When I was in my teens, I remember thinking that walking doesn’t really qualify as exercise. Back then, I was doing lots of sports and I regularly went to my local gym, where I lifted heavy weights and did high-intensity training on the rowing machine. That’s what I considered to be exercise. In my mind, walking was a “soft” form of physical activity that old people were doing. I didn’t believe it did much in terms of enhancing health or fitness.
I no longer hold those beliefs. Actually, I would go as far as to say that I today believe walking is a superb form of exercise. It’s arguably the truest form of organic fitness. It definitely deserves its spot at the bottom of the Organic Fitness Pyramid.
The steps of our ancestors are imprinted in our genomes
Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t “exercise”. They obviously didn’t go for a jog every night in order to get their heart rate up and shed some calories, and they didn’t do push-ups, chins, or air squats. Moreover, they didn’t have access to all the gym equipment that the modern fitness enthusiast has at his disposal; hence, they couldn’t do barbell squats, military presses, leg extensions, or other exercises that one needs various forms of gym equipment to perform.
This is not to say that they weren’t physically active though. They were very physically active (1, 2, 3). One doesn’t have to have a PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology to understand why; all that’s required is a basic understanding of how life was like prior to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Back then, automobiles and supermarkets were nowhere to be found. Our ancestors had to work for their calories.
They didn’t move because they necessarily wanted to, but rather because they had to. Back in the day, physical activity and survival were closely linked. A lazy hunter-gatherer who wasn’t willing to put in the effort that was required of him to get a hold of food and stay safe in the wild environment in which he lived obviously wouldn’t have made it very long.
Paleolithic humans undoubtedly walked long distances on a frequent basis in order to get a hold of the food they needed to survive. They undoubtedly also ran and sprinted every now and then, as they were pursuing wild game; however, most of the time, they were probably walking, not running. This idea is supported by scientific research, including anthropological studies that have looked into the way of life of modern hunter-gatherers, such as the Hadza hunter-gatherers, who are known to do a lot of walking (4, 5, 6).
Here’s what Anthropologist Herman Pontzer had to say about the activity pattern of Hadza men who are out on hunts:
“They don’t run,” Pontzer notes, unless, of course, “someone jumps out of the bushes at them.” But they walk pretty much continuously, with just a single break at midday to avoid the worst heat. If they’re striking out with hunting, Pontzer says, they might chop into trees to get wild honey. (7)
The walking/running ratio is particularly high among female hunter-gatherers, who typically don’t do much hunting. They primarily gather tubers, berries, and other plant foods that obviously aren’t capable of evading them via movement; hence, they don’t have to run a lot. This, in combination with the fact that women give birth to children and therefore need to have a different morphological configuration than men, can largely explain why females aren’t as well-adapted to run as males. From a morphological perspective, the female body is poorly built for high-intensity running.
Walking vs. high-intensity training
CrossFit, a training form that involves the execution of a mix of different exercises and activities, including strength training, running, and rowing, has over time developed a close relationship with the evolutionary health movement. Some people, including some evolutionary health enthusiasts, seem to be under the belief that the physical activity pattern of crossfitters resembles that of hunter-gatherers. This belief is fallacious.
Our primal ancestors undoubtedly sometimes carried heavy things and they may even have climbed a tree every now and then; however, they obviously didn’t run around doing squats, deadlifts, chins, push-ups, and other similar exercises. Moreover, they didn’t perform Olympic lifts such as the snatch and the clean and jerk, climb ropes, or jump up and down on a box. This is not to say that I hate CrossFit (I don’t) or that I think we – contemporary humans – should necessarily steer clear of the aforementioned exercises. All I’m saying is that the physical activity template of CrossFit bears little resemblance to that of our ancestors.
One of the things that separate the physical activity pattern of our distant ancestors from that of crossfitters is its greater inclusion of low-level intensity activities such as walking. Hunter-gatherers walk a lot more than most crossfitters do. Perhaps needless to say, they also walk a lot more than sedentary, contemporary people do.
Walking differs markedly from high-intensity CrossFit-type training in that it isn’t highly glycolytic and doesn’t put a lot of stress on the body. It increases your heart rate and gets your musculoskeletal system working; however, it doesn’t “tear down” your muscles, dramatically raise your caloric needs, or put you at a markedly elevated risk of injuries. This, in combination with the fact that walking was an important part of the physical activity routine of our ancestors, helps explain why the science pertaining to the health effects of walking is so clear-cut.
Among other things, regular walking has been associated with improved mood, cognitive function, and bone strength (8, 9, 10). It may also aid weight loss via its impact on glycemic control, immunity, insulin sensitivity, and appetite regulation (9, 11). The list of benefits is endless…
Less isn’t always more
The question you may now be left with is: How many steps or minutes should I walk every day? There is no single, precise answer to this question. In many of my articles on diet, physical activity, and health I’ve brought in the motto less is more, so as to underscore the importance of not taking health and fitness to the extreme. That’s not something I’m going to do here. Actually, I would argue that when it comes to walking, more is usually better than less.
Walking is a safe and fairly non-strenuous form of activity. I think virtually everyone, including people who are fairly physically active, can benefit from walking more. If you’re able to do 10.000 steps or about 1.5 hours of walking a day, then that’s very good. “Overtraining” is rarely an issue. Rather, the issue is finding the time and will to walk.
I think one of the keys to walking more is to try to include more walking into one’s daily activities, for example by walking, as opposed to driving, to work if possible, choosing steps instead of elevators, and perhaps even buying a walking desk. Another key is to find a walking partner. It’s generally a lot more fun to walk with another person than alone.