Walking: It’s as innate to our species as the very breath that sustains us—our first foray into motion, an evolutionary hallmark that set us apart on the Serengeti.

From the laborious crawl of infancy to the confident stride of adulthood, bipedal locomotion is not just a mechanical process; it’s a profound emblem of human advancement, etched into the very DNA of our being. After all, you’ve seen this photo:

Thank you macrovector for the lovely photo.

Naturally, walking has a host of health benefits. Undoubtedly, it carries a cardiovascular effect. But can this ancient mode of movement contend with the vigorous dynamism of modern-day cardio exercises? 

In short, YES. Walking can be great cardio. When done at a pace and intensity that increases the demands on your heart, walking can effectively challenge your cardiovascular system and provide numerous health benefits.

The key lies in walking at a brisk pace or incorporating some inclines or higher-intensity intervals into your routine to truly get your heart rate up.

So, as we explore the topic of walking as cardio, we’ll dive into the benefits, techniques, and best practices to make the most out of your walking workouts. 

Walking as a Form of Cardio

First and foremost, what is cardio?

Cardio refers to activities that primarily target our cardiovascular system. These exercises, such as running, cycling, or dancing, increase our heart rate. Essentially, cardio exercises are all about getting our hearts pumping and sweat flowing.

Therefore, walking is, indeed, a form of cardio. It may take a slower pace than other intense workouts, but it still challenges our heart and lungs, depending on the intensity and duration. Plus, walking comes with the added benefit of being low-impact, perfect for anyone seeking a gentler form of cardiovascular exercise.

 

To make walking an effective cardio workout, we need to consider the speed and intensity.

If you’re a New Yorker like me, yelling at slow walkers, you’re probably the type of person who gets solid cardio while walking.

A leisurely stroll may not significantly elevate our heart rate, but brisk walking, power walking, or walking with added inclines can give our cardiovascular system a good workout. To maximize the walking cardio benefits, maintain a consistent pace and increase the distance or duration over time. We’ll talk in a bit about what this specifically looks like.

First, let’s cover the health benefits of walking more broadly.

Health Benefits of Walking

Heart and Cardiovascular Health

Walking is an excellent cardio activity that benefits our heart and overall cardiovascular health. Engaging in regular walking can help lower high blood pressure and lower our resting heart rate. This can lead to a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, which is often caused by insufficient physical activity.

According to the American Heart Association, walking is a simple yet effective way to maintain heart health. As we walk, our blood vessels and organs receive better blood flow, leading to a healthier cardiovascular system.

Mental Health Benefits

Our mental health can also benefit greatly from walking. Walking releases endorphins, which help in reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. The physical activity involved in walking promotes a positive mood and improved overall mental well-being. We can also experience increased cognitive function, better memory, and improved sleep – all essential factors that contribute to our mental health.

For a bonus on mental health, take it outside. In Japanese, the word Shinrin-yoku refers to consciously spending time in nature. In the US, there are programs for forest therapy, because the benefits of being in nature on so strong.

I’m from Vermont, from the middle of the woods, and can confirm that walking in my woods is as powerful a mental health boost as anything else I’ve discovered.

Physical Health Rewards

In addition to the heart and mental health benefits, walking offers numerous physical health rewards. Walking is an easy-to-access, low-impact workout that can be done by people of nearly all fitness levels. It helps strengthen our bones and muscles, leading to increased muscle endurance.

Unlike running, walking doesn’t put much strain on our joints and is suitable even for those with mobility issues.

Walking can increase our body’s metabolism, which aids in burning body fat and improving our endurance.

While it may not be as intense as strength training or other cardio workouts, it is still a highly effective form of physical activity.

Moreover, walking can improve balance, coordination, and energy levels, making it a versatile and essential exercise for overall bodily health.

By integrating walking into our regular workout routine, we ensure that we engage in a well-rounded exercise regime that not only keeps us physically healthy but also supports our mental well-being.

How to Make It Count: Hit Zone 2

We all know that walking can be a great form of cardio exercise, but how can we ensure that we’re making the most of our walking workouts? That’s where Zone 2 Training comes in. Achieving a heart rate in Zone 2 while walking can help us build endurance and improve our cardiovascular fitness.

To get the most out of our walking sessions, we should aim for a heart rate in the Zone 2 range. This is a moderate-intensity level where we can still hold a conversation, but it’s slightly uncomfortable. If that’s how you feel while walking, you’re in zone 2. You can also calculate it with a simple formula: 180 minus your age. For example, if you are 30 years old, your estimated Zone 2 heart rate would be around 150 beats per minute (180-30=150).

To maintain a Zone 2 heart rate during our walks, we can try the following strategies:

  • Choose the right terrain. To keep our heart rate in Zone 2, we might need to find terrain that challenges us but allows for a manageable pace. For some, this might mean walking on a slight incline, while others might need to find a flat surface. Hiking up a mountain FTW.
  • Adjust our walking pace. We can increase or decrease our walking speed to find a pace that keeps our heart rate in the target zone. We should be able to talk while walking, but it might be a bit difficult to maintain a full conversation.
  • Use a heart rate monitor. To accurately track our heart rate, we can wear a heart rate monitor or use a fitness tracker with built-in heart rate sensors. These devices will help us know when we’re in Zone 2 and when we need to adjust our walking intensity.

By focusing on maintaining a Zone 2 heart rate during our walks, we can ensure that we’re making the most of this effective cardio exercise and reaping the benefits of improved endurance and cardiovascular fitness.

How to Incorporate Walking into Your Routine

Tools for Tracking Progress

To track our walking progress and ensure we’re meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, using a phone app or fitness tracker can be quite helpful. Many devices can monitor our step count, distance, and even the intensity of our walks. By using these tools, we can set walking goals and keep ourselves accountable on our journey to better cardiovascular health.

Walking Gear

Ensuring that we have the right gear can make our walking experience more comfortable and enjoyable. It’s important to invest in a good pair of walking shoes that provide adequate support and cushioning. Additionally, wearing a hat, sunglasses, and dressing in layers can help us adapt to various weather conditions. Making sure we have the proper gear will ensure that our walking experience is both safe and enjoyable.

As an example, when I moved back to Vermont for a time, I bought myself very expensive hiking boots. Why? Because now I knew I would go hiking, since I just spent all that money. It was sort of like tricking myself into doing more cardio, because I “had to get my money’s worth.” I certainly have. 

Taper Up

When developing a walking regimen, it’s important to consider our current fitness level, available time, and personal preferences. We can start with moderate-intensity brisk walking sessions, gradually increasing our pace and duration over time. For those seeking a more challenging cardio workout, high-intensity intervals or incline walking can be integrated into the routine. Remember to always warm up before getting started, and use the talk test to ensure our walking pace is appropriate for our goals. For instance, being able to hold a conversation during a moderate-intensity walk but needing to catch our breath during high-intensity intervals.

Walking in Different Conditions

Don’t let the weather or environment stop us from getting our cardio in. If you get bored of your routine, or it’s raining outside or muddy in the woods, there are other options available. If outdoor conditions aren’t ideal, you can try indoor walking options like using a treadmill at a local gym. Nearly every gym will have ample treadmills. I also like the track as a low-impact method.

Live Somewhere Walkable

When I lived in New York City, I walked nearly everywhere. In my first year, I lived on the 14th floor and even took the stairs as an excuse to get some Zone 2. One of the best ways to get more steps in is to live somewhere that’s not car-dependent. This way, in your everyday life you’ll get your cardio in without even trying. Unfortunately, in the US, that limits you to a few neighborhoods in each of our big cities, plus most of NYC. However, one of my favorite YouTube channels, City Nerd, has some ideas on affordable and varied walking areas:

 

Although in my hometown area of Burlington, many young people walk and bike everywhere. If you live in the right spot, near your place of work, you can do it. It might be one of the best investments in your health. It’s well-documented that those who walk to work are generally healthier.

Challenges and Precautions of Walking

Walking is a popular and beneficial form of cardio exercise, but it’s crucial to be aware of potential challenges and precautions to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. In this section, we’ll address the potential risks, considerations for individuals with health conditions, and ways to protect your joints and bones while walking.

Potential Risks

As with any physical activity, there are possible risks associated with walking. Some of these include:

Injury: Overuse injuries, such as shin splints and plantar fasciitis, can occur if you increase your walking distance or intensity too quickly. To prevent injuries, gradually increase your walking routine and listen to your body’s signals.

Joint issues: Walking can put strain on joints like the knees, hips, and ankles. If you feel pain from walking, it’s best to get your walking gait examined by a physical therapist. It doesn’t matter how comfy for your shoes are, if you’re walking incorrectly, the pain will always return.

Dealing with Health Conditions

Walking can be beneficial for those managing chronic health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, or cancer. However, it’s essential to consult with your healthcare provider before starting a walking routine to determine the appropriate intensity and duration for your unique situation.

Diabetes: Regular walking can help control blood sugar levels, but people with diabetes should monitor their blood sugar before and after exercising.

High cholesterol: Walking can lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL) while increasing “good” cholesterol (HDL), but it’s essential to maintain a healthy diet and address any additional risk factors with a healthcare professional.

Cancer: Walking can help alleviate fatigue and enhance quality of life during cancer treatment, but check with your healthcare team for personalized advice based on your specific treatment and side effects being experienced.

Protecting Your Joints and Bones

Taking care of your joints and bones is vital for a long-lasting, enjoyable walking routine. Here are some practical tips to keep in mind:

Choose the right shoes: Invest in quality, well-cushioned walking shoes. In particular, go for ones without too much heel lift, as heels will impact your walking posture.

Mind your posture: Walk with an upright posture, engaging your core muscles and avoiding excessive movement in your arms and upper body. As mentioned, it’s not a bad idea to see a physical therapist.

Vary your walking surfaces: Mixing up the terrain you walk on, such as grass, trails, and pavement, can reduce the impact on your joints and bones.

Warm-up and cooldown: Begin your walk with a gentle warm-up, such as marching in place or gently stretching your muscles. After your walk, spend a few minutes stretching to maintain flexibility and reduce the risk of injury. Luckily, your boy has written a whole program for this. Exercise Foreplay: 5-Minute Warm-Up Programs.Exercise Foreplay

Making Walking Fun

We all know that the hardest part of a workout is often just getting started. Here are some tips to help make your walking cardio routine fun, enjoyable, and something you’ll want to stick to for the long haul.

Walking with a Companion

Whether you walk with a friend, family member, or even your dog, having a companion by your side can make your walks more enjoyable. Engaging in conversation as you walk not only keeps things fun but also helps the time fly by. And if you have a dog, they’ll appreciate the exercise too! For added motivation, consider joining a local walking group where you can meet new people and discover new routes.

Creating a Walking Playlist

Put together a playlist filled with upbeat music that will boost your mood and keep you moving. Having a fun and energetic soundtrack to your walk can make a considerable difference in motivation and enjoyment. You can even switch it up frequently to keep things fresh and exciting. Additionally, the right music can help improve your posture, as you’ll find yourself walking to the beat and holding your head high.

Walk With a Podcast

If music isn’t your thing, try listening to podcasts or audiobooks during your walks. Choose topics that interest you or stories that captivate your attention. This way, you’ll not only be exercising your body but also expanding your knowledge or escaping to a different world. Time will fly by as you immerse yourself in the content, making your walking cardio routine an engaging and mentally stimulating experience.

I even do this when I train, as I wrote about in this article on why you should listen to audiobooks while you train.

Motivating Yourself to Walk

To stay consistent with your walking cardio routine, set achievable goals, and reward yourself as you reach them. Tracking your progress with a fitness app can help keep you motivated and aware of your improvements. You can also use visual cues, like marking off dates on a calendar, to remind yourself of how far you’ve come. Remember, the key is to make your walking routine enjoyable, and over time, you’ll find it becomes a natural part of your daily life.

How to Progress a Walking Routine

For those of us who already walk but want to make our cardio sessions more intense, there are several ways we can progress our walking routine. In this section, we’ll discuss a few options to increase the intensity of your walks and turn them into more effective workouts.

Increase The Incline

One great way to challenge our cardiovascular system is by increasing the incline of our path. If we’re walking on a treadmill, we can simply add an incline setting. When walking outdoors, we can look for nearby hills or even take our walks to the next level by tackling a mountain hike.

Go Rucking

Another approach to intensify our cardio walks is by adding weight, a method known as “rucking.” We can achieve this by wearing a weighted vest or carrying a backpack with some weights added. It’s essential to start with a weight that’s manageable for us, and we can gradually increase it as we get stronger and more comfortable with the extra load.

Track It

Tracking our walking stats can help us stay motivated and monitor our progress. For instance, we can time our walks and aim to improve our pace over time. Alternatively, if we decide to add weights to our walking routine, we can try to maintain our usual time despite the added challenge. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed.

In summary, incorporating inclines, adding weights, and tracking our stats can help us further develop our walking routine and turn it into a more intense cardio workout. Remember to adjust these challenges to our capabilities and always prioritize our safety and well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does brisk walking count as cardio?

Yes, brisk walking counts as cardio. When you walk at a faster pace, you challenge your cardiovascular system and increase demand, which improves overall fitness.

How can I improve my cardio while walking?

To improve cardio while walking, focus on increasing your speed, duration, and incline. Adding interval training or hill walking to your routine can also boost the intensity of your workouts and enhance your cardiovascular health.

Is walking better than other cardio exercises?

While walking can be an effective cardio workout, it’s not necessarily better than other exercises. The ideal cardio workout depends on a person’s preferences, fitness level, and goals. However, walking is an accessible and low-impact option for most people. 

How long should I walk for effective cardio?

For effective cardio benefits, we recommend walking for at least 30 minutes per day, at a moderate to brisk pace. The American Heart Association suggests aiming for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week.

How many days per week should I walk?

Aim to walk at least five days per week for optimal cardio benefits. This consistency will help you achieve the recommended 150 minutes of weekly aerobic activity and support your overall cardiovascular health.

Should I take pre-workout before my cardio walks and hikes?

You won’t want a traditional pre, but there are lots of supplements designed for cardio

Do I need to hit 10,000 steps?

While reaching 10,000 steps a day can be a motivating goal, it’s not an exact requirement for cardiovascular health. Simply doing some form of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity for 150 minutes per week is enough to promote a healthy heart.

Can walking on a treadmill provide cardiovascular benefits?

Absolutely! Walking on a treadmill can provide similar cardiovascular benefits as outdoor walking. Adjust the speed, incline, and interval settings to tailor a workout that challenges your cardiovascular system and meets your fitness goals.

Is a 30-minute walk enough for cardiovascular health?

A 30-minute walk, especially if done daily, can be sufficient for cardiovascular health. Ensure that your pace is moderate to brisk so that you challenge your heart and lungs. Consistency and intensity are key to making the most of your walk for cardiovascular benefits.

About the Author

David William Rosales is a writer and strength coach. He’s the head trainer and editor at Roman Fitness Systems. In addition to helping run RFS, he’s also the head editor for
prohockeystrength.com., the official website of the Strength and Conditioning Association of Professional Hockey. You can also check out his Instagram, he’s pretty easy on the eyes.

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