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Why Walking Is the Most Underrated Form of Exercise

by Brianna Steinhilber /
Image: Two people hike through Redwood forestJordan Siemens / Getty Images

You drag yourself from your desk to the gym, where you pop in some upbeat music and jack the treadmill up to 6 mph.

Admit it, while your pounding out those three miles, you’re silently judging (even if subconsciously) the person walking next to you.

What a waste of time. Why even come to the gym if you’re just going to walk?

But experts say we’re unfairly placing the form of exercise in the “pointless” category. It turns out, you may be missing out on an extremely effective physical activity, not to mention a mental boost, by writing off walking entirely.

“Walking can be as good as a workout, if not better, than running,” says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, CSCS, a sports Chiropractor and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in Phoenix, Arizona who works with elite athletes. “You hear of people 'plateauing' when they continue to do the same workout routine and stop seeing results. I see patients all the time that plateau from running, they will run the same distance, speed and time, day in and day out. You need to constantly be switching up your exercise routine in order to get the maximum benefit for your health.”

Yes, running is more physically demanding, which leads people to label it a “better” workout.

“While I would love to say that walking can be just as effective of a workout as running, I’m not going to lie to you. In fairness, the two really shouldn’t be compared against each other,” says John Ford, certified exercise physiologist, who runs JKF Fitness & Health in New York City. “Running, due to larger muscle recruitment, greater forces exerted and faster motion capability, will always have the proverbial leg up on walking."

But while walking may not be a better workout, it may be a better exercise choice for some people.

“With that being said, walking is a really good form of exercise and can help you reach your fitness and weight-loss goals. As a lifelong track athlete, who has marveled at race walkers (check out the Olympic walkers on YouTube!), I don’t scoff at walking,” says Ford. “In fact, walking is the suggested workout over running for many people. For example, those with knee, ankle and back problems and also for people who are overweight to obese. Walking is a lower impact exercise and can be done for longer periods of time.”

And there is no shortage of scientific research to back up the effectiveness of adding walking to your fitness routine.

 Experts say you can get just as good of a workout walking on a treadmill as you can running — It's all about how you adjust the settings. Yuri_Arcurs / Getty Images

The Physical Benefits of Walking

“There are many reasons to walk for exercise,” says Ann Green, M.S., past heptathlon world athlete, yoga teacher and fitness studio owner. “Walking improves fitness, cardiac health, alleviates depression and fatigue, improves mood, creates less stress on joints and reduces pain, can prevent weight gain, reduce risk for cancer and chronic disease, improve endurance, circulation, and posture, and the list goes on…”

When comparing the results of the most recent National Runners’ Health Study with the National Walkers’ Health Study, researchers found that the energy used for moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease over the study’s six year period.

Which means when it comes to some pretty prominent markers of our health, walking at a moderate intensity can get the job done just as well as running, as long as you’re expending the same amount of energy. Great news for those of us that dread going on a jog.

Past studies have supported this notion, finding that a daily walk can reduce the risk of stroke in both men and women, reduce the days spent in a hospital each year and can even lower your risk of death by up to 39 percent (when compared with no leisure-time physical activity).

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who adhered to a walking program showed significant improvements in blood pressure, slowing of resting heart rate, reduction of body fat and body weight, reduced cholesterol, improved depression scores with better quality of life and increased measures of endurance.

The Mental Benefits of Walking

While the physical benefits are notable, the mental boost that can be gleaned from adding a walk to your daily routine may be more immediate.

One Stanford University study found that walking increased creative output by an average of 60 percent. Researchers labelled this type of creativity “divergent thinking,” which they define as a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. According to the study, “walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

Psychologists found that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout when it comes to relieving the symptoms of anxiety.

Which makes sense, since science shows that engaging in activities that allow our minds to wander promotes a mental state conducive to innovative ideas and “ah-ha!” moments.

But it’s not only your creativity that will benefit from the mental lift. The act of walking is also a proven mood booster. One study found that just 12 minutes of walking resulted in an increase in joviality, vigor, attentiveness and self-confidence versus the same time spent sitting. Walking in nature, specifically, was found to reduce ruminating over negative experiences, which increases activity in the brain associated with negative emotions and raises risk of depression.

Walking has also been shown to improve memory and prevent the deterioration of brain tissue as we age. Plus, psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression also suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout when it comes to relieving the symptoms of anxiety and boosting mood.

Starting to think your neighbor who walks around the block every morning is on to something?

How to get the most out of your walking workout

You can’t set the treadmill at 3.5 and zone out for an hour and expect to see major results.

The power of an effective walking workout lies in your hands — literally. All of those buttons on the treadmill are there for a reason, and it’s time you start hitting a few of them.

“You can get just as good of a workout walking on a treadmill as you can running on one. It's all about how you adjust the settings,” says Chrys Crockett, certified personal trainer at VIBE5 Fitness.

"By adding some variables into the mix you can turn a simple walk into a fun, fast interval session, burning a high level of calories, and in turn, crushing your fat cells,” adds Rob McGillivray, Founder of RETROFIT in West Hollywood. “Essentially we burn the most calories by repeatedly raising and lowering the heart rate, as opposed to keeping the heart rate at one steady pace, whether that be high or low. So, if you were to compare the heart rate fluctuations of someone walking up a mixture of steep hills and then add in variations of walking speeds, styles of walking (such as lunging, striding, side cross overs, etc.) to that of someone primarily running at a medium pace on a level gradient, you could see greater all round results on both your body's caloric burn and a greater degree of lower limb muscle groups being targeted. It is also said that hill walking, as opposed to running on a level gradient, can enable you to burn more fat without attacking lean muscle tissue.”

The variables that McGillivray suggests you play with include: levels of incline, walking styles, speed, weights (ankle weights and/or hand held weights to work the upper body while on the move) and music choices to help encourage a variation in speed.

Here are the specifics on how to use some of these variables to kick your walking workout up a notch.

  Giphy.com

Utilize the Incline Feature: “Treadmills have a variety of uses and one of them that many people don't take advantage of is the incline feature. Walking or running on a treadmill is meant to simulate how you walk or run outside. The incline feature turns what could be compared to walking or running on a sidewalk, into a motion more similar to walking up a mountain,” says Crockett. “Adjusting the incline on a treadmill has several benefits. Your workout intensifies because you're placing more demand on the body to keep up with the machine. The higher you set the incline, the more energy your body is forced to use to help activate your glutes, quadriceps and calves, all of which have to put in overtime when the incline is increased. This increase of energy burns more calories and depending on your weight and cardiovascular endurance can also burn more fat.”

Plus, it can be a better option for those with injuries or pain. “Adding an incline is a great way to increase the challenge for your cardiovascular system and get the same kind of benefits that you can get from jogging or running without the same amount of wear and tear on your knees,” says Tyler Spraul, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the Head Trainer at Exercise.com.

Crockett does make one caveat: “One common mistake people make is setting the machine to a pace that requires you to hold on,” he says. “When adjusting the incline or speed, make sure it is set at a pace that you can safely walk or run on without hanging on for dear life. This takes away from the muscle engagement and energy required to actually walk or run at the level you set it to.”

Try Intervals: “A quick way to get the most out of your workout on the treadmill whether walking or running is to challenge your body with interval training," says Crockett. “You can build up your strength and cardio endurance by using short intervals to maximize your time.”

Related

So where do you start? “The right place to start with walking intervals will depend on your current fitness level, but here's a treadmill interval template to test out and see what adjustments you need to make,” says Spraul. “Start by walking for 5 minutes at a comfortable speed with no incline to get warmed up. Once you're done there, increase the incline to 5 percent for 3 minutes (no need to increase the speed when you're first starting out). After those 3 minutes are up, return to 0 incline for 1 minute of rest, while keeping the same speed. Repeat this for 3-5 rounds, depending on how you're feeling. Then you can adjust as needed: To add difficulty, you can increase the ‘work’ time that you spend on the incline, decrease the time you spend ‘resting’ at 0 incline or increase the pace of each phase. Find what works for you, and slowly increase your difficulty over time to keep making progress!”

Dr. Tannenberg offers another tip for incorporating intervals into your workout: “Create a new playlist with upbeat songs followed by slower songs. Alternate the songs on your playlist. When you are walking and hear a faster song, you increase your pace. When the slower song comes on, you slow down the pace a bit. This is an easy way to make your normal morning walk an interval workout.”

Add Weights: Another way to add intensity to a walking routine: use weights. “Whether you're on the treadmill or you hop off on your ‘rest interval,’ you can add weight to keep your heart rate up and add some strength training into the mix,” says Crockett. “While you're walking on an incline, adding some dumbbell shoulder presses or dumbbell jabs can help you tone your arms and burn even more calories. [Or] hop off the treadmill after your fast interval and try some quick high repetition exercises, such as dumbbell squats, squat to press, weighted jumping jacks or weighted sit ups.”

“Carrying extra weight will increase the intensity and your calories burned without requiring a lot of extra effort, depending on the weight you use,” adds Spraul. "You can hold dumbbells in your hands or put some heavy books in a backpack — whatever works for you! It doesn't have to be complicated. Just make sure that the added weight is not throwing you off balance.”

Ready to give it a try? Here is a 30-minute treadmill workout to have in your back pocket next time you're at the gym (absolutely no running required!).

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