Why walking is a true ‘wonder drug’

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Why walking is a true 'wonder drug'

Adj Professor John G Kelly

CEO National, Heart Foundation
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I always read news items headed with words such as “medical breakthrough” or “miracle drug”.

Like most people, I’m fascinated by the ever-moving frontiers of modern medicine. And, as the CEO of an organisation that is Australia’s largest non-government funder of heart disease research, it’s my job to keep an eye on any research development that might promise to cut the death toll from heart disease.

So, with this week’s launch of the “Prime Minister’s One million steps” campaign, I’ve been thinking about my favourite medical “miracle treatment”. It doesn’t tend to make headlines. Yet the results, for those who embrace it, can be life-changing.

The “wonder drug” I’m talking about is walking. Because it’s free and requires neither a doctor’s prescription nor special clothing or equipment, it is often underestimated as a treatment.

Yet, evidence shows that walking for an average of 30 minutes a day can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by 30 to 40 per cent. Brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, has been shown to increase life expectancy by up to three years. Brisk walking also helps reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and can help manage weight and cholesterol problems.

The benefits also extend to the brain. Walking has been shown to stave off the decline in memory, planning and thinking skills that can occur with ageing. It also reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet, frustratingly, more than half of Australian adults are missing out on all these benefits because they are either inactive or don’t exercise enough. And this inactivity is costing the Australian health system an estimated $1.5 billion a year. The aim of the Prime Minister’s “One million steps” campaign is to begin reversing this trend by inspiring many thousands of Australians to start walking. We hope to do this by, first, inviting them to become a member of Heart Foundation Walking, Australia’s largest free walking network.

Joining Heart Foundation walking is easy. Participants can join by becoming part of a group or by registering themselves as individual walkers via the Heart Foundation’s Walking app.

The Prime Minister’s One million steps” campaign kicks off today and participants will have 20 weeks to walk towards the magic target of one million steps.

Along the way they’ll receive recognition for each milestone reached (100,000 steps, 250,000 steps, 500,000 steps and 750,000 steps) and they will go into prize draws. On reaching one million steps they will receive a certificate from the Prime Minister and also go into our major prize draw.

But the biggest reward of all will be to people’s health, both physical and mental.

Daily walking benefits the mind as well as the body. It improves self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and it reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue. Active people have an up to 30 per cent reduced risk of becoming depressed, while staying active helps people who are depressed recover. Joining a Heart Foundation walking group also brings with it the benefits of friendship and support.

Health industry professionals are just as likely as other Australians to find that the pressures of office life have turned their existence into a dangerously sedentary one.

So, for the sake of your health, get out there and walk. Feed your spirit with a walk through a park, around a lake, or along a river bank or sea-shore. If you don’t have time for that, take a walk during your lunch break, get off the bus, tram or train a few stops earlier, park a few blocks away from your destination and walk, or walk the kids to school.

Walk more, sit less. Enjoy, and reap the benefits.