Walking tops the list for the most popular physical activities with more than 145 million adults (and counting) lacing up their sneakers regularly; it’s also one of the easiest ways to get your heart rate up.
However, when it comes to exercise, walking doesn’t always get the respect it deserves — and it’s time that changed. Before buying into the idea walking isn’t a worthwhile workout, learn the truth behind these six common walking myths.
There is a great feeling of accomplishment when your fitness tracker buzzes to signal you hit 10,000 steps. But Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, a professor of movement sciences at Columbia University, believes it might be an arbitrary target.
Yes, there are studies that show walking 10,000 steps per day is associated with lower blood pressure and improved glucose tolerance but the idea of walking the equivalent of five miles per day could feel overwhelming to new exercisers.
“[Walking 10,000 steps] will result in health benefits,” Garber says. “But it should be noted that … there is benefit even with small amounts of walking and the benefits increase with the more steps you walk each day.”
Garber suggests aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week instead of setting a step count goal.
If you want to count steps, consider this: Walking an additional 2,000 steps per day — even if your current step count is minimal — helps lower body mass index and boost insulin sensitivity, according to research published in the journal BMJ.
Leslie Sansone, fitness expert and creator of Walk at Home Workouts is adamant: “Walking works for weight loss!”
A slow stroll around the block isn’t going to move the needle on the scale (although it does burn more calories than binge watching legal dramas). To lose weight with a walking workout, Sansone suggests high-intensity interval training, or HIIT.
Picking up the pace — without breaking into a run — at regular intervals during your walk has a major impact on weight loss.
In one small study, researchers at the University of Virginia found overweight women who logged three, 30-minute, high-intensity walks and two moderately paced walks per week for 12 weeks lost six times more belly fat than women who went for a slow stroll five days per week. A second study found varying speed burned up to 20% more calories than maintaining the same pace.
Incorporating HIIT into your walking workout is simple, according to Sansone. After a 5-minute warmup walk at a slow pace, walk at a brisk pace for 30 seconds and then a regular pace for 4 minutes. Repeat the interval four times. End with a 5-minute cooldown walk.
“Walkers have so many choices to get fit and stay fit for life,” Sansone says.
Walking can be a “gateway exercise” that helps new exercisers improve their cardiovascular fitness and stamina to transition to running but not all walkers want to run — and that’s OK.
“Walking is a good exercise for everyone,” Garber says.
A study published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology found rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes were lower for regular walkers than runners.
While a walk around the block is a good start, maximizing the benefits of a walking workout requires logging sufficient time in your sneakers. Garber suggests focusing on distance, duration or calorie expenditure (all viewable on your fitness tracker) noting it’s the amount of exercise that counts — for both walkers and runners.
“If you start fitness walking today, you will instantly feel better and know you’re doing something good for your body, mind and soul,” Sansone says.
A brisk walk is great for reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, building bone strength and lowering the risk of diseases ranging from heart disease and diabetes to certain cancers. Picking up the pace can also help you burn more calories. Walking 10,000 steps at a pace of 4 miles per hour burned 153 calories more than walking the equivalent distance at 2 miles per hour, according to one study. But a need for speed is not essential for a solid walking workout.
“Walking hills is a fantastic substitution [to a brisk walk],” says Matt Minard, certified strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist at Carolinas Rehabilitation.
Minard notes that each 1% increase in the incline grade is equivalent to 1 mile per hour of energy burned. “A jogger moving at a pace of 5 miles per hour on flat terrain burns roughly the same amount of calories as someone walking 3 miles per hour on a 3% incline grade.”
Moreover, walking longer distances might also be more beneficial than a brisk walk. A study published in Obesity Research found obese walkers burned more calories walking at 2 miles per hour than moving at twice that speed.
You might want to think twice before slipping on a pair of ankle weights, advises Minard. “The further away weight is from our center of mass (around the core), the more torque and stress it creates,” he explains. “[While] bones, joints and cartilage respond to loading and stress by becoming stronger, it can also lead to injuries.”
Walking with weights “can change your gait, increasing the likelihood of shin splints or other injuries,” adds Jessica Schwartz, certified strength and conditioning specialist, physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.
What’s more, studies looking at the effectiveness of ankle and wrist weights found the additional weight had no impact on body mass index. Even wearing a weighted vest, which keeps the weight closer to your center of mass, puts stress on the knees, Minard warns.
Don’t overlook the benefits of a leisurely stroll. Walking offers significant mental health benefits ranging from a decreased risk of depression and reduced anxiety to lower rates of cognitive decline — regardless of your distance or speed. Research shows that even a single walk is associated with improvements in mood.
Instead of feeling guilty for taking a walk without measuring your heart rate, tracking your step count or focusing on burning calories, enjoy the moment.
“The mental health benefits of walking are so important,” Schwartz says. “Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be intentional about doing something for ourselves and taking a walk is one of the most accessible things you can do to reduce stress and practice self-care.”
Originally published March 2018, updated with additional reporting
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.