It can easily become a habit to reach for a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and again mid-afternoon when you need a pick-me-up. Instead, try lacing up your walking shoes: Research shows going for a walk can be even better for you than drinking a cup of coffee if you need an energy boost.
A study from researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens found when people walked in a stairwell at low to moderate intensity for 10 minutes, they felt more energized than when they consumed 50mg caffeine, the amount in half a cup of coffee or slightly more than the amount in a can of soda. Other research shows walking for more than 20 minutes helps people feel more energized.
“The best available evidence suggests that exercise induces changes in brain neurotransmitters, which play a role in boosting energy,” explains Patrick O’Connor, PhD, a University of Georgia kinesiology professor who authored both studies. “Likely brain norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin or histamine is involved.”
“Walking also increases blood circulation, which helps to get more oxygen and nutrients to the brain and muscles, helping you to feel more alert,” says Sabrena Jo, director of science and research for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.
WHY WALKING IS BETTER THAN COFFEE
1. IT IMPROVES YOUR OVERALL HEALTH
Going for a walk isn’t just a quick fix to help you feel more alert in the moment; it’s also an effective way to maintain or improve your health when done consistently. “Regular exercise, including walking, helps you feel more awake, improves mood, cardiovascular health and memory function,” says Dr. John-Paul Rue, a sports medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
2. IT HELPS TO CHANGE YOUR SCENERY
“When we get up to walk, we change our environment, which is a great mental reset,” says Alysa Boan, a certified personal trainer based in Dallas. “Often, when we feel tired or lack focus, it’s due to stress,” she adds. “Spending just 10 minutes walking outdoors can help you de-stress better than a cup of coffee.”
3. IT DOESN’T INTERFERE WITH SLEEP
“Caffeine, especially in the late afternoon or evening, can lead to sleep disturbance, meaning you’re exhausted and less productive the next day,” says Joselyne John, RN, a certified sleep science coach based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Going for a walk is likely to help you sleep better at night, leading to more energy and focus. Walking also gives you a chance to be outside and get exposure to light, helping regulate your circadian rhythm, which affects your quality of sleep.”
4. IT DOESN’T HAVE ANY SIDE-EFFECTS
A short walk doesn’t introduce any substances to your system which can cause changes, whether positive or negative. “Although caffeine has been shown to improve levels of alertness and focus when taken in moderation, too much can lead to irritability, insomnia, nausea and jitters — none of which are side effects of a brisk walk,” says Boan.
5. IT’S CALORIE-FREE
If you’re drinking regular soda or coffee that isn’t black, your caffeinated beverage could be a calorie (and sugar) bomb. “Physical activity trumps drinking a beverage for a myriad of health benefits, especially if the coffee one drinks is flavored with sweetener and cream,” says Jo. Regularly drinking sweetened caffeinated beverages can lead to weight gain, while walking is a great way to support weight loss.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re feeling tired or you’re in a slump in the middle of your day, go for a walk to feel more alert, rather than reaching for caffeine. It’s an ideal way to boost your energy levels, improve your mood and aid weight loss.
Originally published October 2019, updated May 2022
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