Is Walking a Real Exercise?

6 Ways Walking Has Real Exercise Benefits

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? Do you 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 this 20-minute brisk walking workout for starters.

2. Building Aerobic Fitness With Brisk Walking

Walking is a real exercise that can build your aerobic fitness. Moderate-intensity brisk walking sessions of 30 minutes, five to seven times per week were found in one study to build aerobic fitness similar to higher-intensity exercise. If you'd rather reap the benefits with fewer workouts, aim for a fast walk that brings your heart rate into the zone of 65-75 percent of your maximum heart rate.

If you do that for 30 minutes, three to four days per week, you will build aerobic fitness. Try this aerobic walking workout for starters.

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 for starters. 

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 improved by moderate-intensity exercise.

Try this 30-minute walk for arthritis to get started.

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

Many studies 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.

And while walking is great, you can also try these 8 hacks to sit less and save your life.

6. Are 10,000 Steps Per Day Really Exercise?

If you are addicted to your fitness tracker and make the effort to reach 10,000 steps per day, does that mean you are exercising? For most people, that number is an indicator you have engaged in exercise during the day, as it is difficult for most people to log more than 6,000 steps just in daily activity. 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 quality. 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 exercise. If they are cycling, jogging on the treadmill, or using the elliptical trainer, your brisk walk is giving you the same benefits.

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.

Browning R. Energetic cost and preferred speed of walking in obese vs. normal weight women. Obesity Research. 2005; vol 13: pp 891-899. News release, University of Colorado.

Duncan GE, Anton SD, Sydeman SJ, et al. Prescribing exercise at varied levels of intensity and frequency: a randomized trialArch Intern Med. 2005; 165(20):2362-9.

Measuring Physical Activity Intensity. CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 4, 2015. 

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

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