6 Ways Walking Has Real Exercise Benefits

Getting Fit at a Walking Pace

Brisk Walking with Your Dog
Brisk Walking with Your Dog. stevecoleimages/E+/Getty Images

Is logging 10,000 steps per day, walking your dog, or going for a 30-minute powerwalk really exercise? You may get grief from friends who think their jogging is superior to your walking, or that exercise necessarily involves sweating, grunting, and gasping for breath. Let's take a look at how walking is a real exercise.

1. Brisk Walking Is Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Exercise

Walking at a brisk pace that raises your heart rate into the moderate-intensity zone is recommended for the benefits of "real exercise" for the cardiovascular system and to reduce health risks.

A brisk pace is one where you are breathing harder than normal—you can talk, but you can't sing. If you take your pulse, it should be between 50 percent and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Walk at least 10 minutes in this zone for it to count as a moderate-intensity exercise session. You should aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day, five days per week, which can be broken up into sessions of at least 10 minutes at a time.

Try a 20-minute brisk walking workout:

  1. Start at an easy pace for one to three minutes to warm up.
  2. Pick up the pace to your target heart rate or perceived exertion for 20 minutes.
  3. End with one to three minutes at an easy pace for a cool down.

2. Building Aerobic Fitness With Brisk Walking

Walking is a real exercise that can build your aerobic fitness. You will need to walk briskly and bring your heart rate up into the aerobic zone at 70 percent to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for a 30-minute session, at least three to four times per week.

This is between the moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity zones. You will be breathing heavily. If you are already fit, you may need to add some hills, treadmill incline, or jogging intervals to reach this zone with a walking workout.

Try an aerobic walking workout:

  1. Start at an easy pace for five minutes.
  1. Continue, walking at a pace that brings your heart rate up into your target zone. This is a quick pace where you are breathing hard and able to speak in short sentences.
  2. Walk for 30 to 50 minutes at this pace.
  3. Cool down with five minutes at an easy pace. 

3. Walking as Exercise for Weight Control

The truth about any exercise for weight control is that it can help keep off extra pounds, but controlling what you eat will have the biggest effect. The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for weight management. But they wisely state that you need to reduce your calories.

You can't outrun or outwalk what goes into your mouth. Aerobic activity of sufficient duration (45 minutes of brisk walking) will encourage your body to burn stored fat. But if you are eating enough that it's replacing that stored fat, you won't see a change. Brisk walking, fast running, cycling—exercise won't lead to weight loss if you don't control your eating. That said, one large study in Britain found that women who reported brisk walking for exercise were slimmer than women who did gym exercise or sports instead.

Try this fat-burning walking workout:

  • Start at an easy to moderate pace for 10 minutes. This burns off the stored blood sugar and glycogen and tells the body to get ready to burn fat.
  • Pick up the pace and walk for 30 to 60 minutes at a pace that brings your heart rate up to 60 percent to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.
  • Cool down with five to 10 minutes at an easy pace.

4. Benefits of Easy-Intensity Walking

Walking the dog or going for a stroll at an easy pace works your muscles and joints. This is especially beneficial if you are overweight or at risk for arthritis. Strolling at an easy pace reduces the loads on the knee joints by 25 percent while actually burning a few more calories per mile than walking faster.

While it doesn't have the cardiovascular benefits of brisk walking, it is a good starting point for adding activity throughout the day. The CDC also notes that there is evidence that easy-intensity exercise has benefits for improving your mental health and mood, which are also boosted by moderate-intensity exercise.

5. Low-Intensity Activity Breaks Up Sitting Time to Reduce Health Risks

Researchers are finding that sitting or simply standing for more than 30 minutes at a time can raise your health risks, even if you do a full bout of exercise at some point in the day. Walking around for one to three minutes every half hour or hour has been shown to be needed to reduce these health risks. Getting up and circling the office or house may save your life. One study found that these short, easy walking breaks improved glucose control and insulin response. An increasing number of fitness bands have inactivity alerts to remind you when it's time to get up and move.

6. How 10,000 Steps a Day Indicates Exercise

If you are addicted to your fitness tracker and make the effort to reach 10,000 steps per day, the good news is that usually means you have engaged in exercise during the day. It is difficult for most people to log more than 6,000 steps just in daily activity. However, you could log 10,000 steps at an easy pace, and it wouldn't qualify as moderate-intensity exercise.

Many fitness trackers, such as Fitbit, analyze your steps and record those that are aerobic or exercise steps done at a pace they consider fast enough to qualify. If you want to ensure you are getting "real exercise," look at that number as well as the step total.

Bottom Line on Walking as Real Exercise

Walking is physical activity at any speed you enjoy it, from a slow stroll through a fast racewalk pace. The answer to your smug fitness friends is that a brisk walk is a true exercise, with all of the aerobic cardiovascular fitness effects of other moderate-intensity exercises. If they are cycling, jogging on the treadmill, or using the elliptical trainer, your brisk walk is giving you the same benefits at the same heart rate or effort.

That said, you should balance walking with other physical activities. You need strength training to build and maintain muscle. Cycling is very beneficial for walkers as it works the opposite leg muscles. It is good to engage in a variety of activities, so all of your muscle groups are challenged and strengthened.  Keep walking, but have a balanced exercise program.

Sources:

Bailey DP, Locke CD. Breaking up prolonged sitting with light-intensity walking improves postprandial glycemia, but breaking up sitting with standing does notJ Sci Med Sport. 2014. pii: S1440-2440(14)00051-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2014.03.008.

Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, et al. Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011;43(7):1334-1359. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e318213fefb.

Measuring Physical Activity Intensity. CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/index.html.

Tudor-Locke C. Steps to Better Cardiovascular Health: How Many Steps Does It Take to Achieve Good Health and How Confident Are We in This Number? Curr Cardio Risk Rep. 2010; 4:271–276 DOI 10.1007/s12170-010-0109-5

The Benefits of Physical Activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm.