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If you view walking as a to-do item, you’re missing out on its true charms. Here, fitness pros help you tap into the many upsides of going for a stroll.
There’s plenty to love about resistance bands, water aerobics and stationary bikes. But there’s something about getting outside for a simple walk that can feel transformative.
Don’t just take our word for it. We reached out to 5 fitness professionals who spend their days helping older adults lead fuller, more active lives, and asked them to share their favorite mind-and-body perks of walking. They offer motivational tips and ways to make your walk feel special — plus, ideas to sneak in strength or balance challenges. (Just a friendly reminder: Get your provider’s OK before beginning any new exercise program.)
“I walk to boost my bone strength”
Walking forces your body to work against gravity, making it a great way to help build up your bones, according to the National Institutes of Health.
In particular, “walking helps shore up bone density in your hips, which is so important to help with keeping your balance in check and preventing falls,” says exercise researcher Michele Olson, Ph.D., a clinical professor of sport science and physical education at Huntington College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Motivational tip: “The next time you’re tempted to skip your walk, think about one good thing that will happen after your walk,” says Olson. For example, you’ll have more energy. You’ll feel accomplished. You’ll feel happy that you did something just for you. Keep reminding yourself of all the good that comes from a simple stroll.
Favorite way to make a walk feel special: Go for a walk with a friend. “I love one-on-one walks,” says Olson. “You can discuss ideas and issues, making it a real bonus to your social and psychological health.”
How to add a challenge: Find some hills. Going up an incline makes your hamstrings and glutes work harder, while also helping to strengthen your heart, Olson says.
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“I walk to brighten my day”
Walking is a simple way to help turn around a low-mood day. As the Mayo Clinic notes, exercise not only releases feel-good chemicals into your brain but also can distract you from worries.
“I love what walking does for my mental health,” says Michelle Steege, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Motion Minnesota clinic in Minneapolis. “Even if I go into a walk frustrated about something, I often finish feeling refreshed and energized.”
Motivational tip: “Something is better than nothing,” Steege says. Instead of setting lofty goals, start with an amount of walking that’s realistic for you. Even if you’re only out for 5 minutes, or you just walk to the edge of the lawn and back, you’ve done something good for yourself.
Favorite way to make a walk feel special: Take a stroll in nature. “Remind yourself to actually look around at the scenery and soak in the sights, sounds and smells,” she says. “Make your walk a sensory experience.”
How to add a challenge: Try intervals. Set the timer on your watch or phone and bump up your walking speed for 1 minute. Return to your usual pace for 2 or 3 minutes, and then repeat.
If you don’t want to use a timer, Steege suggests picking landmarks along your route. Quicken your pace until you reach a specific bench, tree or other object that’s either in your line of sight or that you know is up ahead. Slow down until you reach the next one.
“I walk to keep my eyes healthy”
Walking may not protect your eyesight in and of itself, but it may help indirectly, if you spend a good part of your day watching TV or using a computer, tablet or smartphone. Looking at something up close for long periods of time can cause or worsen vision problems, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). Meanwhile, looking at things of varying distances may help prevent issues by keeping your eye muscles contracting in different ways, notes the AOA.
“Looking at all sorts of things while walking helps offset the strain my eye muscles undergo when my day is filled with looking at computer screens, phone screens and books that are all about a foot away from my eyes,” says Utah–based strength coach and author Kate Galliett, C.P.T.
Motivational tip: “If you’re struggling to get out the door, simply commit to walking until you notice something interesting — a group of kids playing, a pretty flower bed, a bird, anything that catches your attention,” Galliett says. “Once you do, you can come back home, but chances are you’ll want to keep going so you can notice a few more things.”
Favorite way to make a walk feel special: “I walk to a place where I can sit down and catch the last bit of sunset on the horizon,” Galliett says. “Sunsets, for me, are the greatest show in the world. And they’re free!”
How to add a challenge: Sneak in a balance drill. Because it’s important for older adults to work on their balance a little bit every day, Galliett recommends making it part of your walk.
Here’s one of her favorite drills: Once or twice during your next walk, stop and find a bench, tree, fence or mailbox that you can use to steady yourself. Holding onto the object, stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees soft.
Once you’re set up, slowly turn your head from side to side. Next, try it on one leg. With your knees soft, and still holding onto the object, shift to one leg, and try turning your head and your gaze from side to side. Keep your other foot near the ground so you can set it down if you get a little off balance. Then switch legs.
“Allow your gaze to travel over everything,” Galliett says. “It’s OK if you sway a bit. You’ll get steadier with practice.”
This drill may seem easy, but it’s actually helping to fine-tune a sensory process called proprioception. That’s your body’s ability to sense its location and movements without conscious thought. Inserting this balance drill into your walk gives you an idea of how your body keeps you upright as you change your gaze and head position, says Galliett.
“I walk to improve my heart health”
Heart disease is the top cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Luckily, the American Heart Association (AHA) names walking one of the simplest ways to build a healthy lifestyle and lower your odds of heart disease.
“Walking is one great way to help my heart,” says Lynn Shuck, a certified yoga instructor based in Bloomington, Minn., who frequently leads workshops that focus on balance, mobility and stability for older adults. “The heart requires movement in the rest of the body to assist in pumping the blood. More movement of the limbs and extremities equals better blood flow throughout the body — and less reliance on the heart muscle alone.”
Motivational tip: You don’t have to go for a planned walk to see health benefits. “Notice all the places you could be walking to but often choose not to,” Shuck says.
For example, if you typically drive up to your mailbox, park your car in your driveway and walk to it instead. Or bring your groceries into the house in multiple trips instead of carrying as many bags at once as you can. “Look at everything as a movement opportunity,” Shuck says.
Favorite way to make a walk feel special: Tune in to your senses. What do you see? Are all the greens the same green? What sounds can you hear? What does the ground feel like under your feet?
“Paying attention to your surroundings can turn your walk into a meditation,” Shuck says.
How to add a challenge: Walk on uneven surfaces. “This will use more muscles than walking on a flat and level sidewalk,” Shuck says. Look for opportunities to walk in the grass, on the sand or on a natural trail.
“I walk to lower my stress”
Feeling stressed or tense? Walking is a great way to lower cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone, says Debra Atkinson, a medical exercise specialist, sports psychologist and author based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Walk in nature for the best results. A 2019 study in Frontiers in Public Health found that walking just 15 minutes in a forest environment lowered cortisol better than walking in the city. Don’t worry if you’re nowhere near an actual forest. Atkinson says you can gain similar benefits by strolling through a park or other natural area.
Motivational tip: Pair your walk with something you love. Atkinson says she’s a fan of walking a dog, either your own or as a volunteer. “A dog is a great reason never to skip a walk,” she says.
Don’t own a dog? You could tie your walk to something else you enjoy. For example, by taking a short walk before your afternoon coffee or tea break, you’re creating a rewarding habit.
Favorite way to make a walk feel special: “I have a special playlist and mix it up regularly,” Atkinson says. When building your own playlist, pick upbeat songs that lift your mood and motivate you to keep moving.
How to add a challenge: When you come to a hill or set of stairs, try to keep the same pace as when walking in flat areas. It’s OK if you need to work up to this. That’s part of the fun, says Atkinson.
Stay motivated with Renew by UnitedHealthcare®
To help maintain your new walking routine, put Renew’s health and wellness tools to work for you. Every day you can log in to get inspiration from hundreds of different articles and videos — or try a fun fitness activity. Find it all in the Health & Wellness section of your plan website. Not a member? Learn more here.
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