Does Walking Count as a Workout in a Fitness Journey?

Auriane Alix
Yes, but under these conditions.
Image by iqbal nuril anwar on Pixabay

I love walking. On my first solo trip to Hong Kong, the number of steps I took daily averaged 30,000. Needless to say, I woke up sore! I made up for the effort by eating absolutely everything I wanted: the gastronomic scene in this city is pretty crazy!

When I came back from those 10 days, I had lost weight.

Earlier today, while I was in the shower after my daily workout, I wondered: does walking count as a sport? Can a walk of say, 10,000 steps have the same benefits as a “regular” workout in a fitness journey?

That’s what I investigated today. The answer, as always, is neither black nor white. Let’s take a closer look.

If your goal is weight loss

Running often seems a more logical option than walking when it comes to weight loss. It’s one of the easiest forms of exercise in terms of logistics: all you have to do is buy good running shoes, lace them up and walk out the door. I was convinced that I hated running until I gave it another try. Now I go out for a jog 2 or 3 times a week for 30–40 minutes and absolutely love it. But sometimes I don’t feel like it. I need something softer.

So is there such a big difference between the benefits of walking and running? The answer is: it depends on the benefits we’re talking about. And your goals.

“In fairness, the two really shouldn’t be compared against each other. Running, due to larger muscle recruitment, greater forces exerted and faster motion capability, will always have the proverbial leg up on walking,” explains John Ford, certified exercise physiologist, to NBC News.

A 6-year large-scale study took a look at the weight loss aspect. 47,000 persons, half runners, half walkers, participated in the study by completing a questionnaire at the beginning of the program and another one 6 years later. In short, running was more effective for weight loss than walking.

It’s mainly about calories burned. Running at a rate of 12 minutes per kilometer burns about 300 calories in 30 minutes for a 155-pound person (70 kg). Walking burns half that: 149 calories. On the other hand, the effort of walking can often be maintained much longer than that of running.

The Benefits of walking

“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” — NBC News.

Physical benefits

Benefits of walking include reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improved blood circulation and cholesterol levels, better control of blood sugar levels, weight control, better sleep and energy during the day, improved brain function, balance and coordination, and stronger muscles and bones. (Source: Healthline)

Compared to the benefits of running, the two are equivalent but for very different durations and intensities. To enjoy almost equivalent benefits, the walker must exercise for much longer than the runner.

Mental benefits

Even a short 10-minute walk has been proven by psychologists to be as effective in relieving anxiety and stimulating mood as a 45-minute workout. It’s a quick and effective way to get out of your head and back into your body.

I couldn’t agree more. Whenever I feel moody, weak, or lethargic, a little exercise is always beneficial. Most of the time I jump into a run or a workout, but sometimes I just want to walk, and the mix of movement and fresh air makes my mind clearer and peaceful: I can think again.

Walking is also good for creativity. A Stanford University study found that walking increased creative output by about 60%.

Guidelines for maximizing benefits

All these benefits depend on the intensity of the exercise, its duration, and your physical condition. If your goal is to improve your health, well-being, and weight control through walking, here are some guidelines.

20-40 minutes a day depending on your goal

If your goal is to maintain your weight and provide your body with enough exercise, experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. That’s about 20 minutes a day. For long-term weight loss, they recommend 200–300 minutes per week or 30–40 minutes per day.

You will notice the term “moderate physical activity”. This term is defined by VeryWellFit as some exercise that works your heart rate at 65% to 75% of its maximum. If you do not have a heart rate monitor, you can use the talk test to find out.

The talk test

The National Library of Medicine has found that there is a simple way to gauge your heart rate. Healthline explains:

“ — 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.”

It’s a simple way to gauge the level of your physical activity, so you know when to increase or decrease your pace to reap the maximum benefits from your session.

“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,” explains Rob McGillivray, Founder of RETROFIT, to NBC News.

The variations offered by a treadmill can therefore be very useful. If you’re out in nature, try varying the pace and climbing a few hills, so that your leisurely stroll turns into a real workout.

What about the sacrosanct 10,000 steps a day?

Walking 10,000 steps a day is considered as the ultimate goal. A belief reinforced, among others, by smartwatches: mine claps and congratulates me in vibrations every time I reach the count.

It’s a myth.

Walking 10,000 steps a day will definitely do your body good. But a little less is fine too. There is no substantial evidence that this target will contribute to your health. In fact, this figure was taken from a Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer in the 1960s. It was called a “manpo-meter”, “manpo” being translated as “10,000 steps”.

The takeaway

Walking is an excellent activity in itself. But to reap the maximum benefits, you need to pick a pace and intensity that increases your heart rate and warms up your muscles a little. To find out, use the talk test. Walking at a moderate intensity can provide almost the same benefits as running as long as your session is much longer.

For sedentary or overweight persons, who may struggle to get intense sessions done, walking can be a great start. Same if you have joint problems or injuries. It’s a great way to bring cardio and exercise into your life.

Walking is very useful when it is part of a general fitness program that includes a variety of sports. As Dr. Matt Tanneberg explains, “You need to constantly change your exercise program to get the most out of it.”

I like to alternate between running, weight training, stationary cycling and even surfing when the waves are good. But sometimes I just want to take a 1h30 to 3 hours long walk, and that’s fine. As LiveStrong explains: “Alternating days of running with days of walking can help recovery by increasing circulation in the legs while giving the joints a rest.”

So put on your shoes and go get some fresh air!

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