Lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, a reduction in your risk of diabetes and improvements in weight management and mood are all potential health benefits of walking. However, whether or not walking counts as a good cardio workout depends on a variety of factors, including your speed and duration.
Walking can be cardio exercise if it provides moderate to vigorous exercise that gives your heart, lungs and blood vessels a workout, making them stronger as a result of your efforts.
Ideally, you should be including some form of cardio activity every day of the week to achieve a better overall fitness level.
Read more: Can Walking Be Enough to Reduce Obesity?
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How Long Should You Walk?
While any physical activity is better than none at all, you gain additional health benefits as your physical activity increases in intensity, frequency and duration, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Aim for at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week (about 20 minutes a day) or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week (about 10 minutes a day) for the most health benefits.
Of course, those are only the minimums. The exact amount of time you spend walking will depend on your schedule, goals and what else you're doing for exercise.
How Fast Should You Walk?
So what does that mean for your walking speed? You have a few ways to measure your intensity level to make sure you're reaping the maximum benefits:
1. The Talk Test: The easiest, most convenient measurement is how you feel. Moderate-intensity walking means you should be able to hold a conversation as you walk. Simple walking becomes brisk walking when you begin to breathe faster, develop a light sweat and feel some strain in your leg muscles.
Higher-intensity walking means you can get out a few words but not carry on a full conversation easily, writes Len Kravitz, PhD, for the University of New Mexico. But if you can sing, you need to pick up the pace and walk even more briskly, pumping your arms as you go.
2. Rate of Perceived Exertion: Put a number to how had you think you're working. The Activity Guideline's scale of exercise intensity ranges from 0 (comparable to resting in a chair) to 10 (your most intense effort), with moderate measuring a 5 or 6. Vigorous exercise would fall at a 7 or 8 on the scale. Both moderate and vigorous exercise fall into the "health-enhancing" category.
3. Heart Rate Monitoring: You can also use your heart rate to monitor intensity by calculating your max heart rate (220 minus your age) and using a heart-rate monitor or taking your pulse. Moderate intensity walking would be 50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate, and vigorous will be 70 to 85 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic.
4. Calories Burned: If weight loss is your goal, you can use calories burned as your metric. For example, a 185-pound person walking at 3.5 mph for one hour burns roughly 350 calories. The same person can burn nearly 450 calories in the same hour by walking at a 4.5 mph pace, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Then, make sure you're burning more calories than you're consuming.
But in general, the more you can push your pace, the better. In fact, an October 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open found that "the walking speed of 45-year-olds, particularly their fastest walking speed without running, can be used as a marker of their aging brains and bodies."
Don't feel like power walking for 30 minutes? Mix in intervals of fast walking with a slower pace. That can either be bursts of speed or walking uphill, which has the added benefits of strengthening your glutes and hamstrings!
Read more: What Your Walking Speed Says About Your Health
What's Not Considered Cardio?
Sure, we just said something is better than nothing, but that doesn't mean every step you take counts toward your cardio goal for the day. Unfortunately, walking through the grocery store pushing your cart or going shopping at the mall don't technically qualify as moderate or vigorous exercise.
The Activity Guidelines call this type of everyday walking a baseline activity. While these activities have benefits, the extent of these has not been studied scientifically. That doesn't mean you shouldn't aim to walk as much as you can, it just means it doesn't count as cardio.
- Health.gov: “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights”
- University of New Mexico: "The Talk Test"
- Mayo Clinic: Exercise intensity: How to measure it
- JAMA Network Open: Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in Midlife