The health benefits of walking after dinner have been known as long as human health has been contemplated. While the physiological reasons behind the benefits may have been unknown, the value of physical activity – in its most basic form, has been around for a very long time.
Walking After Dinner: 100 easy steps to better health
Hippocrates, the father of western medicine wrote, “Walking is a man’s best medicine.” In western India, the Marathi people have a word for their tradition of walking after dinner: shatapawali. The word is a compound of “shata”, which means hundred, and “paaul”, which means steps, so this age-old custom of taking a stroll after a meal means “100 steps.”
When Hildegard of Bingen advocated for walking — particularly after meals — more than 1,500 years after Hippocrates’ claim, her advice was hardly pioneering. Yet this ancient wisdom regarding the benefits of movement is just as true today as it was then and even more important now that walking is not the primary form of transportation.
Walking is Antiquated
Modern life is becoming increasingly sedentary. The convenience of technology and immediacy of food, media, and communication come with many hidden costs and trade-offs that prove detrimental to overall health and wellness.
Advancements that were meant to improve our lives and give us more free time have come with trappings and distractions that lend to a life lived inside, in recline, or in constant pursuit of a faster, easier way.
The result is that modern living is a busy life, but not necessarily a physically active life. For most, the evening meal often leads directly to recline in front of the TV, or even bed. But eons of observational evidence, shored-up by a growing body of scientific study, demonstrate that even moderate levels of activity are essential to a healthy life.
One small change you can incorporate today to improve your life is the ancient secret to wellness as advocated by Hildegard: take a walk after your evening meal.
Why Walking Works
Walking is an intrinsic part of being human; there are few things that come as naturally. For most, the only barrier is one of desire, often buffered by one of the favored excuses of modern living: “not enough time.” For most people this is hardly the case; it is simply a matter of priorities.
Walking after dinner is the best free “medicine” you can get. Studies indicate as little as 15 minutes of walking after a meal can lead to significant health benefits relating to digestion, metabolism, weight loss, blood sugar, mood, and sleep.
When food enters the stomach, digestive juices increase and the involuntary digestive muscles begin irregular contractions to move food around, and eventually out of the stomach. Inactivity like sitting or laying down after eating can lead to additional stress on the stomach to move food along the digestive tract, and keep the acids in the stomach where they belong.
Retention of food in the stomach for too long is one of the causes of heartburn, and the chronic condition of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Walking after dinner stimulates the muscles to move food along faster, reducing stress on the stomach, and increasing overall blood flow, which prevents or relieves digestive distress like heartburn and GERD.
In one German study, researchers compared the effects of walking after a meal with consuming an espresso or alcoholic digestif. While the digestif or espresso had no significant effect, walking after the meal significantly accelerated gastric emptying – the rate at which food moves through the stomach. The accelerated gastric emptying is what prevents indigestion, heartburn, GERD, and other post-meal digestive complaints.
Boosts Metabolism & Weight Loss
The immediate metabolic benefit is that when you perform any moderate activity like walking, your body converts food stores into energy to fuel the increased level of activity. Walking after a meal stimulates your body to boost your metabolic rate, which will utilize more calories from your meal as opposed to converting them into glucose or fat storage. More importantly, the metabolic benefits can be amplified if that activity happens on a regular basis.
As you walk more regularly, your body begins to adjust your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is your caloric burn rate when at rest or the minimum calories you need to function, in order to maintain a base rate that is primed for the higher level of activity. Over time, even small increases in activity can increase your BMR. When your BMR increases and your caloric intake remains steady you lose weight.
Working the Basal Metabolic Rate
A 3mph (average pace) walk for 15 minutes after dinner may “only” burn around 40 calories, but those 40 calories add up – and even more so when the increase in activity results in an increase in your BMR, which is how you end up “burning fat” in your sleep.
A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that women, age 35-50, who walked for nine hours per week versus those who were sedentary (one hour per week of physical activity) experienced a lower body-fat percentage (18.9% vs 28.8%) and an increased BMR (1,510 calories per day vs 1,443.) In addition to the calories burned directly from the walking, the group who regularly walks benefits from a higher BMR, which results in an additional 33 calories burned per day at rest. All else being equal, this amounts to 12,000 per year, which is around 4.5 extra pounds of fat burned per year.
Blood Sugar Management
Diabetes is a major public health issue. Modern dietary trends and sedentary habits are leading to a sharp rise in Type-II diabetes – also known as “adult onset” diabetes. Unlike Type I diabetes, Type II is not a pre-existing physiological condition but rather a condition brought on primarily by lifestyle. From the American Diabetes Association:
Diabetes is a problem with your body that causes blood glucose (sugar) levels to rise higher than normal. This is also called hyperglycemia. Type II diabetes is the most common form of diabetes.
If you have type II diabetes your body does not use insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance. At first, your pancreas makes extra insulin to make up for it. But, over time it isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.
Walking to Combat Type II Diabetes
Sustained stress on the pancreas from high-sugar diets and lack of regular activity can gradually – but often permanently, impair your body’s ability to manage blood sugar. The good news is that Type II is both preventable and manageable. Walking after meals can help in both cases.
Researchers have found that for women over 50, a post-meal walk as short as 15 minutes can improve post-meal blood sugar levels. In people prone to Type II (those who are over 50, sedentary, and consume high-sugar diets) can benefit significantly by incorporating a moderate form of physical activity into their daily routine. The gradual insulin intolerance that happens in this population can be halted or in some cases even reversed by increasing physical activity, particularly after meals when the blood sugar levels are the highest.
Walking to Manage Spikes in Blood Sugar
As your body digests food, it converts the components into energy in the form of glucose, which travels through your bloodstream, aka “blood sugar.” After you eat, there is a natural spike in blood sugar as this new energy is distributed throughout your body.
While post-meal spikes in blood sugar are normal, large spikes and prolonged durations of high blood sugar can stress the pancreas as well as the cardiovascular system, leading to Type II diabetes as well as increase risk for cardiovascular diseases.
For those already confronting Type II, post-meal walks are a great way to manage post-meal blood sugar spikes by limiting the volatility and duration of the blood sugar spike. Moderating these blood sugar spikes also greatly reduces the collateral damage on the cardiovascular system.
Reducing Insulin Sensitivity
Accumulated physical activity – the daily level of moderate physical activity, is a major component of Type II prevention and the primary driver in reducing insulin sensitivity – regular moderate activity is even more significant than occasional high-intensity activity.
A 2007 meta-study of over 300,000 people examining the risk of Type II diabetes found that those who walked moderately for 20-minutes per day had a 30% lower risk of developing Type II than those who did little or no walking. Generally, the more they walked, the lower the risk.
In a study published in 2009, researchers found that a 20-minute walk 15 minutes after dinner reduced post-meal blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 more significantly than either a walk before dinner or no walking at all.
The Benefits of Walking Improve with Age
Another study in Diabetes Care found that for older adults (over 60) who were at risk for Type II (overweight and sedentary) walking for 15 minutes after each meal improved daily sustained blood sugar levels significantly, even more so than a 45-minute walk in the morning.
The benefits of walking after dinner on blood sugar management are believed to be due to the physical activity drawing glucose from the bloodstream to feed the more active muscles as well as the increased circulation and respiration.
Reduces Stress & Improves Mood
Walking can reduce stress and promote feelings of calm. The tension and stress-reducing benefits of walking are derived from both physical and mental changes that occur when you are moderately active. Of course in Hildegard’s time there were no treadmills. To take a walk after dinner meant walking in nature, and experiencing Hildegard’s viriditas, which offers even farther reaching benefits than walking indoors.
Brisk walking increases the production of endorphins, a chemical produced by the central nervous system that is related to morphine, which help relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure or euphoria. This, in turn, reduces stress hormones improves mood, and even self-esteem.
How Far, how fast?
Walking after dinner is a healthy habit that will pay dividends immediately as well as down the long path of life. The most important part of incorporating physical activity into your routine is that it is appropriately gauged to your overall health and fitness level. Studies indicate that most of the benefits increase with the level of intensity and duration, but the most important factor is often the regularity of overall activity.
While a brisk 60-minute walk is much better than a 15-minute leisurely walk, ANY walk is better than no walk at all. The idea is to habituate a moderate, post-meal walk into your daily life first, and then work on increasing duration and intensity.
After your next meal, start your Shatapawali, one step at a time.