Researchers recommend that adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, whether it's 25 minutes every day or 30 minutes five times a week . However, over 60% of U.S. adults fail to meet these levels, and about 25% of adults don't exercise at all .
The consequences of this rise in sedentary lifestyles are staggering — including significantly higher risks of all-cause mortality and the development of health conditions like CVD, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer .
But does this mean you need to sign up for a membership at your local gym or do HIIT workouts every week to make an impact on your metabolic health? While those options have their merits, there’s a compelling alternative that’s accessible to almost anyone and can be a game-changer for your health: walking.
Does walking lower blood sugar?
Walking is a simple and highly effective metabolic health strategy that has the power to regulate blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
In a study of 37,828 women from the Women’s Health Study, those who reported walking for 2–3 hours per week reduced their risk of Type 2 diabetes by 34% over nearly 7 years . Research shows that walking more steps per day is linked to lower fasting glucose levels and a reduced 5-year risk of dysglycemia [5, 6]. Even short walks can help; breaking up long periods of sitting with light or moderate-intensity walks improves glucose and insulin levels in overweight/obese adults .
When you engage in moderate and sustained physical activity, it elevates your heart and breathing rates, leading the muscles involved in the exercise to consume more glucose from your bloodstream to fuel their energy needs. This consistent physical activity gradually lowers blood sugar levels and improves insulin sensitivity. These benefits endure for several hours after exercise.
When is the best time to walk?
Incorporating walks after meals can further optimize blood sugar control by helping to clear and use up excess glucose, therefore, preventing large postprandial spikes.
In a recent study involving a healthy, non-diabetic cohort, it was found that a 30-minute walk initiated within 15 minutes of consuming a high-carbohydrate meal was the most effective exercise strategy for reducing glucose response .
Compared to the sedentary control group, participants in the walking group experienced an impressive 39% reduction in blood glucose levels during the first 60 minutes after the meal.
Another study in adults with Type 2 diabetes found that a 10-minute post-meal walk significantly lowered blood sugar levels by an average of 12% compared to those who walked for 30 minutes at any time of day . The improvement was pronounced when subjects walked after dinner, with an average 22% reduction in blood sugar levels.
A post-meal walk in the evening was the most effective at lowering blood sugar, as this is typically the meal when the most carbohydrates are consumed, and participants tend to be less active afterward.
A well-timed post-meal walk can significantly benefit your cardiovascular health. By reducing glucose variability, walking can help mitigate the vascular damage often linked to abrupt post-meal spikes, ultimately enhancing cardiometabolic well-being.
When you're about to have a meal that could lead to a glucose spike, especially at dinner, think about incorporating a post-meal walk into your routine. Better yet, make it a habit after every meal.
Beyond adding daily walks, try to incorporate more habits that require walking. For example, instead of heading straight for the couch after dinner, try taking out the trash, or doing some chores around the house. In your daily life, get more walking in by using the stairs, parking a bit farther when meeting friends, handling phone calls on the move, or enjoying family strolls. , These small habits help mitigate post-meal glucose spikes, enhancing your day-to-day glycemic control, and reducing the risk of insulin resistance .
Morning vs. evening walks
The timing of your daily walk plays a role in its impact on health and metabolism. Morning walks align with your circadian rhythm, while evening walks may help counteract the natural decline in insulin sensitivity and glucose regulation throughout the day [11, 12].
The key is finding a time that fits your lifestyle, allowing you to establish a healthy habit of consistent walking, which in turn will contribute to better metabolic health and overall well-being. If you notice high blood glucose in the evening, consider an evening walk to help your body move sugar from your bloodstream to your muscles for energy. If you have an inconsistent sleep schedule, a morning walk may help align your body clock and regulate your hormones throughout the day.
Does walking help you lose weight?
Evolutionarily, our bodies became adept at conserving energy when food was scarce. Unless you're a professional athlete, increased caloric expenditure from physical activity doesn't significantly alter daily calorie expenditure because the body adheres to a set daily "budget" for energy expenditure.
Walking may not be the most efficient tool for weight loss, though it has many health benefits that extend beyond weight reduction. Any weight loss that does occur is likely a natural byproduct of the overall health improvements associated with walking.
However, walking is an excellent starting point for those new to exercise, providing an accessible way to begin incorporating some movement into your daily routine. For those who have already lost weight, walking becomes vital for weight maintenance, helping to keep the excess weight off and promoting long-term behavior change .
It offers a sustainable, low-intensity activity that individuals are more likely to adhere to when striving for healthier lifestyle modifications. Even if you already engage in regular exercise, walking serves as a valuable supplement, especially if you spend extended periods at a desk during the day.
Does walking build muscle?
Walking, as a weight-bearing exercise, can help strengthen the muscles in your lower body. While it may not lead to significant muscle hypertrophy or visibly larger muscles, it contributes to toning and stabilizing the leg muscles .
To achieve significant muscle growth, combining walking with resistance training is ideal . Resistance exercises, like weightlifting, provide the stimulus needed for muscle hypertrophy. This balanced approach supports muscle development and overall fitness, combining the benefits of cardiovascular health and strength training.
While we know bigger muscles are an extremely effective way to supercharge insulin sensitivity and glucose clearance, doing both resistance training and walking means you can reap the individual metabolic benefits of the two different exercise types .
Does walking help with the markers of metabolic health?
Sedentary lifestyles have been associated with unfavorable cardiometabolic health markers, including elevated blood pressure, increased fasting glucose levels, higher triglycerides, large waist circumference, and reduced levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol .
These markers are closely intertwined and interdependent, meaning if one falls outside the healthy range, it’s likely that several others will be affected. Research indicates that you can modify these cardiometabolic risk factors through lifestyle changes — including aerobic activities like brisk walking, leisurely walking, and gardening — to help manage and even prevent cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
In fact, an analysis of 28 studies examining physical activity's impact on Type 2 diabetes risk found that 150 minutes of walking per week lowers the risk by 26%, and doubling the effort involved, either increasing walking speed or the distance walked for, the risk by 36%, with additional benefits seen at higher intensity levels . The takeaway here is that even small amounts of walking can help prevent Type 2 diabetes, but increasing the effort involved provides greater health benefits.
In 2021, an extensive review delved into the mechanisms through which exercise enhances cardiometabolic risk factors . It found that 150 minutes of brisk walking per week improves all five markers of cardiometabolic health, including lower HbA1c, an increase in cholesterol-HDL (“good” cholesterol), a decrease in waist circumference, reduced overall blood pressure, and even weight loss.
Regular walking and physical activity are essential components of a healthy lifestyle. Understanding how these habits lead to measurable clinical improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors empowers individuals to grasp how even small increases in walking can effectively manage or prevent future health issues.
- Walking is a simple and accessible way to improve your health, even if you're not hitting the gym regularly. Just aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (brisk) walking per week, and break it into smaller, manageable segments.
- Walking doesn't just get you moving; it also helps regulate your blood sugar. Walking for 30 minutes after eating can make a significant difference in managing blood sugar levels.
- Whether you decide on morning walks, to align with your body's natural rhythm and to establish a healthy routine, or opt for those evening steps, to counteract the day's decline in glucose regulation, timing isn’t the most important factor - consistent steps and movement is key.
- While walking may not lead to huge muscle gains, it's great for toning and strengthening your lower body. To supercharge insulin sensitivity and glucose clearance, combine walking with resistance training.
- Walking offers a multifaceted approach to improving metabolic health. It can help regulate blood pressure, blood glucose, triglycerides, waist circumference, and even boost beneficial HDL cholesterol levels. So, keep walking for better overall health, even if you're not focused on weight or muscle gain.