Kathleen Tracy | HealthGreatness

In these days of extreme body makeovers popularized by workouts like CrossFit, P90X, and Insanity, walking seems almost quaint. While it may not have the flash, buzz, or trendy T-shirts of the latest no-pain, no-gain exercise program ­du jour, walking is no underdog when it comes to health benefits.

Now, walking as exercise is more than a leisurely stroll so leave your parasol at home. Nor is it speed walking so your hips can rest easy. It is moving at a steady brisk pace. The rule of thumb is that you should walk as fast as you can while still able to hold a normal conversation without gasping for air in between words. Generally, the longer you walk the better but simply walking for at least 30 minutes three times a week will improve your aerobic fitness and help improve metabolic efficiency.

And research shows it does not have to be continuous minutes. Walking for 30 minutes at a time five days a week provided essentially the same fitness benefits as taking three 10-minute walks five days a week. The most surprising finding was that those taking the shorter walks actually lost more weight than those taking the single longer walk. Walking alters your body’s fat metabolism so that fat is burned up instead of sugars so walking several times a day keeps the metabolism revved.

But most of you already know that walking is good for you and helps lose excess pounds, maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, control cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. But there are other lesser known benefits provided by walking. For example, studies show that walking—especially walking with a dog—makes people more social. And more social people are happier people. And happier people tend to be significantly healthier than their mopey counterparts.

Getting enough sleep doesn’t just keep you alert; it also helps you live longer. The Centers for Disease Control call insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. “Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.” A regular walking program has been shown to help people sleep better and longer. To be honest, researchers don’t know exactly why we sleep better with regular exercise, they just know we do. Just don’t walk too close to your normal bedtime.

Walking has also been shown to help prevent or lessen depression. Some of it could simply be the relaxing effects of sunshine and fresh air. It can also be that walking promotes the release of chemicals that help alleviate stress, a component of many depressions. But people who walk regularly tend to have a more optimistic outlook.

Lastly, walking is an effective pain killer. Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) is the most common type of arthritis and most often occurs in the knees, with more than 10 million Americans afflicted. The worst thing you can do is stop moving. A new study published in June 2014 found that walking may help improve knee arthritis, alleviate pain, and prevent disability. Likewise, up to 80 percent of adult Americans experience back pain at some point. The gentle aerobic activity provided by walking has proven to be an effective treatment for many cases of temporary back pain.

Walking proves you don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from exercise. Just make walking a regular part of your week and you’ll soon be sleeping better, fitting into your clothes better, more optimistic, more flexible, and more content with life. Walking is no underdog; it is the path to improved overall wellness. Put that on a T-shirt.