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Don't be surprised if your doctor prescribes a walk at your next checkup. Yes, this simple activity you've been doing since you were about a year old is now being touted as "the closest thing to a miracle drug," in the words of Thomas Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of course, you probably know that any physical activity, including walking, is good for your overall health. But walking in particular has many benefits. Here are five that might surprise you.

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1. It can counteract the influence of genes that promote weight gain.

Researchers at Harvard University studied 32 obesity-promoting genes in more than 12,000 people to determine the extent to which these genes contributed to their weight. They then found that the influence of these genes was cut in half among study participants who walked for about an hour a day.

2. It helps curb sweet cravings.

Two studies from the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk can curb chocolate cravings and even reduce the amount of chocolate you eat when stressed. New research confirms that walking can reduce cravings and intake of sugary snacks of all kinds.

3. It reduces the risk of breast cancer.

Researchers already know that any kind of physical activity can reduce the risk of breast cancer. But an American Cancer Society study on walking found that women who walked seven hours or more a week had a 14 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or less a week. Even for women with risk factors for breast cancer, such as being overweight or using hormone supplements, walking can offer this protection.

4. It can relieve joint pain.

Some studies have found that walking can reduce arthritis-related pain, and walking five to six miles a week can even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place. Walking protects the joints, especially the knees and hips, which are most prone to osteoarthritis, because it lubricates the joints and strengthens the muscles that support them.

5. It can boost immune function.

Walking can help protect you during cold and flu season. A study of more than 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week, took 43 percent fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. If they do get sick, it's shorter and less severe.

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