Chris enjoys writing about a variety of topics including science, health, and fitness.
With the advent of the fitness tracker, more people than ever are taking to counting each and every step that they make. Many users of this wearable technology are often quoted as saying that just by simply putting the device on their wrist, it motivates them to be more active. This is especially the case in a group or team setting where people are in competition with each other to get the most steps. This camaraderie (and the mental focus on walking) can motivate people to take to their feet and get more steps throughout their day.
All this new focus on walking has got me thinking. Is walking really exercise? For a typical American, a common fitness goal is to get 10,000 steps per day. If you work in an office all day it's amazing how challenging getting 10,000 steps can actually be. However, should we be striving more than 10,000 steps a day? It's true that we burn more calories the more active we are but does walking generate the same health benefits as running or going to the gym? In this article we'll explore these questions in an effort to finally setting the debate and determine whether or not walking really is exercise or not.
Walking's Effect on Cardiovascular Health
While research studies do show that there are benefits to walking, those benefits depend on a variety of factors. Walking slowly will simply not have the same effect on the body as walking quickly would. This is because in order to see any benefits to your cardiovascular system, any exercise must increase your heart rate. The good news is that it doesn't take a very significant increase to see health benefits. In fact, even a brisk walk is a enough to increase your heart rate to the low end of your target heart rate zone. This is where you may start seeing small, incremental improvements to your health (Aubrey, 2010).
Of course, heart health can be improved even more if you were to go jogging or running instead walking, however, many beginners find running intimidating. Most people will recommend working your way up to jogging or running over a long period of time by using walking as a starting point. If running or jogging isn't your thing, you may want to give speedwalking a try. People who partake in speedwalking can often see all of the same health benefits that runners while also reducing their risk for knee and joints injuries.
For more information on target heart rate zones, check out this page: https://www.active.com/fitness/calculators/heartrate
The Importance of Speed and Volume
As was alluded to in the previous section, the speed, or rather the amount of effort that you put into walking, is going to be a determining factor in whether you see health benefits or not. Even walking at a moderate 3 miles an hour (a 20 minute mile) can result in improved health, especially for beginners. Increasing your pace to 4 miles per hour (a 15 minute mile) or even 5 miles per hour (a 12:00 minute mile, which can be considered speedwalking), will result in even greater increases in heart rate and thus greater health benefits. This is especially that case if the speed can be sustained for a longer and longer periods of time. Depending on your source, anywhere from 70 to 180 minutes of brisk walking per week is all that's needed for long term health.
When it comes burning calories, speed is not as much of a factor as volume is. To burn more calories you generally need to increase your walking volume by going for a longer distance (and thus getting more steps). This is why calorie centric fitness programs tend to focus on "getting more steps" rather than on "increasing your speed and heart rate." If you only have a certain amount of time to walk then increasing your pace can result in more calories burned due to the increased distance that is covered during that time.
Increases in your walking speed mostly impacts the calories you burn per minute while only moderately impacting the calories burned per mile. This because as speed increases people tend to start transitioning into a jogging or running state which is a more efficient method to traverse long distances quickly resulting in a lower rate of calorie burn. If a walker were to prevent this transition and focus on speedwalking instead, then more calories can be burned both on a per mile and per minute basis. At about 12:30 pace (4.8mph), walking hits a point where it burns about the same calories per mile as running does. Walking faster than a 12:30 pace and you will burn more calories per mile than running at 10:00 pace (6mph), (Burfoot, 2012).
However, any walking regiment that is designed to both burn calories and increase health benefits must be focused on both speed and volume. If you achieve 10,000 steps while crawling at a sloth's pace you won't see the same benefits and health improvements as you would if you raced you're way around the neighborhood at a brisk 4 miles per hour. The point is that both speed and volume are important to achieving successful health outcomes with walking.
Other Health of Benefits of Walking
Aside from calorie burning and improving heart health, walking has a variety of other benefits. First and foremost, walking has been shown to improve mental health. Ever heard some say they went for a walk to "clear their head?" There is some truth to this. Not only does going for a walk reduce stress, according to the Mayo Clinic, it can also help to reduce or mitigate the symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as many other conditions. In studies performed by the American Society for Clinical Oncology, people who walked just 180 minutes per week saw marked reductions in their breast and bowel cancer risk. Walking has also been shown to strengthen your bones and muscles while also improving blood circulation. Of course, some people have been able to lose weight by adding daily walking to their routine. There are so many noted benefits to walking that it could be the subject of another article.
While we have seen that walking is indeed good for us, we still need to answer the question: Is walking Exercise?
Although walking has a myriad of benefits, the idea that it should be considered exercise depends on how walking is employed. According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, the definition of exercise includes "bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness."
In consideration of this definition I would conclude that walking is in fact exercise but only if it is done deliberately for the purposes of improving your health and fitness. Therefore, walking done around the house and office during the course of a normal day is probably not considered exercise since it is neither done for the purposes of maintaining physical fitness. However, "going for a walk" or consciously increasing your pace while you engage in daily routines with the goal of increasing your step count should indeed be considered exercise. In other words, deliberate walking above and beyond what you would achieve on a normal day is exercise.
In either case, this does not negate the potential benefits you will get by walking more throughout your day. Therefore, I encourage all of you to get your step on and walk as much as you can.
References and Resources
Aubrey, Allison. National Public Radio: Your Health. "How Revving Up Your Heart Rate, Even a Bit, Pays Off." February 2010. <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123108679>
Burfoot, Amby. Runner's World. "Running v. Walking: How Many Calories Will You Burn?" May 2012. <https://www.runnersworld.com/peak-performance/running-v-walking-how-many-calories-will-you-burn>
Leggett, Colin. Providr. "8 Things That Happen to Your Body If You Walk Every Day." April 2018. <https://www.providr.com/health-benefits-of-walking>
Parepalo, Maria. Livestrong. "How Much Weight Can You Lose by Walking 30 Minutes a Day?" September 2017. <https://www.livestrong.com/article/386202-how-much-weight-can-you-lose-by-walking-30-minutes-a-day/>
Benefits of Walking
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is aquacise just as effective? Will walking or running in neck-deep water be best because it is low-impact while involving push-back effort?
Answer: Yes, I would argue that aquacise is indeed effective. The water reduces joint impacts, but also adds resistance to movement. If done consistently and with a level of effort that increases your heart rate, exercising within a body of water can have significant health benefits. I don't think anyone exercise is "better" than another; it just depends on what your goals are.
© 2018 Christopher Wanamaker
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on April 19, 2018:
Thanks for the helpful information, CalorieBee. I'm taking notes.