Is Walking the Best Exercise? Your steps matter, but it’s about more than the step count. Regarding exercise, everyone has an opinion about the “best” kind of movement. Regarding bio-individual preferences and goals, there’s no doubt that different types of exercise benefit various kinds of people. But as a baseline form of movement for all, walking may just be the best kind of movement. Studies show, however, that it’s about more than just the daily step count. Today we will dive into all things walking: why it’s so beneficial, why reaping the benefits is about more than your step count, and how you can add resistance to your walking to suit any fitness level!
Why Walking is So Beneficial
Many of us have learned to associate exercise with intensity. There is deep cultural brainwashing that more is more and that you have to “go hard or go home,” and that if you don’t “leave it all on the gym floor,” you didn’t “earn your shower.” These sayings and beliefs are grossly misleading regarding the genuine benefits of lower-impact and gentler forms of movement. Let’s explore some of how walking is one of the best ways to exercise.
Walking is a lower-stress form of movement than most kinds of exercise. As a lower-impact exercise, walking supports joint mobility and strength without stressing your joints1. As a lower-intensity activity, walking also puts less stress on your heart and lungs while still promoting blood and oxygen flow in the body1. Putting less stress on your physical body also means walking will not overstimulate the adrenal glands (and stress hormones like cortisol), leading to HPA-axis dysregulation, fatigue, poor sleep, and burnout2. Note that everybody is different, and for some, even walking can be quite intense; the beauty of this form of movement is that you can take it at the pace and distance that suits your body’s needs.
Suitable for Almost Everyone
Almost anyone can meet their body’s needs by walking. No matter your age, cardiovascular health, mobility, strength, or location, you can walk if you have two able legs. Walking requires no equipment and can be done on any terrain. Your biggest compass regarding how quick and how long to walk is simply your body! This movement can be tailored to most, making it extremely accessible and versatile. Some may be quick to think that their fitness level excludes walking as an appropriate form of fitness to match their body’s movement requirements. Still, tailoring footwear, learning how to walk with biomechanic integrity, and playing around with elevation, terrain, and distance can become a challenging physical and mental stimulus for even the fittest people on earth!
Regarding disease prevention, old and new studies continue to show how beneficial walking is. A recent study highlights that walking at least 10,000 steps daily can reduce dementia by up to 50%3. Regular walking has also been shown to reduce anxiety and tension, aid in weight loss, improve cholesterol profile, help control hypertension, and slow the process of osteoporosis1. Walking has also been associated with a reduction in the risk of developing 13 different kinds of cancers4. Another benefit of walking and disease prevention is its ability to reduce blood sugar levels when used after meals dramatically. Past studies suggested that a 15-minute walk was needed after meals to reduce blood sugar levels, but the latest science suggests even two minutes of walking after a meal can reduce levels5. The studies supporting the benefits of walking in disease prevention go on and on. In fact, walking is linked to a reduction in all-cause mortality by up to 53%… so if you enjoy life and want to live a long one, walking should be an integral part of your day-to-day life6.
Is Walking the Best Exercise? It’s About More Than Your Step Count
Although many people focus on their daily step count to know how much they walked, step counters aren’t an accurate metric for knowing how well you walk and fully benefitting from walking. This is because daily chores and tasks around the home or office don’t actually engage the body like going for a walk does. Being regularly active throughout the day has its own set of benefits, but to really reap the disease prevention benefits that walking can have for your health, the key is going for a brisk walk3. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine followed 78,500 people between the ages of 40 and 79 from England, Scotland, and Wales who wore wrist step counters for 24 hours a day for a week3. Researchers then placed them into three categories:
- Those walking less than 40 steps per minute – which is a pace of walking from room to room.
- Those walking more than 40 steps per minute, which is more “purposeful” walking, like when you actually go out walking or use walking to get from one destination to another.
- Those who took the most steps per minute within 30 minutes over the course of a day (although they did not have to occur in sequence). These were considered “peak performers.”
About seven years later, researchers compared that data to medical records and found people who took the most steps per minute (which was approximately 80 steps per minute) showed the biggest reduction in risk for cancer, heart disease, and early death from any cause. Researchers shared that walking briskly for at least 30 minutes a day was important to benefit the most.“Brisk” varies from person to person, based on factors like current fitness level, any injuries, and heart rate variability. Overall, brisk means that you’re not totally out of breath, but maintaining a conversation is (or would be) somewhat challenging.
Are You Walking Optimally?
Believe it or not, walking properly is not as easy as it sounds. Although most of us don’t think twice about walking, that doesn’t mean how you walk is biomechanically optimal. Learning to walk in a way that honors your physiology starts with the feet, ideally barefoot feet or in shoes that are as “barefoot” as possible7. Walking barefoot or in barefoot-style shoes that are zero-drop (no heel) and have a wider toe box so that your foot can move naturally is typically much more challenging for most since many people grow up in conventional shoes. When shoes are rigid, cushioned, or don’t fit the natural shape of our foot, it distorts the natural strength and gates our body would experience walking in the world. Over time, this weakens and leads to various compensations, promoting pain and injury. Wearing barefoot-style shoes can take some time to adapt as your feet and body regain strength and awareness. Still, in the long run, it will allow you to actually see your body’s weak points and address them instead of needing even more cushion or rigidity (like orthotics) and all the biomechanical problems that come from walking in casts7.
Ways to Add Resistance
If you’ve mastered your neighborhood walks and want to take them up a notch, there are many ways to make your walking exercise routine harder. Using ankle or wrist weights is one way not to add resistance to your walk. Although it might seem obvious to add difficulty to your walk, using a weight at the end of our extremities is unnatural to the human body. There are several ways to do so mindfully for those looking to add some resistance to their walking exercise. Better options than ankle or wrist weights include:
- Walking further: adding distance to your walks is one way to increase the difficulty.
- Walking uphill: by walking on an incline (like up a hill), you increase the difficulty of your walk and challenge a different set of muscles going both up and back downhill.
- Walking on different terrain: walking on different terrains (like sand, pebbles, or earth) expose your body to different forms of movement. Sand is a great one to do barefoot, activating a whole new set of foot and ankle muscles to keep you stable.
- Walking in water: walking in water (either ankle, knee, or all the way up to your shoulders) is a great way to add some resistance to your walking without adding any extra pressure on your joints. Depending on how high the water comes, different muscles will work harder8.
- Blood flow restriction: a blood-flow restriction method called Kaatsu-walking can be used to build VO2 max in the body and significantly increase the difficulty of a movement without walking any harder or faster9. This method must be used mindfully since it can be dangerous if done improperly.
Using ankle or wrist weights is one way not to add resistance to your walk. Although it might seem obvious to add difficulty to your walk, using a weight at the end of our extremities is unnatural to the human body. although this will still distort your biomechanics (adding pressure to your shoulders, for example), it is much more natural for your lower limbs to walk bearing more weight than your torso area. When we gain body fat, this load is distributed evenly from the top down onto our hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Unlike ankle and wrist weights, using a weighted vest is a way to introduce added resistance to our walk in a smarter way.
Walking is one of the most accessible forms of movement on the planet. As such, it may just be one of the best exercises out there. Walking is so beneficial because it is extremely low-stress, suitable for almost everyone, and linked to a wide range of disease prevention (including a dramatic reduction in all-cause mortality). To reap the most benefit, walking has to be done intentionally and ideally on the brisker side. You can add resistance to your walk in many ways, including adding distance, and elevation, walking on different terrain, in water, or using a weighted vest.
- Rippe, James M. “Walking for Health and Fitness.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 259, no. 18, 1988, p. 2720., doi:10.1001/jama.1988.03720180046031.
- Morris, J.N., Hardman, A.E. Walking to Health. Sports Med 23, 306–332 (1997). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-199723050-00004
- Del Pozo Cruz, Borja, et al. “Association of Daily Step Count and Intensity with Incident Dementia in 78430 Adults Living in the UK.” JAMA Neurology, vol. 79, no. 10, 2022, p. 1059., doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.2672.
- Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity With Risk of 26 Types of Cancer in 1.44 Million Adults. Moore SC, Lee IM, Weiderpass E, et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Jun 1;176(6):816-25. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.1548. PMID: 27183032.
- Buffey, A.J., Herring, M.P., Langley, C.K. et al. The Acute Effects of Interrupting Prolonged Sitting Time in Adults with Standing and Light-Intensity Walking on Biomarkers of Cardiometabolic Health in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med 52, 1765–1787 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01649-4
- Paluch, Amanda E, et al. “Daily Steps and All-Cause Mortality: A Meta-Analysis of 15 International Cohorts.” The Lancet Public Health, vol. 7, no. 3, 2022, doi:10.1016/s2468-2667(21)00302-9.
- Bowman, Katy. Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear. Propriometrics Press, 2016.
- Orselli, Maria Isabel, and Marcos Duarte. “Joint Forces and Torques When Walking in Shallow Water.” Journal of Biomechanics, vol. 44, no. 6, 2011, pp. 1170–1175., doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2011.01.017.
- Abe, Takashi, et al. “Muscle Size and Strength Are Increased Following Walk Training with Restricted Venous Blood Flow from the Leg Muscle, Kaatsu-Walk Training.” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 100, no. 5, 2006, pp. 1460–1466., doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01267.2005.