Walking is absolutely the most underrated form of movement, ever.
People who walk more live longer (1).
People who walk more are generally healthier (2).
And, studies even show that people who walk more are just all-around happier about life (3)!
Everyone knows that walking is a good idea. But ask yourself, how many people do you know who are actually incorporating it into their daily or weekly routine?
My goal for today’s newsletter is to get you hyped about walking! To remind you that if you want to improve your mood, reduce your stress, get some mental space or clarity, or even improve your blood sugar, walking is absolutely your best friend!
Today, we’re going to answer the following questions by looking at what the research says:
Walking Gives Us PerspectiveLike many of you, most of my work is done from my computer or phone these days, and sitting for long periods can make my brain (and body) feel static, which directly affects my productivity.
Whenever I need some inspiration, a creative boost, or to recapture my focus, I’ll go for a brisk 5-minute walk around the block. I don’t do it all the time, but when I do, I always come back feeling sharper and ready to jump back into whatever I was doing. (Fun note, Brenden Bruchard conducted the largest survey ever of high performers and found that on average they take a quick break every 45 to 60 minutes.)
Besides helping us hit the refresh button, going for a walk outside is a great time to practice gratitude and mindfulness. It’s also a perfect time to think about, or take a break from, whatever is weighing on us. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, walking provides me with a lot of clarity and equanimity.
There’s actually a whole therapy inspired by walking called EMDR—ever heard of it?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which has proven (that’s right, proven) to be an effective treatment for trauma and PTSD. What exactly is EMDR?
An American psychologist named Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered EMDR one day when she realized that walking helped her process, understand, and better deal with the traumatic events going on in her life. This inspired her to create a whole new methodology and conduct her own research on EMDR in veterans with PTSD.
She found that the bilateral eye movements (that’s when our eyes scan the horizon right to left or left to right) associated with walking helped desensitize traumatic memories. And the effect was noticeable after just one session (4). Now, EMDR is recognized as an effective adjunctive therapy for treating PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization (5).
Walking Improves Our Metabolic HealthI could go on and on about the benefits of walking for our well-being, but one of the main things I want to talk to you about today is how walking after meals can be a game-changer for your metabolic health, which is critical for living a long, happy, and healthy life, something we all deserve!
Sadly 88 percent of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. Our Westernized diet and sedentary lifestyle are largely to blame (6).
Refined starch and sugar account for 42 percent of Americans’ total energy intake, which mostly comes from the refined grains, flour, and sugar we’re getting from processed and packaged foods (7). These carbohydrates are absorbed super quickly and turn to sugar in the bloodstream.
Now, our bodies can handle a blood sugar surge every now and then (that’s why we have insulin to bring our levels back down) but eating them as a staple in our diet keeps our blood glucose and insulin too high too often, putting our metabolic health in serious danger (7). Over time, this leads to insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, accumulation of belly fat, and increased risk for chronic disease.
That’s the bad news. The good news? Walking after eating a carbohydrate-rich meal or drinking something sweet can significantly lower your blood glucose and insulin—but how?
The Coke Experiment: How Walking Influences Blood GlucoseLevels (the continuous glucose monitoring company) tested out the effects of a post-meal walk on the blood glucose response of a few of their employees. Here’s how it went down: each participant (11 total) drank an entire can of Coke (39g of sugar, no judgment but yuck!) within an hour of waking up and then went for a walk immediately after.
They walked anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours and measured their blood glucose response afterwards using their continuous glucose monitor. For the second part of the experiment, the participants drank a can of Coke under the same conditions (fasted) on a different day, but this time they didn’t move for two hours after.
The results were astonishing! Walking had a 20% less blood glucose impact than being sedentary (130 mg/dL vs 160 mg/dL). There is literally no drug that exists on the planet that would have the same result!
So what’s going on here for this effect to take place
When you walk, your heart rate increases, your blood flow increases, and delivery of glucose to your muscle cells increases (8). Your muscles act like a sponge, soaking up the glucose in your bloodstream to power movement. Plus, your insulin sensitivity increases, so you need less insulin to absorb glucose (and less insulin is almost always a good thing) (8).
Therefore, when you go for a walk after eating or drinking something sweet, the potential blood glucose spike is significantly blunted. On top of that, increasing insulin sensitivity reduces the likelihood of becoming insulin resistant.
It’s important to mention that walking or doing any type of physical activity fasted doesn’t provide the same blood glucose and insulin regulating benefits as going for a walk after you eat. However, physical activity in a fasted state does help you burn fat. (more on this topic at another time)
How Long Do I Have To Wait To Take My Walk
After we eat, we enter the postprandial period, when our body is digesting, absorbing, and distributing nutrients to nourish and supply our tissues with fuel.
How long the postprandial period lasts depends on what we’re eating. Quick absorbing, or simple carbohydrates (from refined flour, sugar, potatoes, or fruit smoothies) raise our blood sugar quickly and have a shorter postprandial period; whereas complex carbohydrates and fat are absorbed slowly and have a longer postprandial period (9)(10).
Why is this relevant?
Research shows that going for a walk can improve your blood glucose and insulin response any time during the postprandial period, up to six hours after eating (11).
But the sweet spot seems to be around 30 to 45 minutes (12)(13). Most of the research points towards 30 minutes (when your blood sugar is rising) having the maximum blood glucose and insulin benefits (11)(12)(13). However, quick-absorbing carbs are going to increase your blood glucose almost instantly, so the sooner you can get moving the better (9)(12)(14).
The 30-minute post-meal walk rule isn’t going to fit into everyone’s life, so if it works better for your schedule to go for one immediately after you eat (if you’re on your lunch break), that’s okay too! You’ll still be getting some benefits up to six hours after your meal (11)(14).
So now that you know how long to wait before you get moving, I’m sure you’re wondering how long and how fast you have to walk to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Duration & IntensityYou don’t have to be a marathon walker or a speed walker to get the benefits of walking. Heck, you don’t even need to reach a crazy high step goal. Sometimes, less is more.
This study that came out of Duke University is a perfect example of this. Researchers measured oral glucose tolerance (how well your body responds to sugar) in prediabetics following a weight loss protocol that consisted of either diet, exercise, or both for six months.
The “gold-standard” group followed a low-fat (yikes!), low-calorie diet and briskly walked 7.5 miles per week. The other groups did not follow a diet and either briskly walked 11.5 miles per week, 7.5 miles per week, or jogged 7.5 miles per week. The study found that people who walked 11.5 miles per week (that’s just over 1.5 miles a day) had nearly the same blood sugar impact as the gold-standard group (walking + diet) (15).
These findings suggest that moderate-intensity exercise can have almost the same effect on blood sugar as dietary changes combined with exercise. Fascinating! What’s even more interesting is that the 11.5-mile group had a better outcome than participants who jogged 7.5 miles per week (15).
How could this be? I thought running was the holy grail of cardio?
Well, maybe not when it comes to keeping our blood sugar and insulin levels low, which is a pretty big deal when it comes to weight loss. Brisk walking after meals allows blood glucose to be absorbed by muscle cells without prompting additional production of glucose, which is best for keeping blood glucose levels in check.
More intense workouts (80% intensity or higher) require anaerobic metabolism, which actually raises your blood sugar by tapping into your muscle and liver glycogen (stored glucose) (12). Releasing stored glucose to power your muscles isn’t a bad thing (there’s a time and place for high-intensity workouts), but it’s not the most desirable or necessary form of exercise we need if we’re looking to stabilize our blood glucose and insulin levels after a meal.
What If I Don’t Have Time For A 30-Minute Walk?Going for a 30-minute walk after you eat isn’t always practical for everyone. If that’s you, I have some good news! Short bouts of walking throughout the day offer the same (or potentially even more) benefits for your postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Yes, you read that correctly.
A randomized controlled trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that regular activity breaks (brisk walking for one minute and 40 seconds for a total of 30 minutes a day) resulted in significantly lower blood glucose and insulin than prolonged sitting (people who sat for nine straight hours a day) and people who took one 30 minute walk per day (16).
Pretty cool, right? This shows that you can get the benefits of walking simply by breaking up long periods of sitting with a short, brisk walk. If you don’t have time for a 30-minute walk, getting up and walking around your office or house, to your mailbox, or taking a phone call on your feet walking around for a few minutes is enough to improve your metabolic health.
In summary, the goal is to incorporate movement throughout your day in whatever way works best for you. If you have time for a 30-minute brisk walk after you eat, awesome. If the meal you just ate contains quick-absorbing simple carbs or refined sugar, the sooner you can get moving to curb the blood glucose spike, the better.
The goal is not to go crazy walking after every single meal, the goal is to avoid being sedentary for long periods throughout the day. Carve out some time to go on a few post-meal walks throughout the week. If that’s not possible, or if your schedule doesn’t allow for it, get up and walk around for short bursts of time (about two minutes) throughout the day.
I understand that it’s tough to make these changes all at once, but even just walking two hours a week can significantly lower your risk of all-cause mortality compared to nothing at all (17). Not only is walking great for your mental health, but your metabolic health will also thank you.
My four-step protocol this week is designed to meet you where you’re at to get the most out of your walk. You don’t need anything for my protocol this week besides yourself and some comfy walking shoes (and maybe a loved one to join you!).
Try ThisStep 1: Break up prolonged sitting
The best way to make a change is to start slow and work your way up. Breaking up your day with two minutes of brisk walking is something that anybody can do and make time for. I’m happy that we live in a world where technology makes it easy for us to connect and work from just about anywhere, but being sedentary for long periods of time definitely isn’t doing our metabolic health, or mental health, any favors.
Our great-great-grandparents would be dumbfounded by how much we sit throughout the day. And it’s not our fault. That’s the way most of us work and make a living these days. But our metabolic health doesn’t have to take a back seat to this sedentary lifestyle. We have the power to change it. The first step is awareness.
When you feel like you’ve been sitting for too long, get up and take a quick two-minute break, briskly walk around, and then get back to it! In total, if you took 15 two-minute breaks per day (30 minutes of walking total) that would look like getting up and moving every half hour over an eight-hour workday. If it makes it easier, set a timer on your phone to remind yourself! Because my meetings often occur in 1-hour chunks, I’ll get up about every 60 minutes and walk for 4 to 5 minutes.
Step 2: Take a walk around the block after dinner
Sometimes I can get in a quick post-lunch or early morning walk, but if not, I know I have my after-dinner walk to fall back on. We are headed into spring! That alone helps me want to get out and see the world.
I find that after dinner is a really awesome time to go for a walk because it tends to be the biggest meal of the day for a lot of people. Plus, when I go for a walk during the workday, it’s usually by myself, but when I go for a walk at night my husband will join me. Spending this time together is an awesome way for us to connect, talk about our day, and share whatever is on our minds.
Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my husband, friends, family (even myself) have been when I’m outside walking. It’s not about steps or calories, so take the pressure off and try to use this time as an investment in your health and practicing presence.
Step 3: More Advanced Option
For those of you who are looking to level up your walking routine, try incorporating a long walk into your regular walking routine at least once or twice a week. For me, a long walk is about 45 to 60 minutes of brisk walking, but for you, it can mean anything you want!
Sometimes I miss out on long walks because my schedule is too hectic or things come up that are more important, but I do love going on these long walks because they are an opportunity for me to practice mindfulness, gratitude, nature bathe, and have deep, meaningful conversations with the people I love.
Step 4: Put a walking group together
Making changes is much easier when we have someone to do it with. If you don’t have a consistent, reliable walking buddy, put together a walking group or community with people who have the same aspirations and goals as you do.
For your physical health, walking after a meal is a great way to keep your blood glucose stable, your insulin levels low, and set yourself up for optimal health. For our mental health, walking is also a fantastic way to ground yourself, clear your head, and get some perspective.
Make a habit of taking a walk after your biggest meal. And try breaking up your day here and there with a super quick and super short walk.
Lastly, walking is so much more fun when we do it with someone else. Setup a recurring calendar invite and invite a close friend or a loved one to take a longer walk with you once a week.
Walking does wonders for our health and almost all of us could use more of it in our lives. It’s completely free and has an immediate impact on transforming our biology. What more could you ask for?