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The humble act of walking

Women's Health Week

Exercise doesn’t have to mean routine gym classes or extreme workouts. Walking is an underrated, yet highly effective way to keep active. And the benefits start the moment your feet hit the ground.

Whether it’s a stroll to the shops, a walking meeting or a weekend hike, every step counts.

The humble act of walking
A little can go a long way.
Visual story

With two young kids and a busy career, committing to regular gym classes is a big ask for Jacqui Lim. But a daily walk? Now that’s achievable.

The Victoria-based 40-year-old is a big fan of weekend walks with friends and solo strolls around her neighbourhood.

“If it’s raining, I tend to walk on my walking pad…a purchase I made during COVID,” she says. “I find this effective in the evenings when the kids are in bed and I watch a Netflix show whilst walking.”

Besides suiting her lifestyle, one of the big advantages of walking is that it’s free, notes Jacqui. “I also love eating, so walking is a form of exercise I try to balance with my diet.”

The power of a regular walk

Walking is popular among Aussies, especially women. Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that nearly 53% of females walk for exercise, compared to 49% of males.

It makes sense. Not only is walking convenient, it doesn’t drain your bank account – a huge advantage if gym memberships or fitness classes aren’t within your budget.

It also boasts a long list of health benefits.

“Walking is good for keeping joints healthy and maintaining strong muscles,” says head of Monash University’s musculoskeletal unit, Prof Flavia Cicuttini.

It can also help improve our sleep and cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, adds physiotherapist Catherine Willis.

For women with pelvic floor issues, Ms Willis says walking can be particularly useful. It is “low impact and less likely to provoke common women’s health conditions such as incontinence [leakage] and prolapse [where a pelvic organ drops down from its normal position]”.

But the list doesn’t end there. Walking can help lower stress, improve mood and benefit us socially, says Ms Willis. “It allows us to catch up with friends, and unlike more vigorous [intense] exercise, we can usually hold a conversation while we’re doing it.”

Walking is low impact and less likely to provoke common women’s health conditions such as incontinence [leakage] and prolapse.”

Catherine Willis, physiotherapist

But how much is ‘enough’?

You may be wondering what your walk needs to look like for it to have an effect. Are gentle or brief strolls enough, or do the health benefits only kick in with longer, more robust walks?

Ms Willis says that “walking has sliding benefits. The faster we walk and the more steps we take to a point, [the greater] the benefits to our health”. But, she adds, “any physical activity is better than none”.

The national Heart Foundation echoes this point, saying “every step counts”. Walking that makes you ‘huff and puff’ for at least 30 minutes “is beneficial for heart health”, it says. But if you can’t manage that, evidence shows three 10-minute blocks spread across the day “can be just as protective”, it adds.

Refreshingly, Prof Cicuttini urges women not to get too fixated on exercise guidelines. “I get concerned that some people may feel that if they don’t do the amount of exercise recommended in guidelines, that they aren’t doing enough to help their health. This is wrong,” she says. “It is important that women do what is reasonable for them…Do a walk that is comfortable for you, then each week, do a little more.”

To maintain muscle, bone and joint health, Prof Cicuttini says the goal should be to keep active. “There is no doubt that if you don’t ‘use it’, you ‘lose it’,” she says. Weight-bearing activities such as walking, where you use your body to work against gravity, are great.

Next, to improve your muscles, bones and joints, Prof Cicuttini says adding some level of “pounding” can help. Think stair or hill climbing, or adding some jumps to your walk. However, whichever option you choose, just remember safety. “Any improvements are lost when the person has to stop or reduce their activity due to injury,” says Prof Cicuttini.

I get concerned that some people may feel that if they don’t do the amount of exercise recommended in guidelines, that they aren’t doing enough to help their health. This is wrong.”

Prof Flavia Cicuttini, head of Monash University’s musculoskeletal unit

When movement is limited

As common as walking is, it’s not easy or possible for everyone. For those needing support, Prof Cicuttini says she “often advise[s] people who have limited mobility to consider using some form of walking aid…and to consider it as ‘gym equipment’”. This might be walking poles, a walking stick or a walker. She says using these devices can mean you don’t tire as easily, are less likely to fall, and more likely to walk with a healthier posture.

Posture “is important” because if an area is sore, such as the knee, you may put less weight on that joint when walking then find other joints start to play up, she says

Prof Cicuttini explains that using a walking aid can also mean “the person has a lot more control of what they do, [is] more likely to succeed and do it again rather than get distressed and not do it again”.

For people in a wheelchair, Ms Willis says that leg exercises while sitting, or walking in another environment such as a hydrotherapy pool, may be an option. “Standing frames can [also] be used to enable weight-bearing through the long bones of the legs,” she adds. “Wheelchair sports are also very popular.”

Tips to make walking a habit

So how do you incorporate walking into your day-to-day? For mum of three Ylana Giauque, it’s about finding opportunities.

“On the weekends we try to get out for a family walk with [the dog] at the park.” During the week, I usually fit in a walk between school and kinder drop-offs as often “there is 45 minutes to kill before kinder starts”.

Ms Willis offers these extra tips to help boost your step count:

  1. Make a contract with yourself – This doesn’t mean being hard on yourself. Rather, consider your goals and what’s achievable to stay motivated.
  2. Decide where you want to walk – Is it outdoors in nature or indoors on a treadmill, at a shopping centre or around an art gallery? If balance or frailty is an issue, you may feel more comfortable walking indoors with railings.
  3. Look into walking groups – These are good for people wanting social walks. Head to Heart Foundation Walking to join or start a walking group.
  4. Break it up – If you can’t fit in one long walk, consider short stints of movement throughout the day.

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Last updated: 
17 January 2024
Last reviewed: 
22 February 2024