Walking is the Best Medicine!


Lacing up your shoes and getting out the door is one of the best things older adults can do for their health and mood.

Barb Resnick HeadshotBarbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP
Sonya Ziporkin Gershowitz Chair in Gerontology
University of Maryland School of Nursing

The Surgeon General’s new “Call to Action on Walking” is a perfect opportunity to celebrate the many physical and mental health benefits of walking. In fact, if the benefits of walking came in pill form, I’m convinced it would be the best-selling pill on the planet! Walking is a scientifically proven, simple way to dramatically improve your well-being. No matter how old you are, when you walk regularly, you can enjoy benefits like these:

  • You can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol
  • You will start feeling happier, less anxious, and less stressed
  • Your sleep can become sounder and more restful
  • You may be able to lessen your risk of falling and reduce your fear of falling
  • You can prevent gaining weight
  • Your mental sharpness can improve

Recently, researchers from Johns Hopkins University discovered that for older women (but not older men), a low-intensity daily walk might enlarge the part of the brain responsible for memory. Known as the hippocampus, this section of the brain is linked to memory loss when it shrinks due to aging. [Varma et al. Low-Intensity daily walking associated with hippocampal volume in older adults. Hippocampus. 2015 May;25(5):605-15] 

Although we know that there is little risk associated with walking, many older adults are afraid that walking might worsen conditions such as arthritis. But the good news is that the opposite is true. In fact, when you walk just 3,000 steps a day, you can prevent the pain of knee arthritis from getting worse. And people who walk 6,000 steps a day (about 3 miles) can reduce their chances of becoming disabled by arthritis.

Sometimes, older adults worry about starting a walking program because they have concerns about heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems. More good news—according to scientific studies, walking is unlikely to trigger a heart attack.

Here are some suggestions for starting a walking program:

  • If you’ve been inactive or sedentary, or have physical limitations, ask your provider to create an exercise “prescription” that meets your needs.
  • In the beginning, set goals for yourself. A 5 or 10-minute walk is perfect when you’re starting out. You can add time and distance gradually.
  • Choose comfortable shoes that fit well—sneakers or walking shoes are best for most people.
  • Drink water before, during, and after your walk.
  • It’s fine to use a cane or walker if you need help with balance or to ease painful joints.
  • Find a place to walk that’s enjoyable and safe. If you don’t live in a location with safe, level sidewalks or a park with walking trails, consider your local mall, a school athletic track, or a nearby Y, or the hallways of your apartment building or the setting in which you live.
  • Have an indoor walking plan for cold, icy, or rainy weather. Walking around inside your home or living setting and going up and down the stairs is better than not walking at all.
  • Try to “sneak” in some walking during the day. For example, if you’re watching TV, get up and walk around the room while the commercials are on. When you’re sitting down, “march” your feet as if you were walking. Don’t sit while you’re on the telephone—instead, get up and walk around as you chat.
  • Consider using a pedometer, a fitness tracker, or a smart phone app that measures your progress. Watching your improvements over time can be very motivating!

[Resnick et al. Screening and Prescribing Exercise for Older Adults. Geriatrics and Aging 2006;9(3):174-182]