Is Walking Good Exercise? Everything You Need to Know About Walking for Exercise
Walking is often an underrated form of exercise—but every type of exerciser can benefit from adding more walks to their daily routine.
For exercise to really count, it has to be hard or complicated, or leave you totally wiped out with muscle pain for days—right? Not at all! While high-intensity activity certainly has its place, so does the most basic, accessible form of exercise: walking. And in 2020, it’s become an even more vital physical activity for many people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), walking is the most popular form of aerobic exercise among adults in the United States. The most recent stats show that more than 145 million adults include walking as part of a physically active lifestyle. People walk for transportation and for fun, relaxation, or exercise, or for other reasons. It makes sense.
“When you believe in your ability to do [an exercise], you’re more likely to stick with it,” she adds. “That’s why so many people walk for exercise. It’s easy to do, and you can do it anywhere. You just need just a good supportive pair of shoes.”
There are also endless ways to walk. Walking your dog, hiking, sight-seeing, power-walking, treadmill striding, and mall walking are all legit ways to get some steps in.
(Related: 14 Benefits of Walking for Just 15 Minutes)
Walking is great for all exercise levels
One of the biggest reasons walking is so popular is because it’s a low-impact exercise, meaning it doesn’t put nearly as much pressure on the joints as running or any sort of jumping or hopping movement. The risk of injury is relatively low, says Lauryn Mohr, personal trainer and metabolic specialist at Life Time Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.
Starting is easy
For people just getting started with fitness, walking is a wonderful form of cardio or aerobic exercise, says Mohr. “You don’t need any prior or special knowledge or training to start.”
Just get up and walk, and you’ll get your heart and lungs working. Unlike other forms of cardio—like running, biking, dance workouts, or boxing—walking isn’t intimidating and it doesn’t require lessons or special equipment.
Not just for beginners
But it’s also great for advanced athletes, who may think it isn’t challenging enough, Mohr says. “Walking is very, very underrated.”
For people who already have a higher level of cardiovascular fitness, walking is a stellar activity for recovery. It’s a gentle way to get the blood flowing and circulate oxygen and nutrients to hard-worked muscles, Mohr explains.
Excellent for recovery
“Enhanced blood flow is going to improve recovery and help ease muscle soreness,” she says. “It’s not going to completely eliminate it, but it can help reduce it and accelerate the muscle repair process.” It can also help flush out waste products—chemicals that are released in the body when our cells create and use energy to power through a tough workout—which may further boost recovery, says Mohr.
A small 2018 study from the American Council on Exercise and Western State Colorado University found that moderate-intensity activity can help athletes maintain endurance performance and power output compared to simply resting or doing active recovery at a vigorous intensity.
“A lot of people don’t view walking as exercise, and it tends to be those folks that probably need it the most,” Mohr says.
Even a slow stroll has major benefits
Walking is a go-to cardiovascular exercise for some good reasons. “Walking can improve your circulation and aerobic fitness, control blood pressure, improve blood sugars, as well as decrease stress,” says Ivan Sulapas, MD, primary care sports medicine physician and assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
And you don’t need to walk at a particularly rushed pace to reap the benefits. “Any movement will have benefits, even a casual stroll,” says Dr. Sulapas. “Our bodies are not meant to sit around all day—they are meant to move.”
Just because a simple stroll around the block doesn’t make you breathe heavily or sweat buckets doesn’t mean it isn’t doing something good for your body. Your heart and lungs and brain will all be better off with any sort of activity, even if it’s low-key.
“In 2020 it’s so important that people find a good relationship with walking because for a lot of people, it may be their small opportunity for movement,” says Mohr.
Job changes, relocations, money concerns, worrying about our own health and our loved ones’ health—it’s safe to say there are a lot of stressful things going on. And walking, even for just 10 minutes, has been shown to be an effective mood booster. Simply spending some time outside can be beneficial, too, says Stanten.
Walking is also a good exercise for practicing social distance, Dr. Sulapas says.
(Related: The Best Walking Workout for Older People)
How to start walking for fitness
Experts recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. This can be broken down into small, doable spurts of activity; in fact, it should be, if you’re just starting out. If you want to use walking as your aerobic activity of choice, here’s how to get the most out of it.
Check with your doctor before starting
This is especially important if you have any medical or orthopedic conditions that may limit your walking ability, says Dr. Sulapas. For example, walking is a great exercise to help patients with high blood pressure or diabetes, but make sure your doctor knows the activities you’re doing and can advise you accordingly.
“If someone has an ongoing hip, knee, ankle, or foot issue that may limit their walking ability, I recommend seeing a sports medicine doctor to see what safe exercises they can do,” he adds. “A sports medicine doctor can provide an appropriate exercise prescription so they can start their fitness journey while minimizing risk of injury.”
Get a comfy pair of shoes
The only equipment you need to walk for fitness is a good pair of sneakers. Make sure they fit properly and support your feet.
Keep safety in mind
Finding a safe route is important, says Stanten. “You need to be careful depending on the area you’re walking in, and always be conscious of your surroundings.”
Don’t crank up your playlist so loudly that you can’t hear cars, bikers, or pedestrians around you. And make sure to wear reflective clothing if you’re walking early in the morning or late at night when it’s dark out.
Start slow and progress slowly
“Starting slow is a great idea, as you can gauge the level of fitness you are currently at,” says Dr. Sulapas. “If you can only walk for a certain number of minutes or just around the block, then you have your baseline.”
Even if it’s just five or 10 minutes at a time, that’s great. From there, you can gradually pick up the pace.
“As your fitness level improves, you will start to notice that you can walk faster at a set distance in a shorter amount of time, or build the endurance to walk longer than the previous times,” he says. Dr. Sulapas recommends noting how much you can do in a week; then increase the distance or time by about 10 percent the next week.
Make it a habit
To reap the benefits of walking, Mohr recommends making it a healthy habit.
“I like to build on something most people are already doing and then attach a new habit to it,” she says. “For most beginners, I recommend walking after a meal. You’re already in the habit of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So start with walking for 10 minutes after every meal.”
At the end of the day, you’ll have accumulated 30 minutes of walking. If that doesn’t fit with your schedule, start doing it after just one meal, and then either extend the length or add in more walks throughout the day over time.
(Related: 11 Easy Ways to Make Walking More Fun)
Pick up the pace when you want
Walking doesn’t have to be intense, but if you want to challenge yourself a little more and get your heart rate higher, it’s easy to do. Try adding some high-intensity intervals into your walk, says Stanten. Push yourself at a fast pace for 30 seconds, and then go back to your normal comfortable pace for a few minutes.
Over time, try walking at that faster pace for longer, or adding more quick intervals more often. Instead of thinking about time, you can use landmarks or music to guide your intervals, Stanten says.
“Walk fast to that next tree or the next house. Pick a faster-paced song and walk to that beat, and then use a slower-paced song and walk to that beat,” she suggests. That will allow you to push a bit and then have some time to recover before pushing again.
Remember to warm up
“Warming up the muscles is always a good idea before an exercise,” says Dr. Sulapas.
Walking is already a form of warming up, so there are a few options here. You can simply start extra slowly, giving your body five minutes or so to wake up and get blood flowing to all the muscles that need it, says Stanten. Then pick up the pace as you see fit.
You can also do some warm-up exercises at home before you take your first step.
“I usually recommend doing some upper body shoulder rolls, swinging your legs in place, rolling your foot from heel to toe back and forth, body squats, and rotating your torso left and right,” Dr. Sulapas says. “This helps warm up the muscles and get the circulation going before you walk.”
And stretch afterward if you can
Dr. Sulapas often recommends stretching the lower-body muscles—quads, hamstrings, calves—after a walk.
“Stretching after walking helps improve the circulation so your muscles can heal, as well as decreases the soreness and stiffness that can happen after a workout,” Dr. Sulapas says. “Typically, I recommend holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds to get its maximum effect.”
While it’s always good to do some stretches after a walk when you can, it’s not totally mandatory every time, says Stanten. If some days you only have time for a quick walk and nothing else, that’s fine. Your body and mind will definitely be better for it.