The benefits of walking – is it the ultimate anti-ageing exercise?

How walking can help us live longer, sleep better and even turn back the biological clock.

It’s an act so simple that most of us take it for granted. But walking is one of the best forms of exercise for almost all of us –  the health benefits are well documented by the NHS. If you haven’t already taken your first steps in walking, it’s one of the best activities to boost your mind and body – often in surprising ways.

Walking can help prevent dementia and reduce your biological age by up to 16 years; it can help you sleep and even prevent premature deaths.

But before you lace up your boots and head out of the front door, we’ve got some surprising facts on why walking is one of the best anti-ageing activities, and how exactly it can help you.

Two older couples walking along a beachCredit: Shutterstock / MonkeyBusiness Images

Dr Paddy Dempsey, lecturer and research fellow at the University of Leicester and Deakin University, has carried out numerous studies on the benefits of walking.

He says: “Regular walking helps to improve cardiovascular fitness, strengthen muscles, maintain a healthy weight and support overall wellbeing.”

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The anti-ageing benefits of walking

We asked Dr Dempsey whether walking is good for us, particularly as we get older. Is it possible to turn the clock back?

“Regular walking can significantly improve the quality of life for older individuals,” he told Saga Exceptional. “It helps maintain mobility, balance and coordination, reducing the risk of falls and related injuries – particularly if done alongside other forms of strength and balance activities.

“It is also important for maintaining cognitive health as we age. In terms of longevity, walking is associated with a longer and healthier life.

“Even small amounts of daily walking can contribute to a healthier ageing process by reducing the risk of chronic diseases and maintaining physical and mental function.”

It’s not just Dr Dempsey saying this – countless studies have shown that walking helps us in many ways as we get older.

A group of people walking through the countrysideCredit: Saga Exceptional

A 12-minute walk can help us live longer

But can walking really help extend your life? A 2020 study by Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, looking at more than 400 middle-aged women, found that just 12 minutes of brisk exercise every day is enough to dramatically improve health.

Another study published this year by British and Australian scientists concluded that one in 10 early deaths could be prevented if everyone managed just 11 minutes a day of brisk exercise.

Walking can help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia

Research published last year by the University of Maryland revealed that walking doesn’t just strengthen our muscles, including our heart, but our mind too.

This can help to prevent age-related cognitive decline and slow the onset of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Researchers studied the effects of using a treadmill four times a week for 12 weeks on a group of 71 85-year-olds.

J Carson Smith, who led the research, said: “The brain activity was stronger and more synchronised, demonstrating that exercise actually can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt.

“These results provide even more hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilise people with mild cognitive impairment and maybe, over the long term, delay their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia.”

A woman and a man walking next to water through woodsCredit: Shutterstock /Aleksandra Suzi

A fast walk can reduce your biological age

A study by the University of Leicester published last year found a correlation between slow walking and our “biological age”. They looked at the length of telomeres, which are pieces of DNA at the end of our chromosomes that essentially act as protective caps at the end of our chromosomes – so measuring them is a way to show how worn out our body’s cells are.

The slower our speed, the shorter our telomeres and therefore the older our biological age. Researchers concluded that regular brisk walks can reduce your biological age by up to 16 years.

Tom Yates, senior author and professor of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health, said: “In this study we used information contained in people’s genetic profile to show that a faster walking pace is indeed likely to lead to a younger biological age as measured by telomeres.”

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Walk backwards to remember

This sounds a bit crazy, but scientists found that walking backwards unlocks past memories – stepping backwards literally takes you back in time.

In a small study of 114 people at London’s University of Roehampton, participants carried out a series of memory experiments and, in every case, those involved in reverse walking were better able to remember information and past events than those sitting still.

The link between motion and temporal thinking was already established, but this research “demonstrated for the first time that motion-induced past-directed mental time travel improved mnemonic performance (retention and recall) for different types of information.”

So, if you are starting to have problems with your recall then perhaps try taking a few gentle steps backwards to see if that helps.

An early walk helps you sleep

Experts have demonstrated that sleep and exercise are vital as we get older. If we don’t get between six and eight hours sleep per night then we won’t get the anti-ageing benefits of exercise.

If you are having trouble sleeping, we’ve got sleep tips from the experts, but if you get outside within an hour of waking then it will help you sleep at night.

Research has found that exposing our eyes to sunlight within an hour of waking up reminds our brain that it’s morning. This enables our daily internal clock to set in motion the cascade of hormones that will help us fall asleep in the evening. Just 10 minutes is enough, even if it’s cloudy.

Best-selling writer Annabel Streets researched the benefits of walking for her book 52 Ways to Walk. She says: “The definition of bright light in all the studies confirming this is the same as we experience on an average winter’s day in the UK, so it’s of benefit all year round. I get out for a walk first thing every morning and it sets me up for the day.”

A smiling woman outside at sunsetCredit: Shutterstock /pikselstock

A sunny stroll boosts your Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential as we get older. Barbara J Boucher researched the effects of vitamin D deficiencies. The former Royal London Hospital doctor concluded in her research: “Inadequate amounts of vitamin D in older people reduces wellbeing, aggravates the ageing process, in particular reducing mobility, and adds to the severity of osteoporosis and the risks of falls and fragility fractures with all of their severe consequences.

“It also reduces longevity, increasing the risk of cardiovascular deaths in particular, but may also increase the risks of type 2 diabetes and certain common cancers.”

With more sedentary lifestyles and worries about skin cancer, up to 70% of the population is thought to be deficient in vitamin D. Yes, you can take a supplement, but you can also boost your vitamin D levels by going for a walk outside. Research published in 2021 found an increase in vitamin D levels in a group of women aged 65-74 who took part in a 12-week Nordic-walking programme.

Map-reading protects against dementia

Hands up who still uses a map to navigate? Most of us have ditched our road and walkers’ maps in favour of Google and walking apps.

But our reliance on technology could leave us prone to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Neuroscience has shown that the part of the brain we use for navigating is the hippocampus. If we use it, it grows; if we don’t, it withers. Researchers now believe that this part of our brain is also responsible for prediction, imagination and creativity, as well as our social skills.

So instead of blindly following your phone, try taking a map and learn how to use it. Look out for visual landmarks, sights and even smells to orientate yourself.

Streets says: “Start small and build your confidence. Towns and cities are great. Or else set off somewhere and see if you can work out how to get home. Take your phone for emergencies, but try to avoid looking at it. Your brain will thank you.”

A group of men and women walking along a track in the sunshineCredit: Shutterstock / MonkeyBusiness Images

Feeling lonely? Join a walking group

Research has suggested that loneliness can shrink your brain, which can play a role in the development of dementia. More research has revealed that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking. Yet more older people than ever are lonely in the UK.

Neuroscientist Dr Rachel Taylor, of the Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre in London – part of the National Institute for Health and Care Research – said: “The best thing for humans is human connection – this promotes so much wellness in us, as well as keeping brain function and structure healthy – I cannot emphasise this enough.”

Joining a walking group is a great way of interacting with other people in the outdoors and can help you meet new people with shared interests.

The transformative joy of a group walk

Walking leader Sue Sharp said: “I love taking a group out for a walk. People come by themselves looking nervous, but by the end they are completely transformed.

“Every group is different – ages, gender and experience. It always amazes me how the conversations and laughter soon start. It’s so positive – even when there are challenges like poor weather or wonky stiles! I guess we’re all there because we have some common ground – a joy in being outside.”

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Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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