If there’s one exercise that should win the gold for its impressive list of benefits — and minimal risks — it’s walking. Plus it’s convenient (just think, no equipment!) and it’s contraindicated for very few conditions and comorbidities.
You may be wondering: If it’s an activity that can help someone in their nineties stay fit — can it really provide benefits for everyone?
Yes, people of all ages and fitness levels, from newbies to elite-level athletes, can get many of the same benefits running provides by doing walking workouts — with the right techniques.
The Health Benefits of Walking
Truth is, walking and running share numerous pros, with one main difference. “Although both activities work the same muscles and joints, burn calories, and strengthen the heart and lungs, they differ in impact,” says Juliet Kaska, a Los Angeles–based ACE- and NASM-certified personal trainer and the founder of Juliet Kaska’s Zen Fitness.
Running is a high-impact activity, which can strain the joints, ligaments, and tendons, Kaska says. That’s why walking can be a fantastic option when runners want to take a day off running but still do an aerobic workout.
The one downside of walking? “Walking takes more time to cover the same distance,” says Bonnie Stoll, a personal trainer in Los Angeles and a cofounder of EverWalk, a movement designed to get people walking more. This is why you may burn more calories after 30 minutes of running than 30 minutes of walking. But depending on your speed, you can get similar effects from walking three miles as running three miles; the biggest difference being that walking is low-impact.
What does the science say about the health benefits of walking?
One benefit is longer life. Just by walking at a pace that makes you slightly out of breath or sweaty, you may lower your risk of heart disease and death from all causes than with regular walking at a more leisurely pace, according to a study published in May 2018 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. That same brisk walking can also lower your risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes as much as running, according to other research.
Over time, science has found a link between walking and improved cognitive function and lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, such as in study published in January 2018 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Walking has also been shown to improve conditions like knee osteoarthritis (according to research) and back pain (according to other research). And a study published in October 2019 in the journal Sleep Health found that simply taking more steps during the day was linked to improved sleep quality (and more so for women than for men).
Walking can also help prevent bone loss that happens naturally as a result of age, particularly if you up the intensity of your steps by climbing stairs, pick up the pace, or add bodyweight exercises (like push-ups or squats) throughout your walk, according to Mayo Clinic.
Physical activity guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for adults define brisk walking as a type of moderate exercise linked with optimal long-term health and lower risk of excess weight gain. Those guidelines say aim for 150 to 300 minutes per week.
The mental benefits of walking are equally impressive (which should come as no surprise given that exercise overall is one of the top ways to manage stress). Walking is indeed a great stress reliever, Kaska says. A study published in March 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, for example, showed that people who participated in at least one group walk in nature per week saw positive effects when it came to managing stressful life events and improving mental well-being.
Research has even shown that walking can improve creative thinking, even more so when the walk is done outside.
How to Make Walking a Workout
Fortunately, walking for fitness comes with almost no learning curve. It’s different from a casual stroll with your best friend or dog, but it’s easy to do with some extra attention to your speed and form.
Speed might sound alarming at first, but don’t think you have to break racewalking records. If you want to boost that fitness, studies show that brisk walking is best, and of course, “brisk” will depend on your current fitness level. If you’re new to walking for fitness or exercise overall, shoot for a 20-minute mile to start, Stoll says. Otherwise, see if you can move at a 15-minute-mile pace.
Another way to gauge your speed and intensity: Pay attention to your breathing. If you’re walking briskly, you should be breathing heavier, but still able to carry on a conversation, according to the American Heart Association.
Want to improve that speed? Make sure you’re using a heel-toe motion in your feet. “Pretend you have somebody behind you and you want to show them what’s on the bottom of your shoe with each step,” Stoll says. That roll through your foot should help propel you forward.
At the same time, hold your arms at 90-degree angles and pump them forward and back, not across our body. “As you increase your elbow pump, your feet will follow,” Stoll says, adding that if you swing them across your body, it may impede your speed.
Now get a baseline reading of how long it takes you to walk a mile. Head to a track and log the time it takes you to complete one lap, usually one-quarter mile. Do a second lap and see if you can walk just five seconds faster, Stoll says.
How to Make Walking a Higher-Intensity Workout
Even though walking is a relatively basic activity, that doesn’t mean you can’t get more from your walks by bumping up the intensity. Here are four ways to do it.
- Walk up and down hills. To help build strength and stamina, find a hilly route to walk, or do hill repeats, walking up and down one hill several times in a row. Just keep some form tips in mind. “Lean forward slightly when walking uphill,” Kaska says. And because going downhill can be hard on the knees, take shorter steps, keep your knees slightly bent and slow your pace.
- Do intervals. Intervals alternate between periods of high-intensity work and periods of recovery. You can do it by walking as fast as you can for a given amount of time, and then slowing down the pace. Try, for instance, walking for two or three minutes at a moderate intensity and then going fast for one minute. Or if it’s easier, alternate one minute of fast and one minute of slower walking. If going by the clock is too cumbersome, then use visible markers like mailboxes or trees and speed up between every fourth and fifth mailbox or tree, Stoll says.
- Choose different terrains. Pavement is always a good choice, but make an effort to try other surfaces. “You can burn more calories by walking on grass or gravel than a track,” Kaska says. Bonus? If you live near a beach, hit the sand and you’ll increase that calorie burn.
- Use Nordic walking poles. Invest in pair of poles designed specifically for Nordic walking, which can up the cardiovascular benefits of walking (because you get your upper body more involved). “It mimics cross country skiing without the skis,” Kaska says.