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Walk your way to good health

Joyce Teo on 18 Aug 2019

The Straits Times


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SINGAPORE - Every Saturday, business development manager Boey Li Yin, 40, gathers a group of six to eight friends, sometimes more, for her eight to 10km walks around Singapore.


They start at 9am and end around noon. One week, the walk could be from Ang Mo Kio Hub to Adam Road. The next week, it could be the TreeTop Walk trail in MacRitchie.


Walking can be time-consuming, but there are also social benefits.


"You can chat with others along the way," said Ms Boey, who has been doing these walks for the past six years. "Walking is good for people who are not so fit. I like running too, but running is very intensive."


Mr Toh Poh Joo also frequently walks for at least 3 1/2 hours almost every weekend, though he starts earlier at 4am, walks alone and walks fast, covering 20km in that time.


Sometimes, he walks up to 40km, taking 6 1/2 hours. Every three months or so, he clocks 10 to 11 hours, covering a distance of 60km.


"The overseas ultra races I like involve more walking than running, so I like to condition my body and get used to the long-distance walking," said Mr Toh.


The director of facilities management at Raffles Quay Asset Management will take on the challenge of the 150km walk, a new category in the Let's Take A Walk event in November organised by non-profit group Raleigh Singapore.


He was the only Singaporean and Asian in the eight-day 6633 Arctic ultra race across Canada in 2016, where he emerged second out of 12 participants.


Walking helps him maintain his weight and keeps him positive as he takes the chance to clear and focus his mind.


"Walking gives me the time to reflect on myself," he said. "It can be on what I've done in the past year, whether I achieved my resolution, or on my career or even something like a recipe for a family gathering."


He finds that the fatigue that accompanies long-distance runs can distract him from his personal reflections, unlike walking.


While many people run to keep fit, some, like Ms Boey and Mr Toh, enjoy long-distance walks as a form of exercise.


North West Community Development Council's (CDC) brisk walking club - the biggest such club among the CDCs - has grown from 8,000 members in 2002 to 70,000 members now. About 5,000 members meet to walk for at least 2km every week or two and the aim is to get 15,000 members to walk weekly by 2022, said a spokesman for the CDC.


Yesterday, it launched a new club logo - one that is more sporty, with the hope of attracting more younger adults to walk as well, she said.


Experts say walking can burn calories, promote better sleep, help manage one's blood glucose level and lower the risk of cardiosvascular disease, among other benefits.


Associate Professor Stephen Burns from the Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group at the National Institute of Education said there is some evidence to show that regular exercise such as walking is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.


"While walking does not provide an optimal benefit for improvement of bone health or density, it can help improve strength and balance to a certain extent and has been associated with a lower risk of hip fractures in women," he said.


"In this country, being outside, particularly in the early morning or early evening, can give some sun exposure for vitamin D."


Long-distance walking can help improve stamina and fitness and the greater the distance walked, the greater the amount of calories burned, said Dr Mandy Zhang, an associate consultant at the Department of Sport and Exercise Medicine at Changi General Hospital.


But short walks count, too, and even a small amount of physical activity can significantly impact and benefit your health, she said.


Indeed, the 10,000-steps-a-day rule is meant only as a guide; a widely reported recent study focusing on older women found that taking 4,400 steps a day significantly lowered mortality rates. Those who took more steps tended to live longer, but the effects levelled off at 7,500 steps a day.


Prof Burns said there is no evidence to show that walking very long distances is needed to gain health benefits.


Most guidelines by public health bodies, such as the Health Promotion Board and World Health Organisation, recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as brisk walking.


Thus, doing 150 minutes a week of brisk walking in bouts of 10 minutes or more is sufficient to meet the minimum physical activity guideline and benefit health, he said.


Greater benefits can be accrued with time spent up to 300 minutes a week. But beyond this, it can be difficult to see clear benefits to disease risk reduction and the returns are less, he said.


"Walking 25km at one time is unlikely to be harmful in individuals who train such distances, but constant repetitive exercise over a long period could result in some overuse injury," he added.


"Potentially, there could be an issue of low energy availability - particularly in women - over a long time leading to possible menstrual disorders; this would depend on diet though."


While the time spent on walking is key, walking a little faster can help increase the health benefits.


Large studies, including the major United States-based Nurses' Health Study, have found walking pace to be important, he said.


Interestingly, a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society last year concluded that older adults with slower walking speeds and those who experienced a greater decline in their walking speed over time were at increased risk of dementia.


"Brisk walking for physical activity would be considered 5 to 6.5kmh," said Prof Burns.


"Speeds lower than this can still contribute to breaking up sedentary sitting time."


Short periods of incidental walking, lasting one to two minutes, to break up one's sitting or sedentary time at a slower pace can add some additional health benefits to these brisk walks, he said.


"It is important to break up this sedentary time because some individuals meet the physical activity guidelines each week, but spend a lot of their day sitting and that confers a cardiometabolic risk (of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus) in itself."


Any distance covered is beneficial, whether it is a few kilometres or more than 25km, said Changi General Hospital's Dr Zhang.


"The key to achieving any fitness goal is consistency. As your fitness level improves and exercise becomes a regular habit, you can gradually increase the distance," she said.


"While many people can't run for hours, most can walk for long periods. All you need is to get moving."




All walking is good. You do not have to walk for an hour or two each time just to reap the benefits. The walking can also be in short bouts, but done briskly.


It should be done properly - not in slippers but in a pair of comfortable walking shoes, for example.


Adequate hydration is important and when you walk, you should assume an upright posture, with shoulders pulled back and have good core control, with your head, shoulders and hips aligned, said Mr Paul Oh, a senior lecturer at the School of Chemical & Life Sciences at Singapore Polytechnic.


"I have seen people walking like they just walked out of their office after a long day, with slouching shoulders," he said.


"When walking, people tend to not be mindful of their posture, but it matters if you're walking as a form of exercise. Better posture lets you breathe easier too."


Exercises such as planks or push-ups will help strengthen the upper body, which helps with maintaining good posture, he added.


If you are new to long-distance walking, start slow and increase the distance gradually.


To reduce the risk of training injuries, increase the total mileage a week by no more than 10 per cent, said Dr Zhang of Changi General Hospital.


"Cross-training such as cycling, which reduces the load on walking muscles, as well as resistance training build strength and stamina, which reduce the chance of injury."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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