The simplicity of walking makes it an ideal exercise routine. It doesn’t require any special equipment or instruction. It’s free. And you can do it almost anywhere and anytime, with a very low risk of injury.
But, as with any exercise routine, attention to detail can make the difference between an enjoyable pastime and a chore you keep putting off. Perhaps one of the biggest questions for anyone who wants to turn a walk into a workout is: How much is enough?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, each week. So you can hit the target by walking two miles briskly (at a speed of about 4 miles per hour) three or four times a week.
But you may not be ready to tear down the sidewalk at that pace just yet, especially if you’ve been inactive for a while or have health conditions or disabilities that can make walking difficult.
If you’re just getting started, walk for the time and distance that feel comfortable. Then pick up the speed or distance a little bit each week.
Depending on your general health and cardiovascular fitness level, your first few walks might last anywhere from five to 15 minutes. As your fitness level improves, you can pick up your pace until you’re walking briskly for at least 30 minutes at least three days a week to achieve the CDC recommendations.
Pick up the pace
Research has consistently shown that walking can improve most people’s cardiovascular health, even late in life. Walking can improve circulation as the calves pump blood through the legs and feet, lightening the load on the heart.
Among walking’s many other benefits are stronger bones and muscles, more energy, less joint pain, better sleep, improved balance, improved weight control, and lower risks of some cancers, depression, and diabetes.
But the benefits gained from walking are best obtained through brisk walks, not leisurely strolls. Brisk walking speed—moderate intensity—is about 3 to 4 miles per hour. The distance you’ll cover at that pace should be about one or two miles in 30 minutes. Another way to calculate moderate intensity: Aim for 3,000 steps in a half-hour—or 100 steps per minute.
In a study published online in 2015 in Circulation, researchers tracked 4,207 people over age 65 for 10 years, periodically surveying them about their physical activities. People who walked one or two blocks a day were significantly less likely to have heart disease or a stroke than those who weren’t that active. Individuals who walked faster or further reaped the most benefits.
Those who walked at a pace of more than 3 mph had half the risk of heart disease and stroke compared with those who walked at a pace of less than 2 mph. Likewise, those who walked 49 or more blocks a week enjoyed half the risk or less compared with those who walked up to five blocks a week.
The benefits didn’t depend on the walker’s age; the study results were similar for people over and under age 75. And previous studies have gotten roughly the same results in people under 65.
Get your feet on the beat
But knowing the health effects may not be enough to get everyone out the door. Many people do better if they have a regular appointment with a walking club.
You can start your own club with a few friends or look around for an existing program. Some park departments, senior centers, universities, and faith-based groups offer peer-led clubs. Walking with friends decreases the risk of becoming lost or hassled and assures you that someone is there to help if you run into difficulty.
At work, perhaps you can have a walking meeting with a small group of colleagues for 20 minutes or more, rather than sitting around a conference table.
If foul weather, vehicle traffic, or fear of crime is keeping you indoors, scout out nearby malls. And for those days when even getting to the mall seems like too much, use a treadmill at home.
Humans not available? If you’ve been thinking about getting a dog, you now have another reason to adopt one. While most dog owners believe they’re doing their four-footed friends a favor, the benefits go both ways, says the Arthritis Foundation.
How to step on it
Once you’ve made the decision to walk, what’s the best way to go about it? Attention to the way you move can help you achieve greater speed or distance with less pain and fatigue. Here are some ways to make the most of your strides:
• Keep your chin lifted, stomach pulled in, and shoulders slightly back and relaxed. Stand up straight.
• Point your toes forward. Your heel should hit the ground first, and your weight should then roll forward on your foot. Let your hands swing freely in a natural rhythm.
• Start at a gentle tempo, gradually warming up. After a few minutes, strike a more purposeful stride. As you wrap up your walk, spend about five minutes at a slower pace to allow your body to cool down.
• At the end of your walk, take advantage of your warm muscles by stretching them. Extend your hamstrings, calves, chest, shoulders, and back. Hold each position for 15 to 30 seconds.
Stretching will give you more flexibility, decreasing the risk of injury in your next brisk walk while also increasing your range of motion for daily activities. You’ll be all set for your next walk.
Learn more about how exercises like walking can benefit your health, including how it helps control diabetes.