In this guide, we’ll detail the mental and physical benefits of walking, and share our favorite walking workouts and exercises you can start today.
Introduction to Walking
Walking is a phenomenal form of movement for the fittest athlete to the most sedentary beginner.
Walking is very low impact, so it’s gentle on your joints, requires zero equipment or special knowledge, and can be done just about anywhere.
Unlike many other forms of structured exercise, walking requires no equipment, gym membership, or coaching.
We’ve all been walking since we were tiny children. That’s because humans were built to move. For millions of years, our species had to run, jump, climb, throw, and tackle–just to eat.
Because those movement requirements have largely been engineered out of our daily lives, it’s up to us to give our bodies what they crave: consistent, daily movement.
Why I Love Walking
As a personal trainer, I adore walking for myself and every one of my clients. That’s because walking benefits everyone–and I mean everyone.
Even as a coach with nearly 10 years under my belt, walking is still in my top three daily fitness goals for myself.
Let me tell you a story.
When I first became a personal trainer in the year of our lord 2014, I was a 21-year-old competitive powerlifter getting a degree in Health & Exercise Science.
Exercise was my job and my passion. I trained six days a week, for 2-3 hours a day, in addition to instructing my clients Monday through Friday.
Fast-forward seven years, one nursing degree, and a pandemic later, and I had gained 30 lbs, a depression diagnosis, and had become entirely sedentary.I’m talking zero exercise and maybe 3,000 steps a day.
As I started the road to recovery and centering my mental and physical health, eventually, I was training hard and consistently, 3-4 times weekly.
But my progress had stalled, despite my grueling workouts and a decent diet.
It wasn’t until I looked at my activity from a big-picture perspective that I realized the rest of my life was still sedentary.
When I added a daily step goal in addition to my workouts, my mental and physical health soared, and I finally tackled my physique goals.
Research increasingly shows us that a few workouts a week may not be enough to fight the health effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, so paying attention to your total movement amount is crucial.
In the same way, you can’t out-train a bad diet, a few hours in the gym per
week may not be enough to maintain your weight or health. That’s where walking can make all the difference.
10,000 steps a day is a fantastic goal, and if you’re hitting that daily, I applaud you.
While some argue the 10,000 step goal is somewhat arbitrary, a recent study shows that getting 9,800 steps a day can cut the risk of developing dementia by half!
While 10,000 steps a day is a wonderful goal, fitness goals should always be tailored to you and your needs. You don’t have to walk 10,000 steps a day to enjoy many of the health benefits of walking.
A recent study shows that brisk walking for just 11 minutes a day has serious health benefits, including lengthening your life expectancy, lowering the risk of stroke, heart disease, and some cancers.
And walking for 20 minutes a day for five days a week can reduce your sick days by 43% each year.
And we also know that studies have shown significant health benefits are gained in the 6,000 - 8,000 step range.
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Benefits of Walking
Walking is the easiest and most accessible way to increase our daily movement, which tremendously benefits our mental and physical health.
Decrease All-cause Mortality
In scientific research, all-cause mortality (ACM) refers to death attributed to any cause for a particular population in a certain time period.
ACM is a helpful metric for helping us understand complex topics and risk categories.
Certain activities have a high ACM, such as smoking. Smoking increases your all-cause mortality by 40%. Meaning smokers are 40% more likely to die than non-smokers.
A sedentary lifestyle is another health habit we know has dire health consequences. Evidence shows that sitting for 6-8 hours per day is associated with significantly higher death rates.
One 2019 study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that as few as 4,400 steps a day significantly reduced ACM in older women.
Decrease Body Fat
Having a high body fat percentage is much more indicative of your health than your weight is because all tissue is not created equal when it comes to our health.
High body fat levels (typically 35% or more in women and 24% or more in men) are strongly associated with metabolic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
42 different studies have shown that regular walking decreases body fat.
Improve Body Mass Index (BMI)
Both very high and very low BMI is strongly correlated with significant health issues, illness, and death, and regularly walking can help us maintain a healthy BMI.
Decrease Blood Pressure
High blood pressure contributes to many health problems, including heart disease, heart failure and heart attacks, peripheral artery disease, stroke, and kidney disease.
Walking has also been shown to lower both elements of our blood pressure: the high number, called systolic pressure, and the low number, called diastolic, lower when we walk regularly.
Increase VO2 Max
VO2 max is a measure of cardiorespiratory health and sports performance. It represents how much oxygen your body needs during exercise.
A higher VO2 max means your body delivers oxygen to your muscles more efficiently, and your cardiorespiratory system is healthier.
While VO2 max is often bandied around in conversations about extreme athletics and endurance sports, walking has even been shown to improve our VO2 max over time!
Decrease Resting Heart Rate
Resting heart rate is another indicator of our heart health, and a normal RHR for adults is typically 60 - 100 beats per minute. Walking regularly improves our heart health and lowers our resting heart rate too.
Cholesterol is the waxy substance that circulates in our blood, helps make up our cells, and aids in hormone production. There are three types of cholesterol that your doctor will usually test yearly:
- The good: High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
- The bad: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides
High levels of LDL and triglycerides combined with low HDL contribute to heart attacks and strokes. One study by the American Heart Association shows the more steps older adults took, the lower their risk for cardiovascular disease.
Weight Loss & Maintenance
The evidence is clear: structured exercise a few times a week is likely not enough to fight disease and maintain your weight over your lifetime.
Total daily steps are a significant predictor of health and longevity over time and are also crucial for weight loss and maintenance.
Walking 10,000 steps a day burns an extra 300-400 calories for most people, which is helpful if you’re trying to lose or maintain a healthy weight.
Lower Cortisol Levels & Improves Mood
Ample evidence that shows the mental health benefits of spending time in nature, and walking outside adds even more physical benefits to the mix.
A study published in Environment and Behavior showed that walking in nature lowered cortisol levels (our primary stress hormone) and improved mood better than watching nature scenes or physical exercise alone.
Improve Mental Health
Recent studies have shown that physical activity is up to 1.5x as effective in treating depression, anxiety, and stress than medication or therapy, and walking is no exception.
Walking Exercises: Different Ways to Walk
Now that you know the amazing mental and physical health benefits of walking, you’re ready to learn all your walking exercises and workout options–and who knew there were so many?
Casual Meditative Stroll
When most of us think of going for a walk, we picture this. Causally walking with no intended pace, step count, or destination in mind. This is a great way to get extra steps in, enjoy nature, and bask in the sun.
A brisk walk takes the pace up a notch and intends to get your heart rate higher. This pace is excellent if you’re in decent shape and want to challenge yourself, get maximum steps in, or get somewhere quickly.
Power walking is a type of walking and competitive sport emphasizing speed and arm movements. You must walk 3.7-5 miles/hour to reach the power walking speed range.
Power walking is easy to spot because all of the regular movements of the walking pattern are exaggerated to increase your movement efficiency and speed.
Race walking is the next level up from power walking and requires a sustained speed of over 5 miles per hour, and one foot must always touch the ground at any given time.
It’s also an Olympic sport!
Nordic Walking is another sport that uses poles to help propel you forward.
Using the poles makes it a total body cardio workout that works more muscles and burns more calories.
Walking with Weights
When you’ve been walking consistently and built your endurance, another way to make walking more challenging is by walking with weights.
While you don’t need any equipment to reap the many benefits of walking, adding some in can be a fun way to mix things up and keep training fun.
Remember that these weights should be light enough not to add significant strain to your joints and will be carried for a long time.
Ankle weights are another excellent option for ramping up your difficulty in your walking workouts.
If you prefer to have your hands free, try these wrist weights instead.
Rucking is simply walking while carrying a heavy weight on your body. Rucking is an essential skill for soldiers, and that’s where the term comes from.
You can ruck with a backpack or a weighted vest and dial up your speed and distance for your fitness level. Rucking increases the load on your joints and makes walking more difficult. This will help you build endurance, muscle mass, strength, and mental toughness.
Hiking is simply walking in the great outdoors, and it’s terrific for your health. Hiking usually offers the additional challenge of varying incline levels as you climb up and down hills or mountains, which adds an extra challenge.
Hiking can quickly become a ruck if you are carrying your gear in if you plan on camping.
At-home Walking Exercises
If you want to walk, but the weather is terrible, or you want to squeeze in a workout at home, try these walking exercises.
This series is also a great warm-up before running!
Walking in Place
A classic for a reason, walking in place gives us all the health benefits of walking outdoors in even the smallest of spaces.
Walking with High Knees
High knee walking exaggerates the motion of regular walking and builds stability and balance. It’s also commonly used by sprinters in their warm-up!
The lateral shuffle is another move often used in athletic warm-ups that are a great add-on to any walking routine. This move works your inner thighs and will help you develop coordination and athleticism.
One of my favorites, the Frankenstein walk, gives us a total body stretch and is especially handy for addressing tight hamstrings and loosening up your trunk.
Walking lunges are a great strength move that will help you build stronger, more stable legs.
Open & Close the Gate
Another favorite of track and soccer athletes worldwide, Open/Close the Gate will open up your hips and improve your balance.
Walking Tips & Tricks
Walking Form and Technique
While you may not typically think about your walking form, once you increase your mileage, walking correctly is crucial.
Use these form tips when walking:
- Your legs and arms should swing opposite each other. So if you step forward with your left foot, your right arm should swing.
- Focus on walking tall. Your chest and head should be up; you should look straight ahead, not stooped over looking down.
- Make sure you push off fully from your back foot.
- Contract your glute with each foot strike as you push off on the back leg.
- Keep your ribs down and your core activated throughout the walk.
As with all exercises, use common sense and progress slowly. Most people can walk for 15-30 minutes easily.
But most people could not ruck 10 miles with a 30 lb pack easily.
So make sure your exercise choice reflects your current fitness level, specific goals and is reasonable and safe.
Common Walking Injuries to Watch Out For
A few of the most common injuries people experience while walking are:
- Ankle sprains
- Shin splints
- Low back pain
Ankle sprains often occur when walking on uneven surfaces, and shin splints and low back pain are associated with improper form and progressing too quickly.
So follow our walking form tips above and progress slowly to avoid these injuries.
Apps & Events We Love for Walking
Best App Overall for Walking: Map My Walk
Best App for Walking / Fitness: Walkmeter
Best App For Hiking: Alltrails | Trail Guides & Maps for Hiking
Best Event for Rucking: GoRuck Events
Best Hiking Resource: American Hiking Society
Walking is a wonderful form of exercise that boosts heart health, fights chronic disease, helps maintain a steady weight, and improves your mental health.
Walking is free, accessible, and easy to start, and you can do it anywhere.
While 10,000 steps a day is a superb goal for some, it’s not an evidence-based metric but originated as a marketing ploy to sell step counters.
Research shows that significant health benefits start at just 4,400 for some populations, with 6,000 - 8,000 steps being ideal for most people.
However, your daily step count goal should be based on your fitness level, goals, and preferences.
More Walking Advice from GymBird Experts
- Walking Guide: How Walking Fuels Vitality and Wellness
- Cardio vs Walking
- I Walked Every Day for 30 Days - These Are the Results
Sports Medicine. Walking to Health
Environment and Behavior. Health Benefits of Walking in Nature: A Randomized Controlled Study Under Conditions of Real-Life Stress
European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. Effects of Nordic walking on cardiovascular performance and quality of life in coronary artery disease
British Journal of Sports Medicine. Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis
JAMA Internal Medicine. Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women