Brisk Walking Keeps You Thinner Than Other Exercise

Women walking briskly on trail together
Erik Isakson/Getty Images

Which exercise is best for keeping off weight? A long-term study found that people who enjoyed a 30-minute brisk walk most days had the smallest waists and lowest body mass indexes. Brisk walking beat gym exercise and sports for staying slim. Brisk walking was associated with being thinner, especially for women, people over age 50, and people with low income.

Does Brisk Walking Beat Other Physical Activity for Staying Thin?

In Britain as well as the US and many other countries, health authorities recommend 30 minutes or more per day of moderately intense physical activity for health and weight management. The researchers wanted to find out which activity was most effective, and the data showed that brisk walking was the winner.

How much of a difference was seen? Study author Dr. Grace Lordan says the difference in waist size for a woman who walks five times per week for 30 minutes is 4.3 centimeters, or more than one dress size smaller than the average person in the study. The difference for body mass index (BMI) is almost twice as great for brisk walking compared with gym exercise or sports for women (1.8 units less for walkers compared with 1 unit for gym exercisers).

What Is Brisk Walking?

Brisk or fast walking is at a pace where you are breathing heavier than normal and the heart rate is elevated. To be in the moderately-intense activity zone, you should have a heart rate of 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. Use our heart rate calculator to find this number for your age.

The study focused on brisk walking rather than strolling at an easy pace and lower heart rate, in order to compare it to jogging, gym exercise, and sports. The subjects of the study determined for themselves whether they were brisk/fast walking.

Study Finds Brisk Walking Associated With Lower Fatness Measures

The study looked at data collected in the annual Health Survey for England (HSE) from 1999 to 2012. Over 68,000 respondents reported on how many days in the past month they engaged in 30 minutes or more of moderately intense activities. The categories were:

  • Walking at a fast or brisk pace
  • Sports or exercise including swimming, cycling, gym workouts, dancing, running/jogging, football, tennis and other racquet sports.
  • Heavy housework
  • Heavy manual activities

Measurements were made of body mass index, which uses the ratio of height to weight, and measurement of waist circumference. A wider waist shows central obesity, which is associated with developing health problems independently of BMI.

The exciting results were that brisk walking beats the other activities for predicting who has a lower BMI and smaller waist. The graphs of the data show a consistent downward trend in these fatness measures with the number of days of brisk walking each month. Brisk walking five or more days per week was a good target, consistent with the health recommendations for physical activity.​

Who Benefits the Most From Brisk Walking?

The good news is that brisk walking worked best for populations who may be less inclined to join in sports or didn't have access to recreational facilities.

  • Women
  • People over age 50 regardless of gender
  • People in lower-income households

The research was conducted by Dr. Grace Lordan, a specialist in health economics at the London School of Economics. Her paper concludes, "Recommending that people walk briskly more often is a cheap and easy policy option. Additionally, there is no monetary cost to walking so it is very likely that the benefits will outweigh the costs. A simple policy that 'every step counts' may be a step towards curbing the upward trend in obesity rates and beneficial for other health conditions.”

Why would walking be found to be more effective than spending the same amount of time in the gym? Lordan speculates that walkers may be more faithful to their regimen over time. It can also be harder to know how much of your time spent in the gym is in moderately-intense exercise and whether you are performing the exercises correctly. Walking is much easier to get right and to know when you are breathing harder and working up a sweat, according to Lordan.

How to Start Brisk Walking

People who enjoy walking at an easy pace can take steps to walk faster and raise the heart rate and breathing rate into the moderately-intense zone. Walking with good posture and arm motion can speed up the feet.

People who have difficulty in walking faster due to arthritis or other conditions can add walking poles to their walking workouts. Using walking poles can raise the heart rate while walking at your usual pace.

View Article Sources