A recent report suggests that high-intensity exercise might not benefit us as much as we think, which makes me wonder if my walks make the gym skip-able. Is walking exercise? And can it be enough of a cardio workout?
How Much Exercise Do We Need?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, we should get sixty to ninety minutes of exercise a day. That sounds intimidating, but the recommendation doesn’t specify what type of exercise—just that we should be on our feet for an hour a day, and not even all at once. Many Americans don’t come close to this, which spurred the “10,000 steps a day” recommendation (equivalent to about thirty minutes of walking).
Walking is the most popular type of exercise in America and it’s not hard to see why. After all, taking a walk requires little money or preparation and isn’t nearly as intimidating as running or other strenuous activities. A 2007 Duke University Medical Center study found that people who walked thirty minutes almost every day of the week lost weight and lowered their risk for metabolic syndrome. But as great as 10,000 steps a day is for our health, it’s not a replacement for a good sweat session. Making your walk a workout requires more than taking a simple stroll around the block.
Walking Can Work—But It Takes Work, Too
Anything that raises the heart rate into its target cardiac zone—about 60 to 80 percent of the maximum heart rate—is considered a good aerobic workout. So as long as we walk quickly enough to increase our heart rates significantly, we can count it toward those sixty to ninety minutes.
As is the case with any other exercise, we have to push ourselves to see results. To figure out whether you’re walking fast enough, do the talk test. If you can sing a song, you’re probably strolling too slowly to get your heart pumping. If you can barely utter a few words without taking gasping breaths, your heart might be pumping too much. Walking is a terrific form of exercise, as long as you do it properly.
- All cardio requires some kind of warm-up, even something as seemingly effortless as a walk. Start by walking at a casual pace for a few minutes, then work up to a heart-pumping speed.
- Keep arms bent from the elbow at ninety degrees, maintaining a natural arm swing. (It’ll feel strange at first, but you’ll get used to it.)
- Walk at a challenging speed. If using a treadmill, Brett Blumenthal of Sheer Balance suggests setting the speed at 3.5 to 4.5 miles per hour. Outside walkers can use a pedometer and try to increase their number of steps each day.
- Interval training—alternating between a steady pace and short bursts of extremely brisk speeds—also raises heart rate and makes for good aerobic exercise.
- Don’t opt for hand or leg weights to increase the effort. They don’t have much impact and increase the risk for injury.
- As you become more comfortable with fast walking, try incorporating hills or stair climbing into your routine. This strengthens and tones leg muscles and offers more of an endurance-focused workout.
- Make sure to stretch out your muscles after walking.
Maybe Exhausting Ourselves Isn’t the Best Way
Other than being manageable and downright enjoyable, walking is also much easier on the body than high-impact activities like running. Running is great for cardiovascular health, but it can negatively affect joints, knees, and backs. Plus, according to an August 2009 story in Time magazine, such intense exercise might do more harm than good, particularly for our waistlines.
The controversial story states that one of exercise’s many effects is raising our metabolisms, which makes us hungrier. The writer suggests that the harder we push ourselves when exercising, the more we feel the need to compensate—be it through eating more, rewarding ourselves for a strenuous workout (either through food or relaxation), or generally moving less as a result of exhaustion.
He cites a study performed at Louisiana State University and published in the journal PLoS One that asked for groups of women to perform varying amounts of exercise—the highest group exercised 194 minutes per week. Researchers found that the ones who exercised most didn’t lose more weight than the other three groups; in fact, some put on a few pounds. The story also explores the role of self control and how, like a muscle, it can weaken if we use it too much. (As in, we force ourselves to run six miles and our willpower to do other things, like avoid dessert, lessens.)
The New and Improved Happy Medium
The point isn’t that people should stop exercising, but that challenging one’s body to complete exhaustion takes a physical and emotional toll that might override its benefits. If we start our day pushing our bodies to the brink with exercise, we tend to feel more justified taking it easy later or indulging more than usual because we “earned” it. But if the exercise if less impactful, we won’t be too exhausted to continue being active throughout the day.
Enter walking—a low-impact activity that allows us to reap the cardiovascular rewards without killing ourselves from the effort. All it takes is 10,000 steps a day if we want to maintain health and already have good diets, but even those looking to lose weight can sweat off the pounds with longer walks at a brisk pace. Just grab your MP3 player and a good pair of shoes and that sixty-minute guideline will be conquered before you know it.
Updated March 4, 2010