Ask The Trainer: Is walking enough exercise to keep me healthy?

Question: I was going to spinning classes during the colder months. Now that it’s warmed up, some days all I do is go on multiple walks. I’m not going fast enough to raise my heart rate. I have been wondering if this could be enough to stay healthy? Does your heart rate need to go up when you exercise? Are long walks enough? ~ M.A.

Answer: The simple answer is YES. Walking is enough to keep you healthy.

Take a look at humans from an evolutionary and biological standpoint: what activity are we best built for? Walking. Lots and lots of walking. Walking at a moderate to brisk pace is more than enough to bring your heart rate up and protect against cardiovascular disease. In fact, walking is the one form of exercise most modern humans aren’t getting enough of! We sit all day and then expect a 45 minute cardio or weight lifting class to work miracles.

Breaking your walks up into shorter segments throughout your day is even better! Any time you sit (or are still) for more than an hour, your body is “stagnant”. Fluids begin to pool in your lower extremities. The muscles in the front of your body tighten and the ones in the back are stretched and become weak. Getting up and walking around at regular intervals gets fluids moving, helps flush waste products out of your system, and stretches/strengthens muscles.

Walking – especially outdoors – can also be great stress relief. Stress is bad news bears. It causes everything from heart attacks and strokes to insatiable hunger and weight gain. If you lead a very stressful life, doing high intensity workouts often compounds that stress. It can lead to burnout, injury, and a host of other undesirable health problems. In some cases, reducing strenuous workouts – both duration and frequency – can be just what the doctor (or trainer) ordered! Remember that in our more-is-better culture we often fall prey to doing too much. You only need two or three high intensity workouts per week to achieve other goals you may have (see below). Your body needs recovery time and walking is the perfect “active rest”!

Fitness pyramid.png

The more complex answer to the question is: it depends on your goals.

While walking is definitely enough to keep you healthy, it may not be enough to help you lose weight or increase your athletic performance.

If you’re looking to place in your next triathlon, compete in an extreme obstacle race, or lose fat from your midsection, you’ll probably need to add workouts on top of your walking. Did you get that last part in italics? Walking a minimum of 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day is baseline. Any other exercise performed to achieve a more specific goal is the icing on your “health cake”, and should be undertaken cautiously. Resistance training and high intensity exercise can be overdone. Being fit does not necessarily equate to being healthy…some of the fittest people on earth are actually very unhealthy. (I could easily launch into a diatribe on health vs. fitness…but I’ll save that for another day.)

Bottom Line: Walking, especially outdoors, is the best type of activity for general human health. Ideally you'll also be doing a little bit of resistance training and high intensity work each week (see my "perfect health pyramid" on the right). But if you like walking and are enjoying your time in nature while the weather is nice, you should relish this opportunity to give your body a break from the high intensity work! The spin classes will still be there when the snow starts to fly! If your goals advance beyond general health and wellness (i.e. fat loss and/or athletic performance) you may need to do more.

I hope this was helpful! Thank you for asking great questions and reading my blog!