HIIT workouts and heavy lifts tend to steal the workout limelight, but good, old-fashioned walking is actually having a moment. In fact, more people are taking recreational jaunts now than before the pandemic, according to a June 2021 study in Nature.
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That's because in as little as 10 minutes a day, you can reap the health benefits of walking.
"Studies show that people who walk for 10 minutes a day have noticeable improvements in cardiovascular health, decreased mortality and increased longevity and better overall fitness," says R. Kannan Mutharasan, MD, co-program director of sports cardiology at the Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. "The benefits of walking keep going up until you hit about 30 minutes a day."
According to a June 2013 study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, doing daily 10-minute stair walks improved the heart health of adults with sedentary jobs. A January 2022 study in JAMA Internal Medicine also found 10 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, such as walking, is associated with a 6.9 percent decrease in the number of deaths per year.
Bonus: There are no bells or whistles required when getting your steps in. "Simply put on a pair of comfortable sneakers and head outside," Dr. Mutharasan says. (Or hop on the treadmill!)
While sauntering has a lot going for it, should you make it an everyday form of exercise — or is it better to mix things up with your fitness routine? Here, we break down what really happens to your body if you lace up for a daily walk.
Your Heart Gets Stronger
If you want to show your heart some love, hit the pavement every day. "Walking gets your heart rate up, which improves its pumping function," Dr. Mutharasan says.
Your heart is a muscle, after all. Giving it a workout — say, by forcing it to pump rapidly during a moderate-intensity walk — will strengthen it. Stick with daily walks, and over time your heart will be able to move blood through your system more easily and efficiently. Walking every day also increases your cardiovascular endurance, allowing you to exercise longer and harder.
"Putting your cardiovascular system under a bit of stress by walking improves blood flow, which increases oxygenation to your bones, organs and muscles," says Farah Hameed, MD, assistant professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
Your Bones and Joints Stay Healthy
Because walking is a weight-bearing activity, making time for it every day keeps your bones healthy, boosting bone density and decreasing your risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
"Walking puts stress on your bones, which helps them maintain their strength," Dr. Hameed says. She notes you don't get the same bone benefits when you do non-weight-bearing exercise, like biking or swimming.
And although resistance training is hailed as the most powerful antidote for brittle bones, particularly as you age, walking every day targets areas that weightlifting might miss.
"For example, squats and lunges pull on the bone," Dr. Hameed says, "but walking stimulates bones throughout the entirety of the foot and leg."
The movement in your hips, knees and ankles also helps pump nutrient-rich synovial fluid into the cartilage in your joints.
"This helps maintain the lifespan of your joints," says Natasha Trentacosta, MD, pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
A daily walk also strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding your joints so they are better able to support the weight of your body, instead of the whole load landing on your joints. This reduces your risk of pain and injury.
Your Mood Lifts
Walking can deliver a daily dose of joy: "It releases neurotransmitters called endorphins, which stimulate happiness and reduce stress," Dr. Hameed says. "As a result, walking can help you manage anxiety and avoid depression."
A February 2017 study in the Journal of Health Psychology linked daily strolls with improved psychological wellbeing, reduced risk of depression and less pain.
In fact, the study found people who engaged in light-to-moderate activity, such as walking, experienced greater mental health benefits than those participating in vigorous activity.
"The boost of blood flow to your brain when you walk every day also has a positive effect on your stress response," Dr. Trentacosta says.
Your Sleep Improves
In part, this is because walking puts your mind at ease.
"Reducing stress improves your ability to sleep," Dr. Hameed says. According to a 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association, 43 percent of people say stress has kept them awake at night. And adults with lower stress levels log nearly one extra hour of shut-eye compared to those who report greater stress.
Plus, you'll pass out faster if your body is tired. "Walking for exercise allows you to feel ready to rest because you have been working your muscles," Dr. Hameed says.
Your Energy Levels Increase
You can thank improved sleep and an endorphin release for the energy boost you get when you walk every day. "Endorphins make you feel more alert," Dr. Hameed says.
And while it's true that your body churns out endorphins during any form of exercise, an intense workout can leave you feeling depleted afterward.
"Because walking is a moderate-intensity activity, you'll get the energizing benefits of endorphins without fatiguing your muscles and feeling physically taxed," Dr. Hameed says.
Walking also increases energy by creating mitochondria, which are energy-producing cells inside your muscles, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The uptick in oxygen circulation you experience helps, too.
Your Fitness Level May Plateau
If walking is your only jam, you might not see as many benefits as those who mix up their workouts. "Your body gets used to routines, so if you do the same form of exercise consistently, you'll plateau," Dr. Trentacosta says. "For best results, I encourage cross-training."
Current physical activity guidelines for Americans also recommend strength training all major muscle groups two or more days a week.
Walking, like running, is a forward-moving sport. But in order to stay injury-free in daily life, it's important to challenge your body to move in different planes of motion, including side-to-side and rotation. This is where strength training and forms of cardio that involve other dynamic movement — such as tennis or dance — come in.
Aim for a well-rounded regimen that will strengthen your muscles in different ways. "I recommend walking for at least 30 minutes two to three days a week," Dr. Trentacosta says. "Alternate with two days of strength training and another form of cardio exercise."
You Could Burn Out
Even if you dig walking, you might eventually get sick of doing the same-old same-old every day. And feeling bored with your workout routine can sabotage your motivation. Change up your route, stroll with a friend or tune into a podcast or audiobook to keep daily walks fresh and fun.
You May Be More Prone to Overuse Injuries
Another drawback walkers might contend with is the elevated risk of overuse injuries like stresx fracture, which can occur with repetitive activity, according to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.
"New walkers should start small — five to 10 minutes daily — and build up from there," Dr. Hameed says. She suggests people follow the 10 percent rule: Increase your amount of activity by just 10 percent a week until you reach your target goal.
You Might Feel Sore
Some folks could find walking every day leaves them hurting. If a vigorous daily walk feels too intense, space out your strolls to allow for lower-body recovery. Take a day or two off and focus on working other muscles on alternate days.
"Because walking is a weight-bearing activity, your joints also might hurt afterward, especially as you get older," Dr. Trentacosta says. "Yet impact is important in order to maintain bone health."
How can you tell if it's simply regular soreness from walking every day versus an injury? If your muscles feel stiff or achy and the pain is in a general area, you probably have nothing to worry about. A sharp or shooting pain in a specific spot is a sign of injury.
How Fast Should You Walk?
Walking speed can range from a casual stroll to a power walk. In order to reap the health benefits, aim for moderate intensity based on the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale: Push yourself until you’re breathing heavily but not struggling too much.
“The talk test is a good rule of thumb,” Dr. Hameed says. “Walk at a speed where you could carry on a conversation but aren’t able to sing.”
Also, take your fitness objectives into consideration. “The nice thing about walking is that you can tailor it to your specific goals,” Dr. Trentacosta says.
Experts say it's important to alternate daily walks with strength training and other forms of exercise for a more well-rounded workout routine. This will help challenge your muscles in different ways and help prevent overuse injuries.
That said, if walking is your go-to, it's fine to go all in. "The number one thing is to find something you like to do and will do consistently," Dr. Hameed says.
Even when walking is your sole form of cardio, keep it fresh and challenging by adjusting your routine on a weekly basis. "Add inclines one week; the next, stick to flats and do a speed workout," Dr. Trentacosta says.
- Biomed Research International: "The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients"
- Journal of Health Psychology: "Physical activity intensity and subjective well-being in healthy adults"
- Environment and Behavior: "Health Benefits of Walking in Nature: A Randomized Controlled Study Under Conditions of Real-Life Stress"
- PeerJ: "Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- American Psychological Association: "Stress and Sleep"
- Nature: "Effect of COVID-19 response policies on walking behavior in US cities"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Estimated Number of Deaths Prevented Through Increased Physical Activity Among US Adults"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Does exercise really boost energy levels?"
- NeuroImage: "White matter plasticity in healthy older adults: The effects of aerobic exercise"
- ACFAS: "Too Much of a Good Thing Can Cause Overuse Injuries of the Foot"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- Journal of Internet Research: "ardiovascular Health Effects of Internet-Based Encouragements to Do Daily Workplace Stair-Walks: Randomized Controlled Trial"