Walking for Health and Fitness. Yes, Walking.

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 3.33.23 PMTo hear the internet tell it, you need to engage in epic quantities of lung-exploding, shirt-drenching, chest-pounding vigorous exercise in order to reap the health benefits of a fitness program. It can be pretty daunting, seeing impossibly chiseled people on TV executing feats of great athleticism and skill…I remember seeing those commercials and thinking ‘well gosh, there’s no way I could do that. If that’s what I have to do to be fit and healthy, I don’t really even see the point in trying.”

Of course, I eventually realized that what I was seeing on TV and reading on the internet was pretty extreme, and that I didn’t need to go to such lengths to improve my health. But it took me some time to reach that realization. The amount of exercise necessary to experience health benefits is actually fairly moderate and doable, even for those who are very deconditioned, and I don’t think that message effectively reaches the people who need to hear it the most. Hence, today’s blog post.

Walking is an ideal foundation for a fitness program. I know that can be hard to believe. Walking is easy. We all do it every day. How can it be an effective fitness strategy? First I’m going to give you a brief synopsis of standard physical activity recommendations. Then I’ll discuss walking itself, and how to experience the long-term benefits of a well designed walking program.

Physical Activity Recommendations

The ACSM, CDC, NIH and WHO recommendations are all essentially the same (click the hyperlinks to view each organizations recommendations).

To experience the health benefits of exercise, healthy adults should aim for at least:

-150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise a week OR 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, AND
-2 muscle strengthening workouts a week, working all the major muscle groups

I discuss muscle strengthening workouts in my Taming the Weight Room blog series, so I’m not going to get into that today. Today I’m going to talk about that first part of the recommendations, the ‘150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous’ exercise recommendation.

Walking, yes, simple walking, can more than fulfill that ‘moderate intensity’ prescription.

Making Walking Count

Walking is such a great starting point because it’s familiar. It doesn’t require any equipment. It doesn’t require any specialized skills. You can fit it into your daily routine almost effortlessly. And ultimately, if you enjoy walking, it can serve as the foundation of your fitness program indefinitely. As your conditioning improves, you can add intensity to your walks and continue making improvements in cardiovascular health and body composition.

The label ‘moderate intensity’ is fairly open to interpretation by the general public, but there’s been some research that helps to define ‘moderate intensity’ more concretely. There are several ways you can gauge your activity level to ensure you’re working hard enough to meet the ‘moderate intensity’ guidelines.

Counting steps: walking 100 steps per minute approximates moderate intensity (1). While this goal isn’t exact, it is a good general baseline. If 100 steps per minute feels easy, go a little faster, If you aren’t able to reach a pace of 100 steps per minute, get as close as you can and work toward that goal. An overall goal of 3000 steps in 30 minutes per day, in bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time, is a great starting goal. A pedometer can be a really helpful tool here.

Rate of Perceived Exertion: simply paying attention to how hard you feel you’re working can be effective. This is the technique I use most often with my clients as it requires no equipment, and isn’t arbitrary like a step count. On a scale of 1-10, or 6-20 (depending solely on your individual preference) rate your level of exertion so that 1 (or 6) equals sitting motionless in a chair and 10 (or 20) equals 100% effort, the hardest you are physically able to go. I have my clients work at a 4-6 (or 10-14) if ‘moderate intensity’ is their goal. Heart rate will be elevated and breathing will be faster, but you should be able to carry on a conversation without gasping for breath at this intensity.

Heart Rate Monitoring: this one requires some math, but it allows for differences in fitness levels. To meet the ‘moderate intensity’ threshold, you’d be working at 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. To determine your approximate maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For instance, I’m 40, so my maximum heart rate would be 180 beats per minute. To work at a moderate intensity, my heart rate would need to be between 90 BPM (50% of 180) and 126 BPM (70% of 180). Monitoring my heart rate periodically during my workout, either with a heart rate monitor or by taking my pulse, helps me stay within that range and ensures I’m working hard enough to experience the benefits.

Pace: in a study of recreational walkers, self-selection of a ‘brisk’ pace worked out to an average of about 3.5 miles per hour (2). This correlated with an intensity that met the ‘moderate intensity’ guidelines. If 3.5 mph feels easy to you, go a little faster, and if it’s too hard, get as close as you can and work toward that benchmark.


Ok, so walking is a great way to start a fitness program. But eventually you have to start running ultra marathons or crossfitting or something, right?


Walking can be your foundation for the rest of your life, if that’s what you enjoy. As your fitness level improves, there are lots of ways you can add variety and intensity to your walking workouts!

Increase duration: this is pretty simple. As your fitness level improves you will be able to walk for longer periods of time. Aim to increase your workout length by 5-10% a week, until you reach the 30-60 minute recommendation (and beyond, if you want!).

Increase pace: again, pretty simple. Increase your speed, taking more steps per minute.

Add weight: adding a weight load is one way to increase the intensity of your walks. In fact, for people who are limited in their ability to increase their pace, adding weight is the go-to, even from the beginning. A weight vest is my first choice for my clients, as it leaves hands free and is comfortable and adjustable, but a homemade version such as a backpack loaded with books or rocks is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Start with adding 5% of your body weight and work up to 20%. Carrying hand weights is another viable choice. Avoid ankle weights, as they increase the risk of repetitive use injuries.

Walk on an incline: for those who can’t increase walking speed, and those with joint problems, walking on an incline is a great alternative to increasing pace. Find a hilly route, or walk on a treadmill set at a moderate incline, increasing the incline as your conditioning improves.

Add intervals: alternate easy walking with fast walking, or walking on an incline with walking on a level surface. There are many interval formats you can use here! Go easy for 2 minutes than hard for 4. Or vice verse. Or 30 seconds and 90 seconds. Or 1 minute and 1 minute. Or go for distance: go hard for 200 meters, then easy for 200 meters. Or do fartleks: vary your pace and intensity as you wish, make it up as you go along. The possibilities are endless.

With creativity and proper modifications, walking can serve as the foundation of your fitness program for as long as you desire. Walking is inexpensive, it requires no special equipment or skill, and it is an easy form of exercise to do with others, creating a social as well as physical experience. Our bodies are ideally adapted to walking, and research has shown again and again that walking can improve cardiovascular health, lower diabetes and obesity risk, and even aid in the treatment of arthritis and other musculoskeletal diseases (3, 4, 5). It isn’t sexy or rapid or extreme (the things that sell diet books) but walking works. It works really well, and it can work for your whole life. So if you enjoy walking, by all means DO IT! '?


36 thoughts on “Walking for Health and Fitness. Yes, Walking.

  1. I can attest to easy weight loss by just walking. I just started a new job that has me on my feet for 10+ hours per day with no break. I move in intervals. Sometimes I stand for a period of time, but then move quickly to get something to accomplish another task.
    The end result is 10 pounds lost after 2 weeks.
    Move more, eat the same or less, and you’ll lose weight.

    • Walking was also key to my successful weight loss. People always seem shocked when I tell them I lost so much weight without barely breaking a sweat.

  2. I walk all the time. Since I started tracking my dogwalks last year I have logged over 1650 kms. Whenever anyone asks about what I do to stay in shape I am quick to tell them that walking is the foundation of my fitness program. I also do resistance training, yoga, swim, and sprint once and a while, but walking is the center of it all.

    • Chris, I am the same way – and for the same reason. Since getting a dog, walking became daily practice. We walk an hour a day, roughly. A half hour before work and a half hour after. I also do other things – running, biking and strength training, but pounding the pavement with the pooch is the bedrock of everything.

  3. Love walking! Build intensity and enjy the outdoors. Stuck inside, I do Leslie Sansone DVDs and LOVE the workouts!

    • I also enjoy Leslie Sansone DVD’s when I can’t get outside for my walks. I love the brisk pace of 4-5mph!

  4. wow i didn’t know one needs to do that much exercise to be healthy … i thought i am doing fine by strength training twice a week '?

  5. Walking works for me. Walking gets me where I want to go: to work; to grocery shopping; to the library; to the lake to watch the bats fly around at dusk; out into parts of the city I just moved to, so I can understand the place where I now live.

    Walking is something I can do consistently over time without it feeling like a chore, or an extra activity, because I can do it en route to my destination, without needing an extra set of clothes, or a shower at the end (at least, not once my conditioning improved).

    Best of all, the more you walk, the more walking becomes your go-to option for getting somewhere (of course, it’s not going to work for all destinations or occasions). You find that you are calculating walking time instead of driving time. It becomes a most excellent habit.

  6. I find the right soundtrack on my iPod tone the best way to introduce varied intensity in my walking routine. I have a set of tracks with a beat that matches walking pace, some are faster than others and they automatically encourage me to walk much faster when they play. It’s a fun way to do a little HIIT.

  7. Thank you for this post. I had been thinking about this a lot lately. I have a hard time fitting any exercise at all into my schedule, and when I do, I always think I need to run, but I suddenly faced facts recently and realized that I don’t like to run! Not one bit! But I love to walk and always have, so I reorganized my life and work schedule to walk at least 30 minutes a day. I am trying to fit yoga in as well. Somewhere down the road I hope to move somewhere that I could walk to commute to work, because I was so calm and happy when I did years ago.

    Thanks again for the advice to all!

  8. Excellent. I’ll be looking forward to the blog post that discusses the fact that you don’t need to go anywhere near a weight room to be healthy, too. There is a lot of “You must life heavy shit” hyperbole on the internet these days, too, and that just isn’t the case. Lifting heavy shit isn’t necessary for good health. Some moderate body weight exercise is all you really need. By all means if you ENJOY lifting heavy shit and WANT to lift heavy shit go ahead, but it’s not necessary for good health.

    • Indeed, I discuss that in my Taming the Weight Room series. Bodyweight exercises, even yoga, can absolutely fill that strength training recommendation!

      • Excellent. I’ll make a point of reading that post. I hadn’t up until now because I have no desire to tame the weight room '?

  9. Nordic walking is another great way to up the intensity when walking. It’s amazing how using those poles increases the intensity.

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  11. This post is amazing, and couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I am someone who loves walking, and I don’t have a problem challenging myself by walking up and down hills, more briskly, and for longer distance. The problem is, I am so conditioned into thinking that it is somehow an inadequate exercise. And that it doesn’t really ‘count’ as exercise. Well, first of all, it is better than sitting on my couch with a bowl of ice-cream! And secondly, it is one of the most relaxing activities because it allows me to be at one with myself and my music. So I’m reducing stress at the same time!

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head here: one doesn’t need to be going to cross-fit seven days a week in order to be maintaining good health. Walking won’t necessarily increase strength and give you a six-pack: but it’s still really great exercise. And it’s easy. Cheap. And fun.

  12. I love, love, love walking! I walk upwards of 5 miles/day, and will always take the opportunity to walk everywhere. I truly believe that walking is what keeps me fit AND able to stay within a healthy weight range without ever having to “diet”. A totally underestimated form of exercise. Great article Amber '?

  13. Hi Amber,
    this comment has little to do with your post (although I agree with everything you say re: walking!). I just wanted to let you know that I stumbled across your blog yesterday, having been inspired to start strength training and consequently doing some google-surfing to find people who know what they’re talking about… THANK YOU so much for being a voice of reason among the incredibly judgemental and dogmatic individuals I had the misfortune of coming across before I found your blog!! I’m a complete newbie, and I’m happy to have found a source I think I’ll be able to trust and rely on for informed, sane and critical info '? I’m a new fan x

  14. Great post and comments! As a walking coach, my goal is to show people that they can get a great workout from walking without having to run if they don’t want to. I also train walkers to do full and half marathons. I just presented at a fitness conference in an effort to educate fitness professionals on the importance of promoting walking and using it with their clients. Keep talking up walking!

  15. I MUST walk to keep my weight down and to keep sane. it’s always been the main form of exercise for me. I also stand and move around for most of my working day. My husband pointed out to me this morning that it’s been a full year since I went into the ‘normal’ bmi range. I’ve steadily lost weight over these last 4 years as well. Yoga and walking are the main reasons. I love my pedometer. I think of it as a kind of tamagotchi, if I don’t feed it at least 10,000 steps a day, it ain’t happy. npr podcasts and ted talks are good companions when I’m out and about as well.

  16. Thank you so much for posting this! I love to walk and it’s great for you. I wish there were more Walk-a-thons to promote the walking movement. Everything is always geared to runners/joggers. There are so many fun charity 5k events, but most are for those who run.

  17. I am sure this is a silly question, but is pushing a stroller adding weight? Obviously, I’m pushing weight, but I’m concerned about the stroller affecting my stride or messing up my posture.

    • Yes! The stroller increases the intensity of your workout. Get a stroller that is a comfortable height, I dont’ think you need to worry about your stride and posture, it’s a temporary condition after all. '?

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  19. I have an injury that prevents me from doing much exercise beyond PT (strength training, such as it is), walking and swimming. Swimming is hard to fit in with a busy schedule and kids. I’ve made more of a commitment to walking, mostly because staying active is really important to my injury recovery, and have been really surprised by how easy it is to fit in throughout the day in smaller spurts with some attention. I recently bought a FitBit (basically to use as a pedometer you can wear on your wrist without having to attach/remember) and it has been a real motivator. When I really put my mind to it, I can log over 10,000 steps without even really having to make time for particularly long walks. When I’m doing this consistently, I notice a huge difference in my injury (spinal/disc compression) and how my body feels. Curious to see how it adds up over time, but super encouraged. The FitBit, even at 20% off, felt ridiculous as a fancy pedometer, but it has been totally worth it. It also allows me to get a reality check of sorts on sleep, which has been a huge issue for me and has definitely had an effect on my metabolism. You could log steps with a $15 pedometer and keep a sleep log in a notebook by your bed, of course. Whatever works!

  20. Thanks Amber! I love walking and hiking! Long walks outside give me the most mental health benefit of any exercise and it is very easy for me to stay consistent with.

  21. Loved seeing this! I think walking is such an important part of any fitness routine yet is so often looked as not worth the time.


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  26. Walking/hiking is a main activity of our family — our pace matches what my son can do, as does duration. DH and I can go longer/farther/faster, but right now, it’s about introducing DS (5yo) to the process.

    He is Steiner educated, and they absolutely laud the process of walking. They think it is the “ultimate sport” for children. Being out of doors, being in nature to walk and explore is a core value and they assert that it’s good for body and spirit.

    While other schools (and family members) are pressuring us to start him on team sports, our educators and fellow Steiner families are focused on walking and hiking as our main sporting activities. The school has a running club, a ski club, and a soccer club for 8 and up, but for younger kids, walking is considered key to their development.

    After school, DH and I pick the kid up, go to the local park (wooded and hilly), and hike for a full hour. Once a month, we do a 3-5 hr hike with him, and we’d like to get him to 9 hrs (the average time of the Tongariro Crossing in NZ — where we no longer live, but were hoping to get to do with him in another year or so). We now live in Appalachia, so we’d like to do some long trail hikes, working our way up to a week long, hut-to-hut hiking process. My 70yo great aunt will probably join us this summer when we do some “base camp” day hikes along the AT (3-5 hr loops with base camp on a lake for other activities).

    People do think we are nuts, but honestly, it’s one of my favorite things, walking.

  27. I’m so glad I found a post about this! I don’t have a fitness program of any kind, but I do walk to and from work (and anywhere around my town on my off days because we don’t have a car), going uphill one way, so it makes me really happy to know that I am indeed getting in some exercise by doing so. Now I do tend to break a sweat very easily and sweat a lot. I’m just curious if that is just my body’s way of responding to moderate exercise or if I have an underlying problem such as s thyroid issue. What do you think?

    • It’s probably not an issue – I sweat a lot too. '? Some people just sweat more than others. I’d go by how you feel, if you feel light headed, short of breath, dizzy, nauseas, then maybe get checked but if you’re just breathing heavy and sweating you’re probably fine.

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