Why Walking Isn’t Enough When It Comes to Exercise

5 minute read

Walking is often thought of as a mere mode of transportation: a way to get from point A to point B. Few of us consider the fact that it’s one of the most fundamental, accessible physical activities a person can do.

What’s so great about walking? 

Walking might not be as impressive as holding a plank or doing mountain climbers, but “it’s considered a bodyweight exercise, because your large muscle groups are working to move the weight of your body,” says Dr. Marie Kanagie-McAleese, a pediatric hospitalist at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health and the leader of the Bel Air, Md. chapter of Walk With a Doc.

As you walk, “your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves—even your abdominals, biceps, and shoulders—are all using oxygen to contract,” says Ali Ball, an exercise physiologist and outpatient cardiac rehab/wellness coordinator at OSF HealthCare in Urbana, Ill. That also makes walking a form of aerobic exercise, she adds, which means it keeps your heart rate elevated for a sustained amount of time. One study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that 15 minutes of walking was as beneficial as five minutes of running.

From a physiological perspective, that’s a one-two punch of health benefits.

“First, walking improves the health of our cardiovascular system,” says McAleese. “With improved oxygen delivery to our organs, we see a decrease in the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.” 

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Research bears this out. In a 2021 study published in JAMA Network Open, people who logged at least 7,000 steps per day had a 50 to 70%lower risk of early death, compared to those who walked less than 7,000 steps per day. Meanwhile, a 2023 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that doing moderate-intensity physical activity—like brisk walking—for just 11 minutes a day is enough to lower the risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and a number of cancers.

Plus, it’s the easiest way to counter the risk of a sedentary lifestyle, says McAleese. “Walking more throughout the entire day, even if you’re not doing it at a moderate-intensity level, is critically important,” since sitting too much increases the risk of getting—and dying from—many chronic diseases.

But is just walking enough exercise? 

It can’t do everything. Federal physical-activity guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity a week, plus two or more sessions of muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups per week. Both types of physical activity have to be of at least moderate intensity. 

With a few tweaks, your walk can fulfill the first aerobic category. “Most people just don’t do it hard enough because they don’t think about it as exercise,” says Ball. If you’re used to a casual stroll, it’s easy to increase your intensity and get into that moderate range: You can increase the pace, walk on an incline, walk on a different terrain, or add weight via a vest or pack.

Read More: Forget 10,000 Steps. Here’s How Much Science Says You Actually Need to Walk

Not so much for the second category. “Walking does provide a low level of bodyweight exercise, but there are a lot of other muscle groups that we’re not really exercising when walking,” says McAleese. Strength training comes with a lot of additional health benefits, like lowering your risk of injury and improving mobility and flexibility.

How to make your walk count as a workout 

Wearable devices have made mainstream the idea that everyone needs to hit 10,000 steps per day, but “that’s an arbitrary number not based in science,” says McAleese. A more important metric than steps, she says, is time. When it comes to the recommended 150 weekly minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, “you can break that up however works for you,” she explains. “If you can only fit in 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there, it all counts.”

For walking to really qualify as “moderate-intensity” exercise, you need to be moving a little more intentionally than you would during a casual stroll from one meeting to the next. The guidelines consider walking briskly—where you could walk a mile in 15 to 24 minutes—to be moderate-intensity physical activity. That’s a purposeful, I-have-somewhere-to-be pace.

The best way to tell if you’re in that moderate-intensity range is the talk test. “If you’re able to speak in complete sentences and can carry on a conversation—but if you were to try to sing, you would become out of breath—that counts as moderate-intensity aerobic exercise,” says McAleese.

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You can also check your heart rate. An approximate (but easy-to-remember) way to find your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from the number 220, says Ball. During moderate-intensity exercise, your heart rate should be at about 50 to 70% of that maximum heart rate, according to the American Heart Association.

And to make sure you're getting the most out of this type of physical activity, you also need to think about your form. (Yes, there’s proper form for walking.) “Focus on staying upright and keeping your abdominals engaged,” says Ball. Squeeze your butt, and let your arms swing naturally rather than exaggeratedly pumping them. Leaning forward, especially if you increase your intensity, can cause back pain.

For many people, embracing walking as exercise might just require a slight shift in perspective. “We focus a lot on scheduling exercise as a very specific activity that happens at a certain place at a certain time during our day,” says McAleese. “But we really should be expanding our definition of exercise to include all levels and amounts of physical activity that we perform throughout the entire day.” 

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