The man who wrote the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” was later quick to document what he discovered to be another unquestioning truth.
“The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises, walking is best,” Thomas Jefferson wrote during the mid-1780s. “There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.”
More than two centuries later, physicians and medical researchers have performed study after study that’s supported Jefferson’s hypothesis, and then some. They concluded that not only is walking great exercise, but it’s also great medicine.
“There is no single drug that can do anything like what regular physical activity does, and that’s why walking really is a wonder drug,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. “It makes you healthier and happier.”
Multiple studies have shown walking is effective in everything from losing weight, strengthening the immune system, reducing blood pressure and warding off depression, to preventing diseases such as diabetes and cancer. But what about back pain?
Recent studies have also shown walking to be effective in preventing and treating pain in the spine, an ailment that will affect seven in 10 Americans during their lifetimes. Walking programs can even be “as effective as treatment that could have been received in the clinic,” said Dr. Michal Katz-Leurer of Tel Aviv University’s Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions, who conducted a recent study showing that home aerobic walking programs are effective in treating lower back pain.
How does this work?
According to Dr. Katz-Leurer, research shows that when people walk, their abdominal and back muscles work in much the same way as when they perform exercises meant to specifically target these areas. What makes walking all the more effective than these other exercises, Dr. Katz-Leurer points out, is that walking requires no special equipment and can easily fit into a person’s daily routine.
“One thing I always have my patients do is start a simple walking program,” said Barrett Ford, PT, owner of Step & Spine Physical Therapy (Sisters, OR). Ford is certified in Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy of the Spine from the McKenzie Institute. “When you walk, it actually rehydrates and unloads, taking pressure off the spine.”
The inherent health benefits of a routine walking program include:
- Strengthening Muscles in the Feet, Legs, Hips & Torso: This increases stability of the spine, conditioning these muscles to keep the body upright and balanced.
- Nourishing the Spine: Walking encourages improved circulation, which allows the body to pump nutrients into the spine’s soft tissues while washing away toxins.
- Improves Flexibility & Posture: Along with regular stretching, walking does what other, more targeted exercise are designed to do – it helps increase range of motion while preventing injury through better movement.
According to a 2004 study published in The Spine Journal, walking also works to stimulate the brain into releasing serotonin and endorphins, neurotransmitter chemicals that can make you feel better both physically and mentally. This coupled with the simple distraction inherent in a vigorous stroll, according to the study, can lead to a 10 to 50 percent reduction in lower back pain after just a single session of walking.
“Walking is the easiest, most accessible and most popular way Americans get exercise,” Frieden said. “It doesn’t cost anything, you don’t have to go to the gym or change your clothes before or after. It’s something virtually anyone can do.”
If you’re just starting a walking program, start off slow and easy, then gradually build up your speed and distance. If you struggle to begin due to back pain, impairments in movement or other ailments, consult your physician or physical therapist before pushing yourself too hard.