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Does walking really work?

Walking as a health activity seems to be popular with health authorities & even the Prime Minister. But a recent Canadian study appears to fly in the face of wisdom by claiming that walking is not enough on its own to achieve any real health benefits

walking exerciseA team from the University of Alberta compared more traditional moderate intensity fitness regimes with the often recommended 10,000 step a day walking plan and found that the improvements in fitness achieved by the exercisers were markedly higher than those of the walkers.

Dr Vicki Harber, who led the study, said that the results had shown that gentle exercise was not enough to get people fit, and voiced her concern that too much emphasis was being placed on encouraging people to do walk and take any form of gentle exercise, when in fact this in itself is of little real value; ‘Generally, low-intensity activity such as walking alone is not likely to give anybody marked health benefits compared to programmes that occasionally elevate the intensity’ she said.

The researchers studied 128 sedentary people, dividing them into two groups of walkers and exercisers. The walkers undertook their 10,000 step regime for six months as did the group that was given the more intense exercise program. Both groups burned off the same amount of energy.

The researchers measured blood pressure and lung capacity in both groups and found that the walking program increased oxygen intake by an average four per cent, while the exercise group achieved a ten per cent increase.

Harber did not dismiss the benefits of walking out of hand though, saying that the 10,000 step program was a good introduction to exercise, and advocated gradually introducing more vigorous activity into those steps; ‘Across your day, while you are achieving those 10,000 steps, take 200 to 400 of them at a brisker pace’ she said.

Professor Stuart Biddle, an expert in exercise science at the University of Loughborough, concurred with Harber that current guidelines for exercise may not go far enough. But he also warned that increasing the recommendations to include more vigorous activity could be something of a shot in the foot as it could well deter the more sedentary among the population from exercising altogether, whereas the walking guidelines at least seemed achievable; ‘you have got to strike a compromise between physiology and psychology. The harder you make it, the fewer people will actually do it’ he said.

To measure exercise intensity you might like to use a heart rate monitor. See our article for a review on heart rate monitors here.

Source: IHRSA, 25 September 2006

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