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Why getting out in the cold for a walk is worth the effort

Making walking a daily habit comes with some impressive health benefits — for your mind and your body.
WALKING BENEFITS
Walking can help improve your mental health, especially if you walk outdoors.TODAY illustration / Getty Images

Not to brag, but I’m super good at walking. Not putting one foot in front of the other, though I manage that just fine, but at getting out there every day. My husband and I walk for about 25 minutes every morning — in the snow, in the rain, and even on Sundays when we stayed up late the night before.

We have a secret weapon that gets us out of the house: our big, black, possibly-a-Labradoodle, rescue dog, Daisy. She doesn’t understand “It’s too cold” or “Let’s just skip today.” So off we go, around the neighborhood and along the creek so Daisy can get her paws wet.

Those walks aren’t just exercise for the dog, they’re good for my husband and me, too. They boost our physical health and our mental health, and they help us get the exercise we need. “Walking is an ideal option in terms of physical activity. It requires no specialized skill — everyone knows how to walk. It’s low impact and safe,” Dr. Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, told TODAY.

Sure, it’s probably cold and dark where you live (same for me!) and staying home wrapped in a snuggly sweatshirt with a steaming cup of herbal tea sounds a lot nicer than bundling up to go outside. But getting that walk in is worth it. And you don’t have to take my word for it — health experts are bullish on the benefits of walking.

Why walking is good for your body

“Many of the systems of the body can benefit from walking,” Bryant said. Walking can help:

  • Improve your cardiovascular health and function
  • Increase your aerobic capacity
  • Improve blood pressure
  • Control your blood sugar and reduce your risk of diabetes
  • Increase your metabolism
  • Maintain your weight
  • Reduce your risk or osteoarthritis
  • Maintain mobility

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for 150 to 300 minutes a week, so 30 minutes of brisk walking for five days a week gets you into the low end of that range.

If you’re walking to manage your weight or lose weight, you’ll probably want to walk for longer. Bryant said to work up to 45 to 60 minutes of walking most days. That doesn’t have to be all at once, though. A 30-minute morning walk and a 20-minute walk after dinner would count.

If you’ve built a walking routine and you want to make your walks more challenging, try wearing a weighted vest or working hills into your walk, Bryant said.

Why walking is good for your mind

Walking can help improve your psychological and mental health, especially if you walk outdoors.

“Walking outside, being in nature, and getting out of the same place allows you to decompress, understand what’s been going on and refocus,” Dr. Mark A. Slabaugh, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, told TODAY. “In my experience, it helps you to be able to almost meditate, to get in touch with your thoughts, to understand what’s important and to relax.”

Bryant is also a fan of getting outdoors for your walk: “There are so many wonderful benefits in terms of being able to have that positive distraction, a change in scenery, and getting sunlight and fresh air,” he said.

Taking a walk with a family member or friend, if you stay safely apart, gives you a dose of socializing that is also good for your mental health.

A walk can also help clear your mind and enhance your creativity. “I use walking on a personal level when I’m writing an article or editing a book — when I get stuck, I go out and walk,” Bryant said.

A hard habit to break

Once you start your walking habit, you’ll probably find that you like it so much you’ll increase it. “It starts to spiral upwards. If you’re walking for five minutes you might increase it to 10,” Slabaugh said. “That good upward trend helps you in many different ways.” You’ll be more motivated, have better mental health, make better food decisions, and make positive choices that maintain your walking habit.