Is Walking a Good Enough Form of Exercise?

It might feel like a walk in the park, but trainers say you *can* turn your stroll into a super-effective workout. Here's how.

If you think sprinting, spinning, strength training and other forms of high-intensity workouts are the only "real" forms of exercise, we have some news that might help you breathe easier.

"Walking is very effective at beginning to build a baseline cardiovascular fitness level, and is a great form of exercise—especially for those who have not previously been active or those who are interested in starting a running routine," says Austin Johnson, a San Antonio, Texas-based NCSF certified personal trainer and the national personal training manager for Gold's Gym. "For those two types of exercisers, it's important to start their routines at easier intensities to prevent injuries, and walking is the perfect way to do that!"

We're not talking about a slow, meandering stroll, though. (Although that can be a marvelous version of meditation if that's the goal!) Lace up those walking shoes, then read on to discover how to step right up and make your next walk a workout.

Why Walking Is Such a Great Form of Exercise

The health benefits of walking include healthier blood sugar, a stronger cardiovascular system, improved fertility and more.

"Walking is a great form of exercise for preventing diseases that affect our mental health and some heart-related conditions," says Ben Walker, a certified personal trainer with Anywhere Fitness in Dublin, Ireland. "It stimulates blood flow to the brain and the rest of the body, boosting our metabolism, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress, and improving our overall mood. It also lowers blood pressure."

Just 30 minutes per day of walking can significantly improve mental health (including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety) and boost immunity, according to a study published in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Regarding chronic disease risk, as long as you're expending the same amount of energy with either form of cardio—walking or running—you lower your risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol at about the same rate, according to research published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.

And for overall longevity, each 1,000-step increase in daily walking steps—up to 4,500 steps per day—is correlated to a 28% lower risk for early death, per data presented at the American Heart Association's 2021 Epidemiology and Prevention Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Conference. (Reminder: 10,000 steps per day is the typical goal if walking is your main form of activity.)

woman with dumbbell shape water bottle at park
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Walking and Weight Loss

While walking is fantastic for your brain and body, and can certainly increase longevity and improve mood, walking is not the most efficient type of workout if you're aiming to lose weight, Walker says. (Still, it *is* possible to walk off 10 pounds—if you're willing to be patient enough to space them out across a few months.)

"To lose weight effectively in a day, we need to be at a caloric deficit. This means we need to burn more calories than we are consuming. Women and men are recommended to eat an average of 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day respectively, and walking simply can't be effective enough to create a deficit," Walker says.

Brisk walking at a rate of 4 to 5 miles per hour (a pace that's been scientifically proven to help you live longer, BTW) can burn just about as many calories per mile as running at a slow speed, Walker adds. And since it involves less pounding, your body is less prone to injuries so you may be able to stick to your healthy habit longer and stronger. But since runners cover more distance in the same amount of time, and running is more demanding on the cardiovascular system—meaning it spikes your heart rate more, you burn more calories if we're comparing minute by minute.

For example, a 160-pound person walking at 3½ miles per hour for 1 hour will burn about 302 calories. The same individual running at 6 miles per hour for 20 minutes will burn about 356 calories; half the time, about the same distance, but a few more calories.

So yes, walking absolutely counts as "exercise" and can even be all you do to hit your recommended workout level per week—more on that shortly—especially if you follow our tips ahead to scale your walking workout and make it more challenging as you get fitter. If weight loss and optimal health are the goal, ideally, you'd add a couple days of total-body strength training and some stretching and mobility work once you master your walking workout and feel ready to add to it. (Discover more about why strength training is just as important as cardio if you're trying to lose or maintain weight.)

How Much to Walk Each Day

The World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American College of Sports Medicine all recommend that adults aim for 150 minutes of moderate- intensity exercise per week for health, and 300 minutes per week for weight loss.

"Moderate-intensity walking would be a brisk pace, which for most individuals who have no underlying injuries or disease would probably fall between 3 to 4 miles per hour. This would equate to a 15- to 20-minute-per-mile walking pace," Johnson says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that if you don't want to track your pace, simply try the talk test. Moderate-intensity exercise should have you breathing heavily enough that you can talk, but not sing.

If 150 minutes sounds like a lot, keep in mind that "you don't have to jump feet-first into the 150-minute goal. Start where you are and gradually increase your activity week by week," says Steve Stonehouse, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer and the director of education at Stride in Orange County, California. "The 150 minutes per week can be divided in many different ways. Some people aim for 30 minutes of walking 5 days a week. Others fit in 10 minutes of walking several times a day."

If you're new to walking, the most important thing to remember is that it's not all or nothing, Johnson advises. Ease into it.

"As easy as walking sounds, you can certainly overdo it [depending on how] sedentary you were before starting. Starting off with two or three days a week and building up to five days a week over a month-long period is great! Once you become a seasoned walker, if you are interested in moving into jogging, take the same approach of gradually increasing," Johnson says.

How to Step Up Your Walking Workout

So with that in mind, here's how to get started, how to step things up and how to eventually progress from walking to running (if that's your goal).

  • Step 1: Walk at a steady, comfortable pace for 10 minutes at a time, working up to being able to walk for 30 minutes straight per day at your desired pace.
  • Step 2: Walk for 30 minutes per day at a moderate to brisk pace that allows you to talk but not sing.
  • Step 3: Mix up the terrain. Walking on steep ground causes the heart rate to constantly increase—and, as a result, the metabolic rate and calorie burn increase as well. This also challenges the lower body muscles to act as a resistance-training workout of sorts, Walker adds. "When walking rocky or angled slopes, different muscle groups (mainly core and lower body) are activated to complete these movements. The supporting muscles assist each other, improving our strength and mobility, and make lower body movements easier to perform in everyday life," Walker says. So adjust the treadmill or find a hiking trail or some hills in your neighborhood.
  • Step 4: Take the stairs. Find a park, stadium or gym staircase that has several flights of stairs. Try to climb them every 10 minutes during your 30-minute walking workout, then progress to climbing them every 5 minutes for 6 total rounds. "This will increase the level of leg strength you build through walking," Johnson says, and also raise your heart rate to increase your calorie burn.
  • Step 5: Try intervals. Pick up the pace for 1 minute, then recover at a moderate walking pace for 4 minutes. Repeat this for 6 rounds to complete your walking workout for the day, Stonehouse suggests. Once that gets easy, try walking fast for 2 minutes, then recover at a moderate pace for 3 minutes; repeating 6 times. Scale up to 6 sets of 3 minutes fast, 2 minutes moderate, then to 6 sets of 4 minutes fast, 1 minute moderate, and finally, to a fast walk for all 30 minutes.
  • Step 6: Pick up the pace. If you'd like to try jogging, follow the same minute-by-minute breakdown in Step 5, just with jogging for the faster interval. Recover at a moderate to brisk walking pace.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, walking can be a legit workout and can spark a seriously healthy habit, whether you stick with walking or speed things up. If you want to challenge your upper body, too, consider nordic walking. Science proves that walking with poles activates 90% of your body's muscle groups. Before you start or step up your walking routine, study up on mistakes you're making when walking and how to fix them to stay safe and injury free so you can comfortably lace up again tomorrow.

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