The Health Benefits of Walking as Exercise

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In This Article

Walking is the most popular form of aerobic physical activity in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. In any given week, about 6 in 10 adults reported walking for at least 10 minutes. But walking for exercise requires more than a 10-minute-per-week commitment. Only about 53% of Americans meet the physical activity guidelines set by health experts.

According to organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), adults need at least 2 1/2 hours (150 minutes) per week of aerobic physical activity. This should be at a moderate level, such as a fast-paced walk.

These numbers suggest that people may consider walking more of a recreational activity or a mode of transportation rather than a form of structured aerobic activity. Some may even believe that walking provides fewer benefits than other forms of more vigorous exercise, such as fitness classes, running, or cycling.

But evidence suggests that walking for exercise provides real benefits for many people. If you want to take advantage of the benefits of walking, you may want to structure your walking plan according to expert guidelines.

Health Benefits of Walking

There have been numerous studies on the different advantages you might gain from participating in a walking program. Many studies examine the benefits for a specific group of people, such as those that are overweight or have a chronic health condition. These benefits range from a reduced risk for many diseases to social advantages, and improvements in mental health.

Improved Cardiorespiratory Health

The American Heart Association suggests that a walking program is a smart starting point to improve heart health. And there is plenty of research to support their recommendation.

  • A research review published in Current Opinions in Cardiology found that walking can play an important role in the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease in younger, middle, and older men and women, in both healthy and patient populations.
  • Research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session suggested that walking for at least 40 minutes several times per week at an average to fast pace is associated with a near 25% drop in the risk of heart failure among postmenopausal women.
  • And a 2019 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease suggested that promoting walking, especially among adults at high risk for cardiovascular disease, may help encourage more active lifestyles to prevent and manage cardiovascular disease risk.

Better Bone Health

Reaching the physical activity guidelines set by the American College of Sports Medicine can help you to develop and maintain musculoskeletal health. A well-designed walking program is one way to achieve that goal.

One reason that walking is particularly good for your bones is that is it a weight-bearing activity. Weight-bearing exercise forces you to work against gravity providing a level of resistance that is good for your bones.

The National Institutes of Health suggests walking to improve bone health along with other activities such as strength training, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, playing tennis, and dancing.

Walking may also slow the progression of bone loss. In a study evaluating the effects of exercise on people with osteoporosis, walking alone did not appear to improve bone mass, but researchers did find that it was able to limit progressive loss. And according to the Arthritis Foundation, walking regularly is especially helpful if you are overweight or living with arthritis.

Decreased Blood Pressure

One way that walking may help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease is that may have a positive effect on blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of several factors that can increase your risk of heart disease.

A study involving 355 participants showed that over a 6-month period, a walking program led to significant decreases in resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure. At the beginning of the program (when participants were highly motivated), participants walked an average of 12,256 steps per day. At the end of the study, they averaged 8,586 steps per day.

In another study involving 529 participants with high blood pressure, researchers found that both systolic and diastolic blood pressure were reduced after a 6-month program of supervised walking. The greatest improvements were seen in those who had higher blood pressure at the beginning of the study.

Reduced Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

According to a joint position statement provided by the American Diabetes Association and the ACSM, studies indicate that moderate exercise such as brisk walking reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. Research studies also support the recommendation of 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity.

Another published research review showed that walking for at least 30 minutes per day reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by approximately 50%. Interestingly, researchers were not able to find enough evidence regarding other daily physical activities such as gardening and housework.

Healthy Weight Loss and Maintenance

If you use an activity calculator, you can estimate the number of calories that you burn while walking. The estimate is based on your weight and the duration and intensity of your exercise.

Walking at a brisk pace for 30 minutes burns about 136 calories if you weight 150 pounds. If you weigh 175 pounds, that same walk burns about 158 calories. As a basis for comparison, a 150-pound person burns just 71 calories standing still for that same amount of time and a 175-pound person burns 83 calories.

Some studies have shown that if you are overweight or obese and you are following a calorie-restricted diet to lose weight, walking can make weight loss more effective. And an interesting pilot study investigating the use of a "walking bus" improved weight loss outcomes among users. A walking bus is described as similar to a regular bus except that no vehicle is involved. It is simply a group of people walking a dedicated route and picking up or dropping off participants at various locations.

Improved Cholesterol Levels

Aerobic exercise in general may help to improve HDL cholesterol levels and lower non-HDL levels. HDL is considered "good" cholesterol because it is associated with better heart health, while non-HDL cholesterol (such as LDL cholesterol) is often associated with a greater risk for cardiovascular disease.

Some studies have shown that walking, specifically has lowered non-HDL cholesterol levels in adults by about 4%. There is also some preliminary evidence that exercise programs, including walking, can improve the anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties of HDL cholesterol.

Increased Longevity

There have been some studies linking different types of walking programs to better longevity. But it can be tricky to eliminate lifestyle factors that may influence study results (such as diet, reduced stress, greater social engagement, etc).

One study evaluated the walking patterns of men aged 64-65 years old and the link to mortality risk. Data were gathered about the activity habits of 1239 men over the course of about 10 years. Researchers were able to adjust for related factors that might influence the results (confounders).

Researchers found that walking more than two hours per day was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality in men without critical diseases. For men with critical diseases, walking 1–2 hours per day showed a protective effect on mortality compared with walking less than 30 minutes per day. Walking more than two hours per day showed no benefit on mortality in men with critical diseases.

Other studies have found a link between regular physical activity and increased life expectancy. But researchers almost always note that confounders may influence the relationship.

Decreased Stress

Government health experts suggest that one great way to improve your mood and decrease your stress levels is to participate in walking. They suggest other activities as well, including tai chi, yoga, biking, or dancing.

If you walk outside, you might also gain mental benefits. Being outside is considered a restorative environment by mental health experts. It may help you to reduce stress, restore mental fatigue, improve mood, boost self-esteem, and elevate your perceived health.

Reduced Sedentary Behavior

Much of the research on walking is devoted to a structured walking program that involves regular physical activity, often 30 minutes or more in duration. But intermittent walking—such as getting up from your work desk and walking around— may also have some benefits, including a better glucose response after eating.

Researchers conducted a very small study involving just 10 participants who took part in three trials: uninterrupted sitting, seated with 2-minute bouts of standing every 20 minutes, and seated with 2-minute bouts of light-intensity walking every 20 minutes. The study's authors were looking for changes in plasma glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels after they consumed a standardized test drink.

At the end of the experiment, researchers found that interrupting sitting time with frequent brief bouts of light-intensity walking (not standing) may provide beneficial postprandial responses that may improve cardiometabolic health. Study authors suggested that the findings may have importance in the design of effective interventions to reduce cardiometabolic disease risk. But the study was very small so more research is needed.

Benefits of Walking vs. Other Exercise

In many studies about the health benefits of walking, researchers compare participation in a walking program to sedentary behavior. There are just a few studies that compare walking to other forms of exercise to see which offers greater benefits.

Walking vs. Running

One six-year large-scale study found that walking is less effective than running for weight loss in real-world conditions. A total of 15,237 walkers and 32,216 runners took part in the study by completing questionnaires at the start of the program and then again in 6.2 years.

In the discussion of their findings, study authors noted that increases in post-exercise metabolic rate and post-exercise appetite suppression are greater for vigorous exercise (running) than moderate activity (walking).

The study yielded a variety of complex findings, but in short, researchers found that running (vigorous activity) is more effective for weight loss than walking (moderate activity). In another published study, running was found to be more effective than walking for reducing hypertension, cholesterol, and the risk for type 2 diabetes.

But, it is important to note that walking may be more comfortable (and perhaps sustainable) than running for many people. According to the ACSM, walking and moderate-intensity physical activities are associated with a very low risk of musculoskeletal complications whereas jogging, running, and competitive sports are associated with increased risk of injury.

Walking vs. Cycling, Swimming, Fitness Classes

Studies comparing walking to other types of exercise such as cycling, fitness, classes, or swimming are lacking. But there may be a few factors to take into account if you are considering which activity is better for you.

For many people, walking is cheaper and more accessible. While walking shoes are recommended, they are not required. No other equipment is necessary to participate. No gym membership or swimming pool access is required and there is no need to learn a new activity. Parents can easily walk with a stroller and families or friends can walk together to enhance a social connection.

However, some people, such as those with joint pain, may be better suited for non-weight bearing activities such as swimming or aqua aerobics. And under certain weather conditions, walking may not be feasible. For many people, combining walking with other activities may be a smart approach.

How to Walk to Gain Health Benefits

If you want to gain health benefits from walking, it is smart to set up a program that meets the guidelines set by experts. Of course, you can simply lace up your shoes and head out for a walk whenever it is convenient, but a regular program of structured activity is likely to yield better results.

A report from the ACSM found that fewer than 7% of those whose primary exercise is walking are doing so with the frequency, duration, and intensity to meet contemporary physical activity recommendations.

Basic Walking Guidelines

To gain cardiovascular benefits, experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. That breaks down to about 21 minutes per day if you walk every day or 30 minutes per day five times per week. If weight loss is your goal, more physical activity is recommended, along with dietary changes.

The ACSM recommends 200-300 minutes per week of moderate physical activity for long-term weight loss. More physical activity may be necessary to prevent weight regain after weight loss.

If weight loss or weight maintenance is your goal, seek to walk 35–43 minutes per day if you exercise every day. If you exercise five days per week, your goal should be to walk for 50–60 minutes per session.

Intensity is also important. Moderate-intensity activity is defined as exercise that causes your heart rate to work at 65% to 75% of its maximum heart rate. If you don't have a heart rate monitor, you can use the talk test. You should be breathing more heavily than normal, but still able to sustain a conversation. If you are only able to sustain only a few words at a time, you are working at a vigorous intensity.

Sometimes step rate is also used to determine your intensity level. According to the ACSM, you can generally achieve a moderate intensity with a step rate of 100 steps per minute, or 1,000 steps in 10 minutes. So during a 30-minute walk you would achieve 3,000 steps. Vigorous-intensity is considered anything more than 130 steps per minute.

Steps Per Day

With the increased popularity of fitness trackers, pedometers, and smartwatches, some people have started tracking their daily step count to gain the health benefits of walking. There is some emerging evidence that reaching a step count goal can help you gain some of the same benefits as physical activity guidelines set by government organizations. But more research is needed.

Many people try to reach 10,000 steps per day for optimal health. But until recently there has not been substantial evidence to support that number. In fact, the number was derived from a 1960s marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer called the "manpo meter." The word “manpo” translates to 10,000 steps.

When the Department of Health and Human Services issued their 2018 Guidelines for Physical Activity, they addressed step count as a way to measure physical activity levels. While measuring intensity and duration have always been the gold standard, health experts acknowledge that measuring steps per day is simpler for many people.

In the report, they say that a typical baseline step count is about 5,000 steps a day, but about 80% of daily steps among less active people are light intensity. They add that most evidence suggests that increasing both the amount and intensity of physical activity above basic daily movement is needed for improved health.

Researchers are also beginning to evaluate step count as a way to determine its relationship to various health outcomes. In a 2020 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association a study was published indicating that higher daily step counts were associated with lower mortality risk from all causes.

Researchers found that taking 8,000 steps per day was associated with a 51% lower risk for death from all causes compared with taking 4,000 steps per day. Taking 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65% lower risk compared with taking 4,000 steps. Study authors saw no association between step intensity and risk of death after accounting for the total number of steps taken per day.

What This Means for You

If you are currently sedentary and measuring steps per day is easier for you than measuring your walking duration and intensity, then you might start by measuring your current daily step count as a baseline. Then set a goal to increase that number by 1,000 to 2,000 steps per day. When you've hit that regularly for a week or two, increase by another 1000 to 2000 steps.

For example, if your baseline is 4,000 steps/day, you'd aim for 5,000 to 6,000 steps/day. Once you've hit that for a week or two, increase to 6000 to 7000 steps/day. Continue progressing like this until you're at about 10,000 steps/day.

A Word From Verywell

A well-designed walking program can provide health benefits ranging from decreased stress to stronger bones, and maybe even a longer life. For best results, try to reach the recommended goal of at least 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity walking each week. But if that seems like too much or if tracking your workout duration and intensity seems overwhelming, that's okay.

Anyone can improve their health with walking simply by increasing your daily steps. Get up from your desk every hour and walk around your office. Take a leisurely stroll after dinner. Grab the kids and walk to school instead of driving. You may find that you enjoy walking enough to put together a more structured program that provides even greater benefits.

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