Simple as it may be, incorporating walking into an exercise routine can still lead to questions: Does every speed of walking count as exercise? How much should I walk each day? Do I need to do any other types of exercise, or is walking enough?
Basen-Engquist addresses these questions and shares tips for adding more walking into your routine.
Does walking count as exercise?
Yes, walking counts as exercise – and a very versatile form of exercise, at that! Basen-Engquist says walking can be light, moderate or vigorous exercise, depending on factors such as fitness level, incline and speed.
A walk that is considered light exercise gets the body moving but doesn't leave you feeling out of breath or with a much higher heart rate. An example may be a leisurely neighborhood stroll on mostly flat ground.
A brisk walk is usually considered moderate intensity exercise, Basen-Engquist says. “It’s like you're walking with the intention of getting somewhere in time.”
Walking uphill, race walking or climbing stairs may be considered vigorous exercise.
Basen-Engquist likes to use what she calls the Talk But Can’t Sing Rule to define moderate intensity exercise. “You're working hard enough that you’re breathing a bit faster; you can still talk, but you can’t sing,” she says.
By contrast, vigorous exercise will make it hard to get out more than a few words at a time, let alone sing. “You’re not going to talk in full paragraphs or multiple sentences, but you can still converse," Basen-Engquist says.
What are the health benefits of walking?
Walking is good for your health because it gets the body moving.
Basen-Engquist says exercise such as walking can reduce the risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Exercise can also lower blood pressure and the risk of disability, benefit the respiratory system and help maintain function in the lower body.
But even slower-paced walks have health benefits.
"There are studies emerging showing that reducing sedentary behavior — so sitting less and walking around more, even if it's light activity — can also help reduce some disease risk,” Basen-Engquist says.
Walking can also aid in weight loss, although Basen-Engquist notes diet plays an equally important role in the process.
“Any activity that burns additional calories is good for weight loss,” she says. “But you generally have to change the way you eat in order to lose weight. It's very difficult to lose weight through exercise alone.”
Walking is a safe exercise option for cancer patients. While Basen-Engquist notes that some patients may struggle with treatment side effects that impact how they work out, many patients can take walks “even if they're not feeling in their tip top shape."
How much should I walk?
Many of us are familiar with the recommendation to get 10,000 steps a day. Although Basen-Engquist doesn’t think there is anything magical about that number, she agrees it is good guidance.
"I think that originally it was just a nice round number and it's probably more than the average American does. It’s a convenient way to think about it and to set some goals,” she says.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans say that each week adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise. The guidelines also recommend performing strength building exercises that target the major muscle groups at least two days per week.
“Walking will help you some with lower body strength, but it doesn't really do much for your upper body strength,” Basen-Engquist says. "As we age in particular, strength and muscle mass tend to decline, so it's important to try to do some strength building activities as well."
What are easy ways to walk more?
150, 75, 10,000... all these numbers and recommendations can seem like a lot. If you are feeling overwhelmed, start small.
A step counter can be helpful in tracking progress. Basen-Engquist recommends increasing your step count by 10% each week until hitting 10,000 steps or more.
Looking for ways to add more walking to your day? Basen-Engquist suggests adding brisk 5-to 15-minute walks throughout the day, whether that be a lap around the neighborhood with your dog at lunchtime or walking around inside your home.
Other easy ways to increase your step count include opting for the stairs instead of the elevator and choosing a parking spot a bit further from your destination.
If boredom is a barrier to your walking routine, Basen-Engquist suggests bringing a friend or listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks (while being mindful of your surroundings, of course!). If you’re walking on a treadmill, you might even watch TV or a movie.
A change of scenery can also go a long way toward making a walk more enjoyable. Basen-Engquist suggests exploring a park or botanical garden.
“Walking in a beautiful, enjoyable place and enjoying nature is also another way to make it more fun to walk,” she says.