Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, this month, kick-started the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ — an on-foot journey to cover 3,570 kilometres.
As Gandhi, 52, winds his way through the southern states, he will walk roughly 25 kilometres or over 35,000 steps every day and continue to do so for five months from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. So far, he has covered about 350 kilometres.
While this is an unprecedented political move, one wonders about the kind of wear-and-tear it could leave on Gandhi’s health. It also begs the question — Is ‘over-walking’ advisable for someone who is not an athlete but otherwise fit like Gandhi? For now, there is a rest day in the yatra every week when, Congress leaders say, medical camps are held and yoga is conducted for participants.
News18 spoke to experts who said the latest fad of recording maximum steps on trendy smart watches or Fitbit devices has blurred the difference between daily walking and ‘over-walking’ among youth, the middle-aged and even older people.
In Gandhi’s case too, over-walking may not only cause excessive fatigue, foot blisters, shoe bites or hip joint pain but could also lead to multiple health issues such as anaemia, dehydration or muscle strain.
Health experts suggest that while walking is good for the heart and overall health, over-walking does more damage than bring benefits to an average person.
While the benefits of the walk are reaped over a longer period of time, the side-effects may become apparent in a shorter span. Hence, one must pay attention when the good feelings associated with walking begin to fade or are replaced by feelings of fatigue and stress, several doctors News18.com spoke to said.
The Medical Advice
According to Dr Abhishek Jain, orthopaedic expert, foot and ankle & sports injuries specialist at Delhi-based Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC), “Foot blisters, shoe bites, surfacing of ailments like shin splints, heel pain on walking for as long as 25 kilometres are very much possible and obvious”.
He added: “It is important to check your body from head to toe to analyse the wear and tear because of exercise, which includes walking.”
Other health experts echoed similar concerns and said the duration of any exercise, be it as regular as walking, requires attention.
Walking, the easiest and commonest form of exercise, is economical, natural and requires no special training or equipment. “However, for someone who is always sedentary, suddenly walking five miles a day is likely to result in some form of injury,” said Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, senior consultant gastroenterologist and former president of the Indian Medical Association.
He added: “For someone already doing 3,000 or 5,000 steps daily, walking 10,000 or 15,000 steps a day will not be a problem.”
What happens if a person over-walks?
One must pay attention to any muscular complaints or injuries, especially if the pain is persistent. “Our joints experience wear and tear from exercise such as walking,” Jain from ISIC pointed out.
There is a possibility that the muscles sustain minor tears from exercise, which the human body repairs with time. Experts believe that these muscles, if torn, need time and rest to recuperate.
The human body can’t keep up with the rigour we put it through when an individual over-trains or undergoes rigorous exercise.
For instance, Jain added, “Thigh and leg muscle fatigue and hip joint pain is expected, especially when you are not a usual walker, sports person and when you are running low on vitamin D and B12.”
Dr Manish Sontakke, a senior joint replacement and spine surgeon at Fortis Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi, said: “Any exercise in which our weight comes on our knees is not an exercise for our knees. Why would people suffer from osteoarthritis if walking was an exercise for our knees? And why would I need to do knee replacements every day?”
Sontakke, who keeps telling his patients to not over-walk, further explained: “When we squat or sit on the ground and try to get up, the pressure in our knees is almost twice our body weight. A joint is going to wear off when the weight coming on it is more or it is put into repetitive cyclic loading.”
Exercises like cycling, leg extensions and leg curls with weights are the only recommended training for knees as the body weight does not fall on the joint.
Doctors suggest that the basics of starting to walk are to stop comparing it with the achievements of others. Each person has to find his or her own limit, respect the body’s abilities and medical conditions, and exercise accordingly.
“For example, someone who has just recovered from Covid-19 should not be doing strenuous exercises for at least three months. People with heart problems must check with their doctor about what they can and cannot do,” Jayadevan said.
Not only orthopaedic issues, over-walk can also cause other troubles. According to Dr Sumit Ray, head of department, critical care medicine & medical director, Holy Family Hospital, Delhi: “Long strenuous walking or running can also cause significant fatigue due to continuous or persistent unrecognised dehydration.”
Ray pointed out that over-walking has also been known to cause an “unusual phenomenon” of anaemia, “particularly in young women, by complex mechanisms”.
How to decide your walk strength?
The amount of walking a person should do is determined by their physical build, Dr Deepak Agarwal, consultant orthopaedic and spine surgery at Paras Hospital in Udaipur, said.
“For people who never walk and then suddenly start walking 25 kilometres or more, it will hurt their muscles and they could get plantar fasciitis as a result of overuse of the foot muscles.”
The sudden increase in the duration of walking may lead to occasionally acquiring a stress fracture, which can cause micro-trauma to the joints as well.
“This can result in early arthritis,” Agarwal said. “On the other hand, if the person is physically fit (usually walks 5-10 km), they can gradually walk for 25-30 km. In the case of Rahul Gandhi, he is not actively involved in physical activities such as walking so it will be difficult,” Agarwal said.
The best way to walk
Experts believe that walking is one of the best things one can do for physical, mental, and heart health.
“The key to long-term walking success is to pace yourself and listen to the hints that the body gives,” Jain from ISIC said, adding that “one should not overdo but work on endurance to achieve overall well-being”.
The right amount of consistent walk schedule leads to improving health in multiple ways.
“Walking increases bone strength in addition to improving heart health, reducing blood pressure and decreasing the risk for cancer and dementia,” Jayadevan added.
To summarise, it is not the amount of exercise we do per day that counts but rather how consistently we do it in the long term that matters. “Health is a long-term investment, there are no shortcuts,” Jayadevan said.
“Pacing yourself, not overdoing it, and working on your endurance are the keys to long-term walking success,” Agarwal from Paras said.