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Walking for Exercise: How to Get the Most Health Benefits?

Walking is the most popular form of exercise among Americans. But to get the full benefits of your daily stroll, you have to pick up the pace. Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, has the lowdown on how fast and how often you need to walk to get real fitness benefits.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
6-minute read
Episode #544
The Quick And Dirty

To optimize your health benefits from walking, pick up your pace and try to maintain at least 15 to 20 minutes per mile for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

Welcome to Get-Fit Guy. I’m your new host, Dr. Jonathan Su. Every week, I’ll share science-backed tips to help you get fit, stay fit, and optimize performance. 

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What do you think is the most popular form of aerobic exercise among adults in the United States? If you guessed walking, you nailed it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of the U.S. population use walking for exercise as part of a physically active lifestyle. And it makes sense. Walking is an easy and enjoyable form of exercise that doesn’t require any special equipment or training. If you’ve got kids like me, you’ll also love the fact that walking is completely free. It won’t cost you a dime to bring the family along.

But what excites me even more about walking as a form of exercise, are the numerous well researched health benefits, such as:

  • increased heart and lung fitness
  • reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer
  • improved management of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes
  • stronger bones and improved balance
  • increased muscle strength and endurance
  • reduced body fat
  • protection against dementia, depression, and even erectile dysfunction

Does that sound too good to be true? Can a leisurely stroll really be enough to receive all the health benefits just mentioned?

Americans have been given a false sense that a stroll through the neighborhood is all that’s needed to stay healthy.

Research on Walking Intensity

According to Dr. Paul Williams, an exercise scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, we, as Americans, have been given a false sense that a stroll through the neighborhood is all that’s needed to stay healthy. His research shows that to get the most health benefits from walking, we need to pick up the pace. Dr. Williams’ study compared the impact of moderate- and light-intensity walking in nearly 39,000 participants spanning a decade. And the results suggest that there are significant health benefits to pursuing a faster pace.

So you might be wondering what exactly is the definition of moderate-intensity walking? How fast do you have to go?

Walking Guidelines

The CDC defines moderate-intensity walking as a pace of 15 to 20 minutes per mile. To get the most health benefits from walking, you should strive to maintain this pace for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week. In case you didn’t know, The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week to improve overall health. And in my opinion, 30 minutes a day, five days a week of brisk walking is the easiest way to meet these guidelines. I just can’t imagine myself going out for a two and half hour walk each week at that pace. Heck, even two 75-minute walks a week at that pace sounds boring.

Now, if you’ve been walking for exercise but you haven’t been meeting the pace or time guidelines, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In one study, only 60% of adults who reported walking as their main form of exercise met these guidelines.

Being a physical therapist and fitness professional working with dozens of clients every week, I can tell you that most of my clients are surprised to discover that they need to pick up the pace. The main reason for this, I believe, is because most people are told simply to walk more by a healthcare or fitness professional without being given the important details about how long and how fast to walk. That’s like being told to bake a cake without being given the exact time and temperature to bake the cake.

To optimize your health benefits from walking, pick up your pace and try to maintain at least 15 to 20 minutes per mile for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

Two Common Concerns

To optimize your health benefits from walking, pick up your pace and try to maintain at least 15 to 20 minutes per mile for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

For some people, this pace may seem more than just challenging. It may seem daunting, and I get questions all the time about what to do if this pace is unmaintainable or unattainable. Let’s start with concerns about the pace being unmaintainable.

This is the case if you’re able to attain the recommended pace but unable to maintain it for 30 minutes.  Not to worry. If it’s too difficult to walk at a 15 to 20 minute a mile pace for 30 minutes straight, do 10 minute bouts three times per day or 15 minutes bouts two times per day and gradually build up to longer sessions as your fitness improves.

In fact, research shows that given the same total time commitment, multiple short bouts of exercise spread throughout the day are just as effective as a single longer bout. Not only that, I find that people are more likely to be consistent with shorter bouts of exercise.

What if the 15 to 20 minute per mile pace is unattainable, even with shorter 10 minute bouts? Again, not to worry. There’s an alternative definition of “moderate-intensity” physical activity that makes better sense if you’re unable to exercise at a higher intensity level. This definition, according to the American College of Sports Medicine is as follows: walking briskly enough that your breathing quickens, your heart rate raises, and you break a sweat, yet you’re still able to carry on a conversation.

What I love about using this way of gauging moderate-intensity exercise, is that your walking pace will naturally pick up as your fitness improves over time. On a side note, moderate intensity activities such as brisk walking pose little health risk but, if you have a health condition, check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.

Walking vs. Running

Let’s briefly talk about the difference between walking and running because let’s face it, walking briskly at 15 minutes per mile may seem like a slow run. What’s the difference?

Fast walking is not simply slow running. The difference between the two is not based on speed. At any speed, walkers have one foot on the ground at all times while runners are entirely airborne during some part of every stride.

Each time a runner’s foot lands, their bodies are subjected to a stress equal to about three times their body weight. That's why running is considered a high-impact activity with a much higher risk of exercise-related injuries. How much higher you ask? Up to 70% for running, compared to 5% for walking. No thanks, I’m in my 40s and if you’re my age or older, you’ve probably noticed that your body doesn't bounce back from injuries like it used to. I’ll take walking over running any day.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to walk as briskly as you can for 30 minutes every morning for the next five days. Keep a daily journal of your experience and at the end of the challenge, share your experience with me on Twitter (@JonathanSuPT).

5-Day Walking Challenge

So what do we do with all this knowledge? I, for one, believe that knowledge isn’t power until it's applied, so I invite you to join me on a 5-day walking challenge. Mark your calendar and set your alarm to wake up 30 minutes earlier than you normally would for the next five days starting tomorrow.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to walk as briskly as you can for 30 minutes every morning for the next 5 days. Keep a daily journal of your experience and at the end of the challenge, share your experience with me on Twitter (@JonathanSuPT).

Don’t worry if you find it too difficult to walk for 30 minutes at one time, do 10 minutes bouts three times per day or 15 minute bouts two times per day and gradually build up to longer sessions.

If you’re up for a real challenge, download a pedometer app on your smartphone and see if you can maintain a pace of 15 minutes per mile or faster for 30 minutes.

By joining me on this 5-day walking challenge, you’ll not only get the most health benefits by picking up your pace, you’ll also start something that’ll potentially transform your life.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is a former U.S. Army officer responsible for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance optimization for soldiers in the field. He is also the author of the bestseller Six-Minute Fitness at 60+.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.