This guide looks at all aspects of walking for fitness covering some unusual and entertaining areas of walking. We demonstrate the benefits of walking and what you need to know to get the best out of walking as an exercise.
With all that’s happening these days, we are only too aware of how immersing ourselves in the countryside can be good for our welfare and walking is a great form of exercise to enable that.
We hope you’ll be encouraged to explore the wonderful and healthy world of walking.
What are the Benefits of Walking?
How smart was the classical Greek physician Hippocrates when he said 2500 years ago “Walking is man’s best medicine”.
Walking is the easiest form of exercise to maintain fitness and yet it is often maligned. Because it is uncomplicated and accessible, the benefits of walking are not always appreciated. It is runnings’ dimmer cousin and yet walking shines when providing health benefits.
According to the Office of the Surgeon General two-thirds of American adults and a 3rd of children are overweight or obese. “The sobering impact of these numbers is reflected in the nation’s concurrent epidemics of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.”
The latest research-based evidence by The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion via the 2nd edition of The Physical Activity Guidelines For Americans says that walking regularly at a brisk pace 5 days a week for just 30 minutes can have immediate as well as long term health benefits.
This is without considering the calories consumed. Naturally, a balanced nutritional diet is recommended which adds to the health and fitness benefits. For adults, regular physical activity such as walking can…
- Help prevent 8 types of cancer – bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach, and lung
- Reduce the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
- Help prevent heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes
- Improve mental health such as depression, stress, and anxiety
- Aid better quality sleep
- Improve bone health reducing the bone loss caused by osteoporosis
- Aid in physical function, coordination, and stability especially in older people
- Help in the quality of life overall – improving well-being
- Help maintain a healthy weight
- Improve the participant’s sex life – most important
I’m not sure if the last point is based on any research but I thought I would put it in there – it must be true, right?
How to Start a Walking For Fitness Regime
Before you start walking
First of all, if you have any doubts about your health, speak with your medical professional for the green light and follow any advice.
Initially, only plan to go as far as you feel comfortable and choose your route with regard to terrain and surface condition.
If you’re not sure of your potential, don’t be too ambitious and do a circular walk to cut back to base if necessary.
Invest in comfortable walking shoes that provide heel and arch support and soles that flex. Good quality walking or hiking shoes will do the trick as will running shoes that are designed with a low heel which is better for walking than the thick cushioning ones.
Choose suitable clothes for the weather conditions. Know that it may be a little chilly to start but after 20 minutes of brisk walking you may be too warm so layered clothing is a good way to go.
The magic 10,000 steps
Tracking devices and apps often put 10,000 steps as the benchmark to achieve each day. That equates to about 1 mile per 2000 steps so 5 miles in total.
This can be deceptive depending on factors like length of stride, what constitutes a step etc. So pottering about the house can see you add 3000 steps to your total but is not necessarily providing a proper aerobic exercise workout.
It’s fine to make a goal of a certain number of steps a day via Fitbit for instance, but make that a log entry along with your scheduled walking program.
How to walk properly
It may seem an unnecessary question to answer, we all know how to walk right? But bad posture whilst walking can lead to joint pain and aches from your head to the ankles. Here are some tips to get your walking posture correct.
- Standing straight and balanced, toes pointing forward, pull yourself up from your stomach muscles.
- Tuck in your buttocks without arching your back.
- Look well in front with your chin parallel to the floor.
- Shoulders should be relaxed and slightly back neither hunched nor stiffly upright.
- When walking the tension and slight hip movement of one leg should be the driver of the opposite one.
- Arms swing naturally with a small bend at the elbow. The arms aren’t the driving force but allow the natural flow for the hips and legs.
Walk comfortably with a smooth action as your foot naturally rolls from heel to toe. For most walkers, this normally results in pronation. That is where roll occurs across the outside of the foot. There is a more full explanation of pronation and supination.
America go walking for fitness
You’re all kitted up, you’ve got proper shoes, that have been worn in, you know where you’re going and you’ve got a bottle (reusable) of water.
You’re about to hit the timer on your cell phone app, but wait, there is the little matter of a warm-up. 5 minutes should be enough, to begin with.
For the walking warm-up, walk on the spot with high knee lifts and swing the arms, then stop and gently stretch all the major muscle groups especially those of the legs.
Repeat this exercise when you return as your cool down.
Start the walk at a gentle speed for the first 5 minutes and do the same when you are coming to the end of the walk.
Walking as a Way of Life
As we know regular physical activity is good for our health and well-being in so many ways. Walking is a simple but effective physical activity so it follows that walking as a way of life is great.
But why do we do anything regularly? Because we enjoy it (or because we have to).
“You’ll never walk alone”
Walking is enjoyable – I love it – but imagine going out at the same time, on the same route, on a miserable day, alone.
If you’re not one to muse alone amongst nature then encourage your neighbors, friends or family to join you and not only do you get the companionship but you can share your weight loss statistics or compare walking speed and distance over the previous week.
There are also walking groups and other organized walking activities such as mall walking which is an environment that many senior groups are enjoying because of the amenities, the consistency of the temperature, safety and for the social aspect. Check to see if there is something you fancy in your area.
Vary your route
If you’re able to plan different courses to walk with varying terrains. At least one day a week plan a route the night before that you can drive to, one which may be an established walking path in the natural environment.
Some of these walkways may be measured as well so you can log it easily.
Tracking your progress
Talking of logging distances it will help your peace of mind if you could see how you were improving. So keep a log of not only the distances you walked but the time it took, type of terrain, weather, weight, how you felt and any other notes.
You will be glad you kept a walking diary I’m sure. I’m not much of a diary writer but I kept a running diary for the 10 years I was running marathons and I can look back even now and feel the pleasure it bought me.
Keeping a log also keeps you honest. It’s quite deflating to see empty blocks which should be filled with stuff and alternatively, it makes you feel great when you can see how recently everything is improving.
Don’t stress over lapses
After saying that don’t worry if you find yourself missing daily walks. We all have off days but always remember how good you feel when you complete your daily walk even if it’s pouring with rain. Just get back out there and get on track, maybe do a little extra.
Short term and long term walking for fitness goals
On reading about physical activity and setting goals the perceived wisdom always seems to be, do set goals but make them realistic. I believe your long term goals can be as “out there” as you want.
However to achieve a goal like ‘hitting a weight target that I haven’t been since 16 years old’ you have to make smaller short-term goals.
When you’re on a long hiking trail and you’re getting really tired, pick out a landmark, an unusual tree or building and that’s your aim. Goal achieved, set the next, the base of that hill. And goal by short goal you get to the finish.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommends the appropriate level for healthy adults aged 18 to 65 years of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity is a minimum of 30 min 5 days a week or vigorous 20 minutes of intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 20 minutes on 3 days each week. Ideally with a mixture of moderate and intense activity.
However, that doesn’t have to be where you start. If necessary start with 5 minutes a day but make it an event, log it. Your first goal may be 10 minutes a day or twice as far in the same time period.
By making short term goals you acquire long term dreams. Stay motivated.
Walking Your Way to Weight Loss
Depending on a number of factors like your current fitness level and weight, to make gains, or rather losses, in your body size, involves an increase in walking workout intensity.
If you are a little overweight or not at all but not that fit then you are unlikely to see much gains and it would be advantageous to add on a couple of strength workouts a week. Well-targeted sessions would not only tone and sculpt your body but strengthen your muscle groups which, apart from anything else, would have a positive effect on your walking limits.
If overweight, however, there should be weight loss benefits quite quickly as long as there isn’t an increase in calories.
And although it seems obvious, the more that subjects walked the more effective the results. “Furthermore, there appears to be a dose effect, with 2 h of walking per week being better than none, and 4 h of walking better than 2”.
A 15-year study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that ended in 2009 of 4,995 men and women tried (amongst other metrics) to isolate walking and the effect it had on weight control.
The study found that for people of early to midlife years, walking resulted in significant weight gain over time and an increased likelihood of weight maintenance. This was especially true of heavier women.
How to Gain More Benefits from Walking
Gaining more health, fitness and weight management benefits from walking means doing more of the same and adding more intensity. Add a little strength training and you’re done.
There that was easy!
How hard should I walk?
Each person will be at different fitness levels so for instance, a moderately physically intensive walk to one person may be a real slog for another so comparisons of physical intensity are relative.
Although you should start and finish the walk at an easy pace, the meat of the walk should be at a steady pace or moderate aerobic activity as opposed to vigorous activity.
According to the American Governments’ Guidelines, moderate intensity means getting the heart pumping at between 40% and 59% of your maximum heart rate. Vigorous intensity is 60% to 84%.
A widely used calculation for estimating your maximum heart rate (HRmax) is to take your age away from 220 and from a percentage of that figure, you can estimate the levels which come under moderate (49-59%) and vigorous (60-84%) physical activity.
Just a note on this though. Studies have agreed though, like the one from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that the figure is more of a guideline and may be out by 10 – 20 beats for some, especially older groups.
A way in which to look at this in parallel is on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is lazing around with your feet up and 10 is giving everything – maximum effort – the tank is empty.
Moderate aerobic activity
This would be a 5 or 6. You’ll know when your exertion is right because you’ll be breathing more intensely but not be ‘out of breath’. Regardless of the weather, you’ll start sweating lightly after 10 minutes. You’ll be walking fast enough to talk but not to sing.
Vigorous aerobic activity
This would be a level 7 or 8. You’ll know when you start breathing is deeper and more rapid and quickly sweat more readily. And you’re unable to speak easily without spluttering for breath.
Building up walking time
150 minutes of walking time a week is the initial goal but the more you can do the more short and long term benefits will result.
Add in one long walk a week to start with. Increase each of your shorter walks by 5 or 10 minutes and notice the results.
If short of time turn a trip to the grocery store into a mini exercise workout by parking a mile away and running briskly to and from the store. Or anything creative to include in your normal schedule an extra burst of walking power.
Build up your walking time so that almost every day you’re at least doing a nifty 20-minute session and try to avoid having 2 days off in a row. On your days off try some strength training workouts or indoor aerobics.
This is a good time to repeat, if you’re at all unsure about your state of health it’s important to check with your doctor.
This is where we turn on the fat burners.
Interval training is where you have short bursts of vigorous activity during your normal sessions. So after heading out for 10 minutes speed up until you are hitting above 85% of your maximum heart rate. Without a heart rate monitor, you might not know that, but you should feel it. Then go back to your normal moderate aerobic pace.
Gradually increase the times you are doing vigorous activity within the normal walking routine starting with a couple of minutes. Increase the number of intervals.
Interval training has been researched to show that it is a great way of improving fitness and weight management.
Using different elevations is a great aerobic walking activity as it naturally provides the vigorous bit, going up the hill, and the moderate side, walking down the hill.
Don’t forget to keep your form, your walking technique when going uphill, pumping those arms a little more. You can relax on the way down but again no slouching.
A hill I ascend 4 or 5 times a week makes me think aloud “I hate gravity” but when I get to the top I feel elated and besides, from the summit, there’s only one way to go.
Going downhill can be as hard as going up, especially on the knee joints. Using poles to put the brakes on the downhill part, alleviates strains on the body.
Taking the stairs
An easy way to fit physical activity is to take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you regularly go to the mall or your place of work requires going up floors then walk briskly up the stairs.
The earliest research studies at the University of Birmingham, England where on the encouragement of stair usage in the environment and Dr. Frank Eves reports “Climbing stairs is an energy-hungry behavior, requiring more expenditure per minute than jogging”.
Even if stair climbing isn’t a regular option it is still a worthwhile exercise. Climbing stairs is twice as taxing as walking briskly on the flat. No doubt you’ve seen images of sports teams running up and down stadium steps. It’s tough.
Try walking up and down stairs and see how long it takes to go from an easy to moderate, to vigorous intensity exercise.
Walking with weights
Another way to increase the intensity of your walking workout is to add more resistance to your body weight. As if my body weight isn’t enough I hear you say?
I’m not a great fan of adding even more to my considerable weight – it’s not a good look, for me either, but you can use fixed lightweight dumbbells to carry.
Ankle weights that wrap around the lower leg and create not just the more intense cardio workout but also act as strength training for the leg muscles. These aren’t recommended for anyone with existing joint weakness and generally, go careful if giving ankle weights a go.
Wearing a weight vest is another way to add resistance to your activity. In fact, you can wear them all day for that extra calorie burn. Using a weighted vest will also see an improvement in your overall muscular strength and endurance. I’ve never tried one but I bet it’s such a relief when you take it off.
Walking vs running
Does increasing the intensity of walking lead ultimately to jogging and then running?
A steady running pace tends to be twice the speed of a steady walk which means you will burn twice as many calories running in an equal amount of time. But it’s not all about the speed.
I used to train for marathons at a steady 8 minutes a mile pace. I remember many years ago falling in with someone going at the same speed. He was walking. Admittedly he was an elite athlete but I was amazed.
The difference between the two of us was that as a walker he had to have one foot on the ground at all times whereas I didn’t.
Running means you’re airborne for much of the time which means you’re impacting with the ground leading to stress on the legs especially. So much so that in a mile run, the legs of a typical runner would absorb around 100 tons of force generated by the impact with the ground.
Walking is a low impact physical activity and because of the beautiful way our upright motion has evolved – 4.4 million years in the making – there is only 1% – 5% chance of getting injured whilst exercise walking, compared to a 20% – 70% chance with exercise running.
I won’t extol the virtues of running in this Walking for Fitness Guide as much as I have loved recreational running over the years. I believe it has been hugely beneficial in my overall well- being and fitness. After all, it is a guide about “fitness and walking”.
However running is great, you are able to see so much, benefit a lot healthwise, endorphins trigger ongoing positivity and I could go on.
As you know running can be hard on the ankles, knees, hips and other joints but walking has a lot of the pros that running has (not all) without some of the painful outcomes of running.
Forms of walking
Just when you thought there was only a limited number of ways to walk for fitness, here we have some more.
Nordic walking started in Scandinavia in the 1930s. It was a way for skiers in the summer months to maintain their fitness.
What made Nordic walking more accessible and commercial was the design of the strap system which differentiates Nordic walking to just walking with poles.
It is now one of the fastest growing physical activities for fitness in the world as it enables a full-body workout exercising all the major muscle groups in the upper and lower body.
As well as an all-over body exercise, it adds momentum but also supports and stabilizes the walker.
You can find out more from The American Nordic Walking Association or Nordic Walking in the UK or in Australia.
When the weather is bad or conditions are unsuitable, treadmill walking can provide all the health benefits as walking outside.
Good home treadmills that have the features you need to simulate outdoor walking can be purchased costing anything from around $1000 to over $2000 so they aren’t cheap.
Make sure they have features like incline and workout programs. Some other features include heart rate monitors and connections to websites and funky apps that can take you virtually around the world.
If you’re thinking about buying a treadmill for home make sure you have the space for it.
There is a temptation to forget your walking technique and form when using a treadmill so always walk properly as you do outside, not slouched, head pointing ahead. Avoid holding onto the handles, keep the arms swinging synchronized with your motion.
Don’t overstride when trying to gain speed. Wear your normal quality, walking shoes.
On the one hand, using treadmills for walking or running can be boring. You don’t have the sights, sounds and smells like you do outdoors but it can have its advantages. You can catch up with the latest favorite box set – just remember, the head position.
I mentioned earlier how vigorous stair climbing can be, so imagine that, multiplied by a lot and you get the mad sport – and yes it is a sport – of tower running.
Yes, I know this is a walking guide but I reckon that most of us mortals would walk these heart racing, stair climbing events as many competitors do.
It is, if you haven’t heard of it before or haven’t guessed already, an organized race to the top of a man-made structure by the staircase and includes most of the taller buildings in the world.
The longest running stair racing event in the world is The Empire State Building Run Up – I love the specificity of the name – but other landmarks include The Eiffel Tower, the first ever in 1903, Taipei 101 (Taipei), Menara Tower (Kuala Lumpur), Willis Tower (Chicago), CN Tower (Toronto), Swissotel (Singapore), Tower 42 (London).
Anyway tower running/walking, stair climbing is another healthy walking option – just sayin’.
Walking a half marathon
Half marathon events aren’t just for runners, you can walk them too and training for one engenders a great of motivation and consistency in the build-up to the event.
Make sure any event you enter does accept walkers – there might be a barrier with regard to a specific finish time.
Make one of your goals to complete a half marathon, or another distance you’ll feel comfortable at and to even finish one under a specific time – great idea.
A half marathon is 13.1 miles and at a brisk walking speed, you may want to aim for 3.5 to 4 hours. In training, you should build up your weekly mileage with a longer walk once a week until, on the long run, you can comfortably walk 10 miles continuously at a steady pace.
Be aware of any aches and pains and pull back if necessary. Also with the longer distances, you might get prone to blisters – you don’t want that on race day.
For associated walking events in your area try the ‘Runners’ Race Finder
Mark the date, do the walking and enjoy the event.
Walking for charities
Following on from event walking, charity walks add the added benefit of helping a cause that may be close to you.
There are many national and local charities either organizing events or sponsoring. Some charities, however, require a minimum amount to be raised, but normally it means free entry.
Something else to plan for and get motivated by. What could be nicer than a walking vacation?
Locations are worldwide with Europe and North America being the most popular for walking vacations.
Travel companies offer a variety of walking vacations and many are specialists in the field. There is a wide variety of tour packages on offer.
It seems you can take it really easy, walking an easy 3 or 4 miles a day or it can be as tough as you like with elevations of 3000 feet, walking 15 miles a day. You don’t even have to be fit but it sure helps if you’ve done some prior training to get the best out of the walks.
Most organized walking tours are geared towards connecting the visitor with the people and region, staying in independent accommodations and eating in the same places as the locals.
Sounds great – I’m off again.
Walking, hiking, treks & pilgrimages
Plan a hiking trip to some of the most beautiful trails in America. It can be a day hike in stunning Yosemite or a big slab of The Appalachian Trail over 2000 miles where you’ll never cross a highway.
People have been walking well-worn paths as a pilgrimage for 1000 years or more. If you fancy a long walk to embrace the historical and spiritual here are 10 great European pilgrimages including one of the most famous, the Camino de Santiago.
Planning for Long Walks
Whether planning for a 500-mile walk along one of the Camino routes or doing a marathon there are a number of things to consider, not least are you ready?
You will need to have trained to a point where you’re are confident with the mileage completed which means back to back days of long walks over varying terrain and elevation.
With rests, of course, as you don’t want to overtrain. If you’re walking 50 miles as the goal there is no need to do it as a training exercise.
The mileage should have been steadily increased gradually each week and over several months.
Assess your physical condition as you train and your body gets better equipped with improved muscle power, leaner and fitter. Whatever niggles you get need to be recovered from or they may be magnified on the big day.
Plan whatever gear you need and use this on training walks. Take fluids, snacks, medical kit, rainwear in a light walkers’ backpack. Wear layers that wick, so let your skin breathe and moisture evaporates.
Enjoy the journey.
Walking Wearables and Apps
If you want to know where you are out hiking or keep track of how many miles you covered there are a number of different types of apps that will do the job and most are free. A lot of the better apps track all your daily activities.
Using GPS and your mobile’s accelerometer, software (apps) can measure your walking statistics like speed, distance and location as well as your daily activity including the total number of steps, elevation and much else that involves the device’s movement.
Otherwise, you’ll need to learn the rudiments of the compass and map reading. Additionally the pedometer, a cheap, basic device can count your steps. You just have to make sure it’s accurate.
Whether using an app or a pedometer device, you want to track your steps accurately.
How to use a pedometer
Many apps connect with fitness wearables, which can give you more data when working out on treadmills.
Your mobile phone has inbuilt sensors, fitness trackers are packed with them too. Wearing them throughout the day they aggregate a raft of data from these sensors, filter it and present them as readable information on your phone or device.
The data and the way they’re manipulated are improving all the time so step counting is straightforward and should be accurate. Metrics like calories burned are dependent on so many other factors (a lot of which you need to enter) so results may not be perfect.
Big names in the fitness tracker market are Garmin, Fitbit, Moov, Samsung.
Check out our 2 articles on specific fitness trackers, one for small wrists and the other for wearing on the shoe or ankle.
Are Walking’s Health Benefits Genetic?
An ambitious study of 15902 Finnish same-sex twins, split almost 50/50 male and female was carried out to shed light, on amongst other things, the relationship between physical activity and death rate.
One of the interesting questions that is hard to pin down is whether exercise generally, is genetically biased or not.
In other words, do people who are born healthy and into their sport, simply exercise more or is ‘exercise’ of itself protective.
Some of the resulting statistics over 20 years and ongoing were interesting and the conclusion was “Leisure-time physical activity is associated with reduced mortality, even after genetic and other familial factors are taken into account”.
That’s good to know for all our sakes and I’m happy.
Low impact walking for fitness can begin as a routine of regularly strolling around the block but can be taken to further levels of intensity like Walking Treks and Walking Ultramarathons.
Walking is a simple, pleasurable activity that has more benefits than was previously thought.
On a treadmill at home or out in the wilderness, the barrier to entry is very low – the rewards can be enormous.
We hope you enjoyed this Walking Guide and would be even more pleased if it, in any way, encouraged or motivated you into taking some serious steps into the healthy world of walking for fitness.
And I’ll leave the final words on walking to Thomas Jefferson, another smart man.
“Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far”