If your idea of an effective cardio workout involves long-distance running, high-intensity cycling, or a vigorous aerobics class, you’d be right, but you’d be leaving out a simple, but effective activity.
Brisk walking is a great cardio workout that can be done indoors or outdoors, at any time of day or night, and without the need for a gym membership or a lot of special gear.
All you need for a walking workout is a comfortable, sturdy pair of shoes and the motivation to lace them up and get on your feet.
This article will take a closer look at the benefits of walking as cardio exercise, and how you can boost your fitness and health by putting some pep in your step.
Cardio is short for “cardiovascular,” which means it involves the heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular). Cardio is also used interchangeably with aerobic, which means “with air.”
A good cardio workout gets your heart pumping stronger and faster, moving oxygen-rich blood more efficiently to all the muscles, organs and tissue throughout your body.
You may associate all that blood-pumping action with running and wonder, “Is walking cardio?” The truth is that any activity that gets your heart and lungs, as well as your large muscle groups, working harder can be considered aerobic or cardio exercise. A brisk walk does all those things.
Walking is an excellent type of cardio activity. But in order to challenge your cardiovascular system, you need to walk at a pace and intensity that increases the demands on your heart, lungs, and muscles.
There are many benefits of walking in addition to boosting your cardiovascular fitness. A regular brisk walking routine may help:
- lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
- improve blood flow
- manage high blood pressure
- improve cholesterol levels
- control blood sugar levels
- build stronger muscles and bones
- keep your weight under control
- improve your sleep
- boost your energy levels
- improve brain function
- improve balance and coordination
Brisk walking is considered moderate-intensity exercise, which is defined in simple terms as an activity that allows you to hold a conversation, but is too taxing to allow you to sing. Running, of course, is a much more challenging activity, and is considered a vigorous-intensity workout.
Walking and running both offer many of the same advantages. A study published in an American Heart Association journal reported that walking and running led to similar risk reductions for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.
Keep in mind, however, that you need to walk for a longer period of time to burn as many calories and to achieve some of the other benefits that come from running.
But if you’re not pressed for time, or you’re not looking to enter a 10K race, walking can be a better option, especially if you have joint issues, injuries, or back pain.
Walking puts less stress and strain on your joints and feet than running. A 2016 study found that the impact force of running is significantly higher than walking, whether walking moderately or vigorously. That means there’s a lower risk for joint injuries with walking.
Walking at a brisk or moderate-intensity pace offers many of the same benefits as running. However, you will need to walk for a longer period of time to burn as many calories and to reap some of the same benefits.
Walking may be a better cardio option than running if you have joint issues or injuries.
As mentioned earlier, the easiest way to gauge whether you’re walking fast, but not too fast, is to take the “
- If you can talk fairly comfortably with a bit of breathlessness, you’re probably walking at a moderate-intensity pace.
- If talking out loud is hard to do, you’re probably walking at a vigorous-intensity pace.
- If you can belt out your favorite song with ease, you’re walking at a low intensity. Try to pick up the pace!
Another measure is known as the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion, which gauges how hard you feel your body is working with any given activity.
The scale runs from 6 to 20. A 6 is basically no exertion, like you’re sitting quietly reading a book. A 20 means you feel like you’re working “very, very hard,” like a burst of speed at the end of a race or other effort that you can’t maintain for very long.
To walk at a moderate-intensity pace, try to aim for 13 to 14 on the scale. At this pace, your heart rate and breathing will speed up but you won’t be out of breath. If you want to walk at a more vigorous pace, aim for 15 to 16 on the scale.
If you’re just starting out, try to maintain a brisk walking pace of 3 to 3.5 miles per hour (mph). If you’re already fairly active, aim for a pace of 3.5 to 4.5 mph. And if you are ready to do some racewalking, kick it up above 5 mph.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 minutes or more of vigorous-intensity activity each week for overall health and disease risk reduction.
Based on this guideline, you could do five brisk 30-minute walks a week. If that sounds a bit daunting, then break it down into more manageable chunks of time. For instance you could do:
- three 10-minute walks a day
- two 15-minute walks a day
To get the most benefits from your walking, try to do at least 10 minutes at a time.
To start off you may want to begin by walking on flat terrain. As you build up your endurance and strength, you can start walking up small hills.
Invest in a good pair of shoes
Before you take the first stride of your new walking workout, make sure you have the right walking shoes. Your shoes should be lightweight, but sturdy enough to provide a cushion for both the sole and heel of your foot.
The shoe should provide enough room in the toe box (front of the shoe) for your toes to fit comfortably, but not so much that the shoe moves around with each step.
Wear breathable clothing
Loose-fitting clothing in lightweight, breathable fabrics will help make walking more comfortable. Dry-fit clothes that wick away perspiration can help keep you cool and dry.
Before you set out, warm up for a few minutes to help increase blood flow throughout your body and to get your muscles and joints ready to move. Here are some simple warmup moves:
- Stand on one leg and gently swing the other leg back and forth 10 to 20 times. Then switch legs.
- Do a set of squats by standing with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your core, keep your back straight and lower your hips until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Pause briefly with your knees over, but not beyond, your toes. Exhale and stand back up. Do this 8 to 10 times.
- Standing with your legs about shoulder-width apart and your arms straight out to your sides, make 10 backward circles with your arms and then 10 forward circles.
Stay safe outdoors
If you’re walking outdoors, be sure to use sunscreen and wear sunglasses and a hat. If you’re walking in colder weather, dress in layers that you can peel off as you warm up.
Have enough water to keep you hydrated throughout your walk. You might also want to bring your phone with you in case you need assistance.
Make it fun
Chances are, you’ll be more likely to stick to your walking routine if it’s something you enjoy doing. To up the fun factor, you may want to consider:
- walking with one or two friends or joining a walking group
- walking your dog or volunteering to walk dogs at an animal shelter
- listening to a podcast while walking
- listening to a playlist of your favorite tunes that make you want to move
- using a fitness tracker or app to set goals and challenge yourself
If inclement weather drives your workout indoors, or you just want to binge on a TV show while you get your cardio workout in, a treadmill is just the thing for your walk.
Be sure you know how the treadmill operates before you start using it. Also make sure you know how to stop it and how to change the speed and incline.
Ideally, use a treadmill with side handrails, not just a front handle. This is particularly important if you have any balance issues. Try not to hang on to or lean on the rails. Poor posture or using an unnatural stride may increase your risk of injury.
If you’re looking for a way to boost your cardio fitness, walking is a great workout that you can do any time and any place. The key is to make sure you walk at a pace that challenges your cardiovascular system.
While 150 minutes a week of brisk walking is a good goal to aim for, you can reap even more benefits by increasing the duration, frequency, and intensity of your walks.
And if you want to boost your motivation, consider walking with a friend, listening to some heart-pumping tunes, or setting a daily or weekly goal for yourself with a fitness app.