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Two Changes to Your Walking Will Lower Cortisol Even More

Jade Teta

Walking is something we at Metabolic Effect emphasize consistently to our clients.  We don’t view walking as exercise, but rather necessity.  One issue with walking is that many insist on aerobic power walking, not realizing leisure walking is likely the better option. This highlights the difference between weight loss thinking and fat loss thinking.

Weight loss thinking makes calorie burning the goal and therefore walkers think they should go as fast as they can and burn up as much energy as possible.  Fat loss thinking is all about hormones. Taking a fat loss approach means thinking a little bit smarter about what effect a walking session may have in the hours after you do it. Many people do not realize that power walking may have the same negative effect on compensatory eating as jogging. Leisure walking does not. If you are interested in understanding why, check out this blog on the science of exercise and appetite.

Walking is something people should be doing every day as much as possible.  But, if that walking turns into a strenuous aerobic workout this becomes far less feasible.  Slow, leisure walking can be done all day every single day because it is more restorative and relaxing.  Our view is the benefits of walking on fat loss come from its hormone effects, not its calorie effects. In other words, neither leisure walking or power walking are going to do much for creating a calorie deficit. Walking lowers the stress hormone cortisol, does burn some calories (not very many), and when it is leisure based walking, it keeps us from eating.  Leisure walking may be the only activity that does not create significant compensatory hunger reactions for most people.

A study out of Japan published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology in March of 2007 showed some very interesting metabolic effects of walking especially when done in a natural environment. In this study researchers examined the impact of walking in different environments on cortisol levels, immune responses and nervous system balance.  12 subjects were recruited for the study and had physiological measures of stress taken six times during the day. Once in the morning on waking, before and after a 15 minute walk either in the woods or the city, before and after watching scenery of the woods or the city on a television, and once in the evening before bed.

The measures taken were heart rate variability (a sensitive measures of stress balance in the body assessed through looking at the heart), blood pressure, pulse rate, salivary cortisol (the best measure for cortisol levels), and secretory IgA (a measure of immune activity). In addition, subjective measures of comfort, calm and feelings of relaxation were also assessed.

The researchers showed a significant lowering of cortisol levels from walking in the woods versus walking in the city despite an equal amount of time spent walking in each setting. In addition, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were significantly lower before, during and after walking in the woods vs. walking in the city. Heart rate variability (HRV) was also higher walking in the woods indicating a shift toward the parasympathetic (relaxing) side of the nervous system.

Not surprisingly, subjective feelings of relaxation, comfort, and calm were also enhanced in the woods vs. the city.  Similar patterns were observed when the subjects watched the scenery on a TV vs. actually walking it. This  indicates that something about the nature scenery was having a strong impact. While walking anywhere can act to balance the nervous system and make us feel more relaxed, walking in a nature setting like the woods seems to have an even greater impact.

This study shows that exercise is not always just about calories, but that the hormonal activity generated in response to the surrounding environment is also having an impact.  Based on the findings of this study, the exercise surroundings you choose definitely have an impact on your hormonal fat burning potential, but so does your surroundings even when you are not exercising. Cortisol has been shown to influence eating behavior and controlling its negative influences is not accomplished through calorie counting.

Many fat loss seekers misunderstand that changes in the way your body looks has much to do with changing the way you feel.  Stress lowering activities are wonderful at this.  This is another reason we are fans of other forms of exercise which have been shown to lower cortisol and aid relaxation, like restorative yoga, Tai Chi and meditative practices.  A lower cortisol level along with lower perceived feelings of stress will have a positive impact on fat loss both directly, through less cortisol activity, but also indirectly through potential decreases in hunger and cravings for sweets or fatty foods which cortisol will impact.

Walking in general is great so don’t get obsessed with whether you are doing it right.  Any walking is perfect, but if you want to get a little more out of your walking you can make two simple changes:
1) Change your power walking to leisure walking
2) Whenever possible walk in nature based settings

http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jpa2/26/2/26_135/_article

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