Is Walking Good Exercise? Fitness Pros Explain Why It’s an Ideal Workout

Walking is often an underrated form of exercise—but fitness and physiology experts say every type of exerciser can benefit from adding more walks to their daily routine.

Is walking good exercise?

For exercise to really count, it has to be hard or complicated, or leave you totally wiped out with muscle pain for days—right? Not at all! While high-intensity activity certainly has its place, so does the most basic, accessible form of exercise: walking. And during the pandemic, it’s become an even more vital physical activity for many people. (Learn more about walking for exercise.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), walking is the most popular form of aerobic exercise among adults in the United States. The most recent stats show that more than 145 million adults include walking as part of a physically active lifestyle. People walk for transportation and for fun, relaxation, or exercise, or for other reasons. It makes sense.

“Everybody knows how to do it already, so there’s no learning curve,” says Michele Stanten, certified fitness instructor and author of Walk off Weight and coauthor of The Walking Solution. “When you believe in your ability to do [an exercise], you’re more likely to stick with it,” she adds. “That’s why so many people walk for exercise. It’s easy to do, and you can do it anywhere. You just need just a good supportive pair of shoes.” (These are the walking shoes podiatrists recommend.)

There are also endless ways to walk. Walking your dog, hiking, sight-seeing, power-walking, treadmill striding, and mall walking are all legit ways to get some steps in.

Walking is great for all exercise levels

One of the biggest reasons walking is so popular is because it’s a low-impact exercise, meaning it doesn’t put nearly as much pressure on the joints as running or any sort of jumping or hopping movement. The risk of injury is relatively low, says Lauryn Mohr, personal trainer and metabolic specialist at Life Time Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.

Starting is easy

For people just getting started with fitness, walking is a wonderful form of cardio or aerobic exercise, Mohr says. “You don’t need any prior or special knowledge or training to start.”

Just get up and walk, and you’ll get your heart and lungs working. Unlike other forms of cardio—like running, biking, dance workouts, or boxing—walking isn’t intimidating and it doesn’t require lessons or special equipment.

Not just for beginners

Walking can be great for advanced athletes—even those who may think it isn’t challenging enough, Mohr says. “Walking is very, very underrated.”

For people who already have a higher level of cardiovascular fitness, walking is a stellar activity for recovery. It’s a gentle way to get the blood flowing and circulate oxygen and nutrients to hard-worked muscles, Mohr explains.

Excellent for recovery

“Enhanced blood flow is going to improve recovery and help ease muscle soreness,” she says. “[Walking is] not going to completely eliminate it, but it can help reduce it and accelerate the muscle repair process.” Walking can also help the body flush out waste products—chemicals that are released in the body when our cells create and use energy to power through a tough workout—which may further boost recovery, says Mohr.

Latoya Julce, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, agrees. “I recommend my clients to train with weight and cardio five times a week with two recovery days,” Julce says. “On the recovery days, I recommend walking or chill yoga. The body changes on the rest days, and I’m a true believer walking . . . is necessary for the body to repair.”

A small 2018 study from the American Council on Exercise and Western State Colorado University found that moderate-intensity activity can help athletes maintain endurance performance and power output compared to simply resting or doing active recovery at a vigorous intensity. “A lot of people don’t view walking as exercise, and it tends to be those folks that probably need it the most,” Mohr says.

Julce, who works full-time as a registered nurse, adds that walking can be a safe workout not only for physical fitness recovery, but also for an individual who’s getting over an illness or medical procedure. “Walking is great for individuals who have been sedentary or [had] injuries,” she says.

Even a slow stroll has major benefits

Walking is a go-to cardiovascular exercise for some good reasons. “Walking can improve your circulation and aerobic fitness, control blood pressure, improve blood sugars, as well as decrease stress,” says Ivan Sulapas, MD, primary care sports medicine physician and assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

And you don’t need to walk at a particularly rushed pace to reap the benefits. “Any movement will have benefits, even a casual stroll,” says Dr. Sulapas. “Our bodies are not meant to sit around all day—they are meant to move.”

Just because a simple stroll around the block doesn’t make you breathe heavily or sweat buckets doesn’t mean it isn’t doing something good for your body. Your heart and lungs and brain will all be better off with any sort of activity, even if it’s low-key. “It’s so important that people find a good relationship with walking because for a lot of people, it may be their small opportunity for movement,” says Mohr.

Walking is also a good exercise for practicing social distance, Dr. Sulapas says.

Senior couple power walking in a park.gilaxia/Getty Images

Walking as a practice that’s good for mental health

It’s probably no coincidence that walking has grown so wildly popular at the same time the pandemic has led more Americans to prioritize mental health. “Walking is a form of mental health therapy for many people,” Julce says.

But why this workout? Julce calls walking a type of “less strenuous exercise” that can help level out the cortisol, known as the stress hormone, in your system.

Katie Bressack, a board-certified holistic nutritionist and yoga instructor in Los Angeles reveals one reason lockdown periods during the pandemic may have contributed to higher rates of stress, depression, and anxiety: “The more we sit, the more we feel low-energy in general,” she says. Bressack shares how walking every day works for her own peace of mind. “I love walking,” Bressack says. “It’s one of the main things that I do on a daily basis to help manage my stress.”

Adding to Julce’s point about cortisol, Bressack notes, “The cool thing is that studies have found stress hormones are greatly reduced just after a 20-minute walk.” She says just that much activity “helps me feel calmer, more positive. I also find it’s a form of meditation when I’m overwhelmed, when I have a lot going on.”

Bressack goes so far to point out that research has shown walking and yoga show similarities in how they both calm the body and mind. “Both yoga and walking are meditative movements that connect our body with our mind and breath,” she says. For that reason as well, Bressack says science suggests both work to help reduce our cortisol levels.

Plus, even for the coziest homebody, Bressack says stepping out for some fresh air and a change of scenery usually takes minimal effort, but delivers major benefit. “That sunlight and vitamin D can make all the difference,” she says. “You don’t have to schedule a class, you don’t need any equipment. You just put on some shoes and get out to see some nature. It really lifts your spirits.” (Learn more about the health benefits of nature.)

How to start walking for fitness

Experts recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. This can be broken down into small, doable spurts of activity; in fact, it should be, if you’re just starting out. If you want to use walking as your aerobic activity of choice, here’s how to get the most out of it.

Check with your doctor before starting

This is especially important if you have any medical or orthopedic conditions that may limit your walking ability, says Dr. Sulapas. For example, walking is a great exercise to help patients with high blood pressure or diabetes, but make sure your doctor knows the activities you’re doing and can advise you accordingly.

“If someone has an ongoing hip, knee, ankle, or foot issue that may limit their walking ability, I recommend seeing a sports medicine doctor to see what safe exercises they can do,” he adds. “A sports medicine doctor can provide an appropriate exercise prescription so they can start their fitness journey while minimizing risk of injury.”

Get a comfy pair of shoes

Bressack says one reason walking can be so accessible is because the only equipment many people need is a solid pair of sneakers. (Here are some walking shoes podiatrists are fans of.) Make sure they fit properly and support your feet, and avoid these shoe mistakes that may be giving you foot pain.

Finding a safe route is important, says Stanten. “You need to be careful depending on the area you’re walking in, and always be conscious of your surroundings.”

Bressack says she sometimes likes to leave her phone at home—but, as the mom of two toddlers, she also recognizes that’s a rare luxury for most walkers. Catching up on a great podcast or book on Audible can be therapeutic listens, as well.

Stanten points out that whatever you listen to, it’s most important to be tuned in to your surroundings. Don’t crank up your playlist so loudly that you can’t hear cars, bikers, or pedestrians around you. Also, be sure to wear reflective clothing if you’re walking early in the morning or at night, when it’s dark out. (Here are great options for reflective clothing for running and walking.)

Start slow and progress slowly

“Starting slow is a great idea, as you can gauge the level of fitness you are currently at,” says Dr. Sulapas. “If you can only walk for a certain number of minutes or just around the block, then you have your baseline.”

Even if it’s just five or 10 minutes at a time, that’s great. From there, you can gradually pick up the pace.

“As your fitness level improves, you will start to notice that you can walk faster at a set distance in a shorter amount of time, or build the endurance to walk longer than the previous times,” he says. Dr. Sulapas recommends noting how much you can do in a week; then increase the distance or time by about 10 percent the next week.

Make it a habit

To reap the benefits of walking, Mohr recommends making it a healthy habit.

“I like to build on something most people are already doing and then attach a new habit to it,” she says. “For most beginners, I recommend walking after a meal. You’re already in the habit of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So start with walking for 10 minutes after every meal.”

At the end of the day, you’ll have accumulated 30 minutes of walking. If that doesn’t fit with your schedule, start doing it after just one meal, and then either extend the length or add in more walks throughout the day over time.

Pick up the pace when you want

Walking doesn’t have to be intense, but if you want to challenge yourself a little more and get your heart rate higher, it’s easy to do. Try adding some high-intensity intervals into your walk, says Stanten. Push yourself at a fast pace for 30 seconds, and then go back to your normal comfortable pace for a few minutes. (Find out what’s your walking IQ.)

Over time, try walking at that faster pace for longer, or adding more quick intervals more often. Instead of thinking about time, you can use landmarks or music to guide your intervals, Stanten says.

“Walk fast to that next tree or the next house. Pick a faster-paced song and walk to that beat, and then use a slower-paced song and walk to that beat,” she suggests. That will allow you to push a bit and then have some time to recover before pushing again.

Remember to warm up

“Warming up the muscles is always a good idea before an exercise,” says Dr. Sulapas.

Walking is already a form of warming up, so there are a few options here. You can simply start extra slowly, giving your body five minutes or so to wake up and get blood flowing to all the muscles that need it, says Stanten. Then pick up the pace as you see fit.

You can also do some warm-up exercises at home before you take your first step.

“I usually recommend doing some upper body shoulder rolls, swinging your legs in place, rolling your foot from heel to toe back and forth, body squats, and rotating your torso left and right,” Dr. Sulapas says. “This helps warm up the muscles and get the circulation going before you walk.”

(Here’s what to do if walking causes lower back pain.)

And stretch afterward if you can

Dr. Sulapas often recommends stretching the lower-body muscles—quads, hamstrings, calves—after a walk. (Here’s what your walking style says about your health.)

“Stretching after walking helps improve the circulation so your muscles can heal, as well as decreases the soreness and stiffness that can happen after a workout,” Dr. Sulapas says. “Typically, I recommend holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds to get its maximum effect.” (Also, try these morning stretches for energy.)

While it’s always good to do some stretches after a walk when you can, it’s not totally mandatory every time, says Stanten. If some days you only have time for a quick walk and nothing else, that’s fine. Your body and mind will definitely be better for it.

Does walking change your body shape?

Like all of these experts, Julce says walking in and of itself is a good workout. This trainer adds that if you like the way walking is making you more fit or you want to increase the impact, you can maximize the effect of your walks by making them one component of a comprehensive workout plan. “Walking won’t necessarily tone you unless you are adding resistance,” she explains, quickly adding: “But, I definitely give walking two thumbs up.”

Next, learn how easy it is to walk more steps per day.

Sources

Amy Marturana Winderl
Amy is a freelance journalist and certified personal trainer. She covers health and fitness, outdoors, travel, and finance. Her work has appeared on SELF, Bicycling, Earnest, and other publications. When she's not busy writing or editing, you can find her hiking, cooking, running, or lounging on the couch watching the latest true crime show on Netflix.
Kristine Gasbarre
Krissy is the senior editor leading content for TheHealthy.com and “The Healthy” section of Reader’s Digest magazine. For two decades she has worked in digital media, books, and magazines and is a #1 New York Times and internationally bestselling ghostwriter. Her work has been featured in Reader’s Digest, People, the New York Times, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Sirius/XM Oprah Radio, and more. With degrees in psychology and cultural media studies, she assisted with a clinical research project at the Cleveland Clinic and is a certified group fitness instructor, the owner of two irresistible rescued dogs, and the partner of a physician leader in healthcare quality who is also a stage IV lymphoma survivor.