I’m often asked, “Sarah, what is the best type of exercise for me?” My answer surprises a lot of people – walking. A lot of people don’t even realize that walking is a form of exercise. After all, it’s how most of us get around. However, in a lot of ways walking is the perfect type of exercise for modern times.
Personally, I really enjoy running and I also like yoga and home bodyweight exercises. But, more often than not, my workout of choice involves slipping on my walking shoes and heading out into my neighborhood for a refreshing, energizing stroll.
So, what makes walking such a great workout – for your fitness, health, and weight loss? Let’s take a look!
Walking is arguably the most natural form of exercise. After all, before you could run, swim, jump, or ride a bike, you could walk. In fact, you’ve probably been walking for all-but about one of your years alive.
Because walking is such a natural activity, it’s accessible to almost everyone. You don’t need to be athletic, sporty, or have any special skills. You already know how to walk and so you don’t have to waste valuable time learning a new skill. In fact, if you wanted to, you could get up and go for a walk right now!
Also, you don’t need special equipment to enjoy walking, although a good pair of shoes will help. You can wear snazzy workout gear or a scruffy pair of jeans and a t-shirt. It really doesn’t matter. Because you don’t need to spend much (if any!) money to enjoy walking, it’s the perfect workout for exercisers on a budget.
Another advantage of walking for exercise is that you can do it anywhere, and anytime. You could walk your dog before going to work, walk with your kids to school, walk to work, take a walk during your lunch break, walk to the grocery store, walk around your neighborhood, go for a walk in the country, walk after your dinner, take a walk before you go to bed…the opportunities for walking are endless.
All these advantages mean that dropout rates for walking are much lower than for other forms of exercise and sports. Exercise experts often argue about what type of exercise is best but, the truth is, the best workout is the one you will do and can stick to. Not just for a week or a month, but for years to come.
Walking offers a great many benefits. Of course, to experience these benefits you need to walk regularly but I’ll talk more about that a little later. Let’s assume you are walking at least three-times a week, clocking up 30 or more minutes per session.
Regular walking workouts will:
1. Increase your cardiovascular fitness
Cardiovascular means your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Walking makes your muscles work harder and they, in turn, demand more oxygen. To meet this demand, your breathing rate and your heart rate must increase. Elevating your breathing and heart rate does you good, and the fitter your heart and lungs are, the healthier you’ll be. Being fitter also makes strenuous activities easier so you’ll get less out of breath when doing things like gardening, playing with your kids, or walking up stairs.
2. Increased muscle strength
Walking, especially if you walk briskly and uphill, gives your leg muscles a good workout. This will also help shape and tone your leg muscles. Stronger leg muscles are important – especially as you get older. Weak leg muscles increase your chances of falling over and could even mean you are unable to stand or walk unaided.
3. Stronger Bones
When you walk, your muscles and bones must support your entire bodyweight. This is good news. Bones, like muscles, get weaker when they are not used. Weak bones can, if left untreated, become osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a serious medical condition characterized by porous bones that are very brittle and prone to fracture.
Weight-bearing activities such as walking strengthen your bones – especially your hips. That’s good to know as hip fractures are very serious and can even be fatal for older people.
4. Improved balance
Walking involves using one leg at a time. You’ll also have to overcome curbstones, steps, and other obstacles while you walk. This will improve your balance. Balance is important for preventing falls. Even if you have strong bones, falls can still result in serious injury and are best avoided.
5. Fat loss and weight control
Walking burns fat and calories. If you eat healthily and are avoiding sugar, this should mean you either loss fat or prevent weight gain. Walking a mile uses only a few less calories than running a mile – it just takes longer. A lot of people who run for weight control may find walking is just as effective. I know I do!
6. Improved health
Increased cardiovascular fitness is inextricably linked to improved health. Regular walking could reduce your chances of suffering from:
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack
I know I started walking to help me lose weight and get fit, but I can honestly say that it’s also helped my health too. I’m hardly ever sick, and when I am it’s only very mild and short-lived. That’s why doctors often prescribe walking for exercise.
7. Mental benefits
Walking doesn’t just affect your body, it effects your brain too. Walking is good for every aspect of mental function – from memory to imagination. It’s also a very good way to reduce stress. Stress causes weight gain, and is a leading cause of disease and something most of us must deal with daily.
Walking is also a great way to free your mind and boost creativity. I know that I’ve had some of my best ideas when I was out walking.
So, as you can see, walking can be hugely beneficial. Of course, you need to walk far enough and often enough for it to work its magic but, if you put the information in this article into practice, that’ll be no problem at all!
Exercise workout tips
Whether you are already a regular walker or want to get started on a walking fitness program, these tips will make everything much easier and more enjoyable. I made lots of mistakes when I started walking for fitness. Allow me to help you to steer clear of them, so you don’t make the same mistakes that I did.
1. The right shoes – I’ll talk more about shoes for walking later and in the section Walking Shoes but, for now, understand that a good pair of shoes will make your walking workouts much more comfortable and if you are comfortable you’ll be able to walk further and faster. Consider getting a dedicated pair of shoes for walking – you won’t regret it!
2. Dress in layers – walking is not a very strenuous activity, but you’ll still warm up after a few minutes. Make sure you dress in layers so that, as you heat up, you can take off your outer layer and avoid overheating.
3. Build up gradually – walking can seem easy but walking too far or too often could leave you sore and tired. It’s good to be enthusiastic but don’t let that enthusiasm lead you to doing too much too soon. To help ease you into regular walking workouts, I’ve written a nice four-week walking program for you to follow, designed especially for beginners.
4. Avoid traffic – nothing will undo the benefits of walking more than contending with heavy traffic. Cars and trucks spew out noxious fumes, and the noise can be deafening. If possible, walk away from main roads; it’ll be more relaxing and much safer. If you must walk near traffic, make sure you face oncoming cars and trucks, so that you can see any hazards as they approach.
5. Enjoy some walking entertainment – I love to listen to music and audiobooks while I walk. I find that music and audiobooks distract me, so I can walk further without getting bored. Music helps lift my mood, so I walk faster. Of course, make sure it’s safe to walk while your ears are being entertained and that whatever you are listening too won’t block out the sound of oncoming hazards.
6. Carry a cellphone – I enjoy my walks because they are a break from emails, text messages, and ringing phones. However, I still carry my phone with me in case of emergencies. I turn it to silent, so it doesn’t ring and disturb me, but I’m always glad to know I’ve got it in case I need to call for help, as I did once when I tripped and sprained my ankle.
7. Watch where you are going – trips and falls could turn a wonderful walk into a nightmare. Make sure you watch where you are going and place your feet carefully. If you walk at night, stick to well-lit pathways to avoid accidents. Consider carrying a flashlight too. If you are heading off-road and into the country, a pair of supportive walking boots may be a good idea.
8. Use an activity tracker – while you could just time the duration of your walks, you find it much more motivating of you use an activity tracker to record your walking distance or the number of steps you have taken. More on that topic later.
9. Walk briskly – for walking to count as exercise, you need to walk briskly. I can’t give you an exact pace to walk at because it varies from person to person. I have a tall friend who comfortably walks at 4.5 miles an hour – he was also in the marines, so he’s used to walking fast. I prefer to walk at about 3.5 miles per hour. Just make sure your walking pace is brisk which means you are slightly out of breath but are still able to talk comfortably.
10. Stand tall – don’t hunch over when you walk. Instead, lift your head, pull your shoulders down and back, look straight ahead, relax your arms, shoulders and hands, and stride our purposefully. If you notice you are hunching over, maybe while going uphill, just remind yourself to stand tall. Imagine your head is a balloon and it’s floating at the end of your neck!
The thing I like best about walking for exercise is that all you need to do is put on your shoes and head out the door. Unlike going to the gym or playing sports, you don’t need any special preparation or equipment, and you can slot walking into almost anywhere in your daily schedule. Simple!
But, saying that, you’ll get a lot more from walking for exercise if you follow a structured working plan. Why? Because that will help you get fitter, faster.
One of the underlying principles of successful exercise is the principle of specificity. Specificity describes how the benefits you get from exercise are specific to the type and duration of exercise you do.
For example, if you only ever walk for 20 minutes at a time, your body will get really good at walking for 20 minutes, but it won’t get much fitter than this. If you want to improve your fitness, you need to walk further.
Because of this, it makes sense to follow a progressive workout plan that increases workout duration over several weeks.
The best workout plans start off easy and get gradually harder so that you never do more than your body is ready for. That will stop you getting overly tired, sore, or injured – all of which could put you off exercising for good.
To help you go from walking zero to walking hero, I have devised a four-week plan for you to follow. Don’t worry that it starts off easy – that’s the idea. It gets more demanding as you get fitter.
Please note: If you are currently sedentary or have any illnesses, make sure you speak to your doctor before starting this or any other exercise program. Your doctor will probably be very happy to hear you are starting an exercise program, but it’s still best to let them know in case they need to change your treatment.
Before you start walking fast, make sure you spend a few minutes warming up. March on the spot or walk gently for 3-5 minutes to warm up your muscles and get your heart and lungs working efficiently and then do some gentle stretches. If you set off too fast, you may pull a muscle or, at the very least, find yourself out of breath very quickly. The main muscles to stretch are:
- Your calves at the back of your lower leg
- Your hamstrings at the back of your upper leg
- Your quadriceps at the front of your upper leg
- Your hip flexors at the front of your pelvis
- Your lower back
Once you are warmed up, you should be ready to start walking!
Your 4-Week Beginner Walking Program
Remember to walk briskly. That means you should be slightly out of breath but still able to hold a conversation. If you feel that the walks are too long, just repeat the next shortest workout a few times until you are ready to move up a level.
Remember, this is just a guide and you should always listen to your body. During the rest days, it’s a good idea to do some stretching or yoga to keep your muscles feeling loose and limber.
You may feel tempted to collapse into a chair once your walking workout is over – don’t! That’s a great way to leave your muscles feeling tired and stiff. Instead, walk slowly for another 3-5 minutes and then repeat the stretches you did at the start.
Best walking shoes
When I first started walking for fitness, I made one very big mistake – I wore regular shoes. That was okay for short walks, but as my walks got longer, my feet began to suffer. I started getting blisters and then my heels and the arches of my feet got really sore.
It turned out that my regular shoes didn’t have the support or cushioning I needed for walking regularly. Also, they didn’t fit correctly so that my feet moved inside my shoes and that gave me blisters. Blisters are very painful and make walking much less enjoyable than it should be.
I did some research on foot problems caused by walking and discovered that most can be avoided if you wear good walking shoes.
Walking shoes are designed to cushion and support your feet so that your feet are protected. They are light and tough too which means they’ll protect your feet from the rough ground without weighing you down.
I’ve tried a few different pairs of walking shoes and now have a couple of pairs that I use in rotation. One pair is perfect for walking on sidewalks while the other pair is more rugged and best for when I walk in the countryside.
You don’t need two pairs of walking shoes, but I do recommend you buy one pair so that you can avoid any foot problems. After all, the more comfortable you are, the further you’ll be able to walk and the fitter you’ll get!
To help you choose a pair of walking shoes I’ve reviewed some of the best walking shoes on the market. Please check out my article The Best Walking Shoes here.
Track your steps
So far in this article, I’ve mainly talked about walking distance in terms of time and there is a very good reason for this – we all walk at different speeds. If I told you to go out and walk four miles, that could be one hour of walking for some people but closer to two hours for others. That’s a big difference! That’s why I’ve told you to walk for 20 minutes or 30 minutes. That way you’ll get a good workout no matter how fast you walk.
Another way to track the length of your walks is to count steps. You don’t need to try and do this in your head though – you can use an activity tracker or a pedometer.
Activity trackers are wearable devices that, often using GPS (global positioning systems), measure how far you’ve walked, how fast you’ve walked, how many calories you’ve burned, and how many steps you’ve taken. There are also apps you can download onto your phone or MP3 player that do the exact same thing.
I like the Health app that’s built into the latest Apple phones and iPods. It’s easy to use and works automatically whenever you walk anywhere carrying your device.
Alternatively, you can use a dedicated pedometer. This is a good choice if you prefer to leave your phone at home or don’t have a smartphone. Pedometers are cheap, very easy to use, and are small and light enough that you won’t even know you are carrying it. They tend to be simple devices that only count steps and calories but that’s alright for a lot of users.
Once you know how many steps you are taking per day, you can get to work gradually increasing your daily total.
For example, if at the end of my walking plan you are walking 6000 steps per day, why not set yourself the goal of walking 7000? This might mean you need to walk more than once per day – one “real” walking workout plus a quick stroll after dinner perhaps.
Then, when 7000 steps become easy, you could up your goal to 8000 steps. If you use your step tracker all day long, you’ll also be less likely to use the elevator or drive for short distances as every extra step you take will increase your daily step total. Counting steps can soon become a fun game and you’ll go to bed feeling happy that you reached your step total for the day.
Experts suggest that most people should walk around 10,000 steps per day. That might sound like a lot but if you build up gradually and break your walks down into several manageable chunks throughout the day, it’s quite manageable.
I wear my activity tracker all the time so that every step I take is counted. That way I can see if I’ve not walked enough and can then make up my numbers by walking a little further at the end of the day. I find my activity tracker really motivating and I expect you would too!
What studies say about walking
So far in this article, I’ve talked a lot about how walking has helped me, and about the general benefits of walking for exercise. Most of this has been anecdotal – based on my personal experience.
For a lot of people, that’s all the evidence they need to try a new workout. However, it’s not just me that thinks walking is good for you – science agrees.
Here are some studies that confirm that walking is one of the best forms of exercise around!
Harvard Medical School, the premier medical school in the USA reports that walking has several awesome benefits. They train doctors, so they really should know! The benefits reported by Harvard are:
1. Walking counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes – in a study of 12,000 people, participants who walked for an hour a day were 50% less likely to be overweight.
2. Walking helps curb your sweet tooth – walking reduces chocolate cravings so, if like a lot of people, you have a sugar addiction, that’s good news!
3. Walking reduces the risk of breast cancer – women who walk for an hour a day are significantly less likely to develop breast cancer.
4. Walking eases joint pain – a lot of people suffer from joint pain, but contrary to what you might expect, walkers experience less. That’s good news if you have knee pain or hip pain.
5. Walking boosts immune function – a study of 1,000 men and women revealed that those who walking regularly had 43% fewer sick days. Those who did get sick were ill for less time and their symptoms were milder.
Source 5 Surprising benefits of walking.
An article on Medium.com list another seven interesting science-backed benefits of walking…
1. Walking could add 3-7 years to your life – according to a study by the European Society of Cardiology Congress, 20-25 minutes of walking per day could add years to your lifespan. It seems like walking could be the next best thing to the fountain of youth!
2. Walking increases creativity – many creative geniuses have had their best ideas while walking. I know I find I’m at my most creative when I’m walking, and often come up with my ideas for articles when I’m out walking.
3. Walking helps with problem-solving – got a problem to figure out? Go for a walk! Walking is a lot like moving meditation and helps free up your mind for clearer thinking.
4. Walking improves learning – studies done by the University of Columbia have revealed that walking increases brain power, making you better at learning. Make the most of this by listening to informative audiobooks while you walk.
5. Walk your way to easier fat loss – because walking is not as stressful as other forms of exercise, it’s easier to do and easier to stick to. It won’t cause injuries and you should have no problem walking most days of the week. Because of this, it’s the perfect weight loss workout.
6. Walking is a good way to develop relationships – while walking can be a solitary activity, it’s also a good opportunity to spend time with family and friends. Most of us spend way too much time watching TV or on the internet and not talking much. Walking provides a great time for quality conversation and bonding – even if it’s with your dog!
7. Walking can be meditative – meditation is linked to a host of benefits including better health, lower blood pressure, and greater creativity. Walking provides you with the opportunity to meditate and exercise at the same time.
You only have to Google “studies on the benefits of walking” to discover just how beneficial walking can be so you don’t have to take my word for it – you can see for yourself that walking could be the very best form of exercise around.
Walking versus running
If walking is good for you, running must be better, right? After all, running means going faster and further.
Before you trade in your walking shoes for some running shoes, it’s important to understand that, when it comes to exercise, more or harder is not always better.
I am a regular runner but, even then, I can only run 3-4 times a week. If I do more than that, my joints hurt, and I start to feel tired and sore all the time. I used to run six days a week but instead of feeling healthier or fitter, I felt terrible!
In contrast, I can walk every day without aching or feeling tired. In fact, I often walk further per week than I run, and some weeks I don’t run at all.
This all means that most people will walk more consistently than they run. When it comes to exercise, consistency is the key. The best type of exercise is the one you can do the most often without burning out and getting tired or injured. Running might get you fitter, but only if you do it!
It’s also important to note that running is a high impact activity while walking is a low impact activity. When you run, both feet leave the ground at the same time. That’s okay if you only weigh 120 lbs. but if you weigh 200 or more your feet, ankles, knees, and hips will take a pounding. For this reason, if you are overweight, walking is much safer than running.
And what about fat burning? That’s a good question!
Running is harder than walking and therefore burns more fat and calories per minute than walking. However, unless you are super-fit, you can probably walk for longer than you can run. I can walk for two hours quite easily, but a 40-minute run leaves me feeling tired.
The number of calories or amount of fat you burn depends on a variety of things including how fit you are, how much you weigh, and how long you exercise for. This means it’s very hard to compare different types of exercise. However, an article in Runner’s World suggests that a 156 lbs. person will burn about 89 calories per mile when walking and 122 calories per mile when running.
Because you’ll be able to clock up more walking miles per week compared to running miles, walking could be more effective for fat loss and weight control.
If I was only allowed to do one type of exercise, I’d choose walking. I love to run but I know I can walk farther and more often which makes it the best form of exercise for me. Of course, you don’t have to choose either/or – you can do both and I am going to write an article about running soon, so you can learn all about another great form of exercise.
Questions and Answers
I hope I’ve answered all your questions about walking in this guide but, in case I haven’t, here are my answers to the most common questions I get about walking.
1. When is the best time to go walking?
I like to walk early in the morning when the weather is cool, and the world is quiet and peaceful. It helps me get my mind ready for the day ahead. I also like to take a quick walk at lunchtime to get away from my desk. I like evening and weekend walks too! In fact, the best time to walk is the time that you have available. It doesn’t matter when you walk so long as you do it.
2. What should I eat before I go for a walk?
I prefer to walk in a fasted state as you’ll burn more fat that way. You can read more about fasting in this article. Because walking doesn’t involve any bouncing up and down, it’s okay to eat before you walk. In fact, an after-eating walk can help with digestion. All I would say is that if you have a long, fast walk planned, don’t eat so much you feel full. Instead, have a light snack of fruit or a homemade smoothie for energy. I also suggest drinking water before and during your walk to avoid dehydration. Consider carrying a water bottle with you – especially if you intend to walk for 30 minutes or more.
3. How fast should I walk?
That’s hard to say because I don’t know how tall you are, how fit you are, or how long your legs are! All I can say is try walking as fast as you can without getting too out of breath. You should be able to chat to a friend while you are walking but still need to take pauses to breathe every sentence or two.
4. How far should I walk?
I suggest you start out walking for 10-15 minutes, and then add five minutes or so per week until you can comfortably walk for 60 minutes in one go. Once you can walk for 60 minutes without stopping, you should start to work on walking faster and not further, otherwise you’ll end up spending your entire day walking!
5. What shoes should I wear for walking?
At first, a pair of running sneakers will be okay but, as you walk further and more often, a pair of dedicated walking shoes will make you feel more comfortable. You can read about choosing the best walking shoes in this article.
6. Can I walk on a treadmill?
You could but I don’t recommend it. Walking outdoors is much more natural and healthy than walking on a treadmill. The view will be better and so too will the atmosphere and air. If the weather is bad, walking on a treadmill might be safer – especially if the pavements are icy. But, if you can, I recommend doing more of your walks outside.
7. Is it okay to run and walk?
Yes! Alternating walking and running is a good way to make your walks more demanding, burn more calories, and get fitter. For example, you could walk for two minutes and run for one minute. Repeat that ten times for a great 30-minute workout. If running non-stop is too much for you, this is a good choice.
8. Will walking help me lose weight?
Walking can help you lose weight, but only if your diet supports weight loss. You’ll need to eat a little less, eat healthily, and walk to lose weight. Walking on its own, will help you get fit, but won’t lead to weight loss unless you eat a little less. Try Intermittent Fasting for an easy weight loss solution.
9. Will walking tone up my legs?
Definitely! Especially if you walk fast or walk uphill. Concentrate on taking long, positive strides to fully engage your leg muscles. Walking on uneven surfaces also seems to be the best way to tome up your leg muscles as you’ll have to work a little harder to keep your balance.
10. How can I make my walking workouts more demanding?
If I want a harder walking workout, and I can’t walk further or faster, I’ll pop on a backpack loaded with a few heavy books or bottles of water. This increases the weight my legs have to carry and makes walking a little more challenging. Be careful though, too much weight too soon could lead to sore muscles or injury. Start off with about 5% of your bodyweight in your pack so if you weigh 140 lbs. just carry about 7 lbs. of extra weight.
11. Are walking shoes different from running shoes?
Yes, they are. Walking and running involve different movements and your feet work differently during these activities. Running tends to involve more weight on the front of your foot while walking puts more weight on your heels. Walking shoes also tend to be a little heavier and more rugged so you can go off-road more easily. You can walk in running shoes, but you’ll be more comfortable if you wear dedicated walking shoes.
12. What should you know before buying walking shoes?
There are lots of different types of walking shoes available to it’s important to get shoes that are right for you. Weight, width, stiffness, and support all vary from one shoe to another, and the fit varies from manufacturer to manufacturer too. Because of all this, you should choose your walking shoes with care as the wrong shoes could be uncomfortable. To help you buy the best walking shoes for you, I have created this handy walking shoe guide and review.