The Health and Recovery Benefits of Walking

Walking won't enhance your sports performance, but it can help alleviate low back pain and cure other ailments.

At some point in your athletic career, you've probably been told to "walk it off." Often this is bad advice, especially when you're dealing with a serious injury. However, it might be legitimate when related to general health and recovery. If you're feeling stiffness in your back, a walking regimen can get you back into your game sooner rather than later. Here's why:

Get Moving!

It's tempting to sit on the bench or head for the couch, but that makes things worse. Prolonged standing, sitting or lying down tightens your lower and middle back, hamstrings and hip muscles, prolonging back stiffness and achiness.

RELATED: How Does Walking Compare to the Elliptical Machine?

A low-impact activity like walking can ease the pain or discomfort. In a 2012 study, Dr. Michal Katz-Leurer of Tel Aviv University's Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions found that a simple aerobic walking program "is as effective in alleviating lower-back pain as muscle-strengthening programs that require specialized equipment in rehabilitation clinics. The program includes walking two to three times a week for a period of 20 to 40 minutes."

What makes walking as effective as strength programs? Dr. Katz-Leurer says that when people walk effectively, back and abdominal muscles "work in much the same way as when they complete exercises that target these areas."

RELATED: 7 Strategies for Faster Workout Recovery

Walking to Speed Healing

Walking enhances back health by stimulating the brain to release pain-killing endorphins—enabling you to feel better mentally and physically, reducing back pain, speeding healing, increasing strength and flexibility and helping prevent recurring back issues. A 2005 article in Better Homes and Gardens cited two physicians who advocate walking for healing back pain: Dr. Dave Drake, director of musculoskeletal and sports medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Dr. Jeff Susman, chair of family medicine at the University of Cincinnati.

"Walking is one of the simplest things you can do for yourself," says Dr. Drake.

Dr. Susman, however, cautions "to start out slow and easy and gradually build up speed and distance. Walk around the block, stroll the mall or start off on a treadmill. Always walk on a flat surface while you're healing, because hills force you to lean forward and strain the lower back. Be prepared for some discomfort at first. It sounds paradoxical, but it's better to work through the pain."

The article further cautions that if walking produces shooting leg pain or numbness—or the pain lingers for a few days or weeks (which could be from compressed nerves or spinal discs)—stop and seek medical attention.

RELATED: Breathing Techniques to Improve Recovery

What This Means for You

For athletes, walking might not sound like the most intense type of activity. And it's not meant to increase sports performance. But getting up and walking around throughout the day can counteract the negative effects of sitting, which, as mentioned above, can cause back injury and a plethora of other issues, including tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings and even decreased speed.

Devices like the FitBit and Apple Watch encourage you to get up and walk as much as possible. For high-performance athletes, moving around throughout the day can pay off by increasing their durability and longevity.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock