Dog looking ahead on a dirt trail

Walking. The Best, Most Overlooked Medicine in the World?

Walking is man’s best medicine.


Walking boosts our immune system, helps maintain weight, improves circulation, and reduces risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety. Walking protects the joints, improves joint pain and joint health. Walking lowers blood pressure and improves memory and sleep. Walking strengthens muscle, bone and brain health. Walking reduces stress.

Walking works even better than medicine, harnessing your body’s innate healing mechanism, healing your body from the inside out.

In this study, 150 minutes a week, 30 minutes 5 days a week improved mental health even better than medicine and psychotherapy.

Here’s more studies that tell us something about what we already intuitively know:

A study in Ireland showed a 20 minute walk 5 days a week is associated with lower risk of depression in older adults. (Here’s an easier to read synopsis.) They also found that this is a case where “more is better” is true. Those who did more physical activity had better odds. This meta-analysis study suggests that 1 in 9 cases of depression could be prevented with 30min/day 5 days/week brisk walking.

There are 2 men that stand out in my mind as the strongest, most flexible and happy men I have ever met. They are both elderly. One was the man who taught me Qi Gong. He was a small, unassuming looking Chinese man who performed feats of strength and flexibility I’d previously seen only in young men and women of martial arts or dance here in the US. He was 80 if he was day. He was a living example of the powerful effect of a lifestyle of daily physical activity practice. No nursing home for this guy. No “I can’t because I’m too old” for him. He put a room full of healthy 30-50 year old doctors to shame. And, he was only doing simple body weight exercises. He was laughing at us. Rightly so.

The other was an elderly man with a prosthetic leg. He was slim, strong, and as flexible as an 8 year old child. I’d never seen anyone, much less an elderly human, do what he did in my exam room. He doesn’t own a car. And, he doesn’t sit around at home. He walks as humans walked before cars were invented. He walks everywhere, for everything, every day, and is still earning a living. His son told me puts in about 10 miles/day. He does it with a prosthetic leg. He thinks what he is doing is normal. He’s right.

The slow, precipitous inevitable decline of aging is a modern myth. Early explorers of North America were astounded by the health and virility of the plains Indians, and commented in awe about how many elderly there were among them. The elderly helped with camp chores and child care. No nursing homes on the Great Plains in those days. No grocery stores. No cars. No fancy 21st century medical care…

The relationship with walking and mental health is just the tip of the iceberg. Walking improves every aspect of health, it really is the best, but most overlooked medicine for just about everything that ails us. We’ll look at this more in the future.

Some people can’t walk, but the principle of getting some physical activity every day remains the same.

Sometimes, I’ll have a health-aware (often elderly) patient come into my office and tell me they are doing Tai Chi in their community, or they golf 3x/week or they go outside for a walk every day. I get so excited when I hear that, I usually blurt out EXCELLENT!!! before they’ve had a chance to finish their thought. Every single one of those patients is happier and healthier no matter what their health conditions are. They are more physically and emotionally resilient, across the board, than those who tell me they “don’t do much”. It doesn’t matter if they are 28 or 88 years old. They recover from even severe illnesses and injuries much more easily, too. I’ve had 95 year olds in wheelchairs markedly improve their mobility, memory and mental health status just by participating in the exercise in a chair activities offered by their assisted living centers.

In my exam room, on the whiteboard, you’ll find a list of things I find imperative to good health. Here are the first 2:

  1. Move
  2. Move more

If you already have a walking practice, and you are looking to up your game, try adding some weight!