counter, an inexpensive pedometer works just as well. 

Watch: Dr. Jane Thornton says this is a good demonstration of how to walk correctly

Where to walk 

If you have a choice, it's a good idea to find green space to walk in, according to Dr. Melissa Lem. 

The Vancouver-based family doctor has partnered with the BC Parks Foundation to create a program, billed as the first of its kind in Canada, where doctors can prescribe spending time in nature, generally for at least two hours a week.

She says people can supercharge the benefits of their daily walk by doing it in nature. 

Dr. Melissa Lem walking in Kw'as Park on Cortes Island, BC. Dr. Lem prescribes walks in nature to patients to treat a range of illnesses. (Courtesy of Dr. Melissa Lem)

"People who exercise looking at nature drop their blood pressure and increase their self-esteem significantly more than people who exercise looking at city landscapes," said Lem.

But even if you live in an urban area, Lem says there is research that shows "what's important is that people have a feeling that they've connected to nature," and that can happen in a small urban park. 

Dr. Jane Thornton taking her own advice and going for a walk. (Submitted by Dr. Jane Thornton)

Motivation

Whether you're hiking in B.C. or walking on city sidewalks, finding motivation to move can sometimes be difficult.

Thornton, who was a sedentary kid and didn't start exercising until her mid-teens, says she can relate to people who are just getting started on a physical activity program. 

"It's always tough and it was even tough when we were training at the national team level about three times a day," she said. 

Her prescription for motivation? 

Make it fun, walk with a buddy or a dog, make yourself accountable to a friend or family member, set goals, and involve your health-care provider.

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