I used to run for exercise. Now I walk. I still remember the moment I made that change.
I was a runner for about five years. Did a bunch of 5k’s, half marathons, and even one marathon. At this point I was running about three miles every day. A lot of those runs were at a community park a couple miles from home. The park is right across the street from the Baltimore Ravens training facility so it was not unusual to see members of the coaching staff and front office doing a run there as well.
Typically I would run three miles and then walk for a mile. I really loved that walk at the end. One day as I got out of my car at the park I realized I was doing the run SO I COULD HAVE THAT ONE MILE WALK AT THE END. I thought, “That’s kind of dumb. Why don’t I just do a three mile walk instead?”
And, so I did.
That was seven years ago and I’ve been walking for fitness ever since. But, is walking for exercise enough?
The Centers for Disease Control recommends we each get between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate level aerobic physical activity every week. The benefits are immense according to the CDC. They include weight management and a reduced risk of many serious illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. There are also immediate benefits impacting how we think and our mood.
I’m not a doctor, so please don’t take anything I write as medical advice. That’s what YOUR doctor is for. I’m simply giving you my observations and the impact walking has had on my life and health.
I’d like to compare my five years of running with my seven years of walking.
Intensity matters with exercise. The use of the word “moderate” in the CDC’s physical activity recommendation is not frivolous. To get the health benefits of exercise we need to get our heart rate up.
Running does that pretty easily. That’s why so many of us HATE TO RUN. It can be really uncomfortable. When I started running all I could manage was going from one driveway to the next. It felt like that’s all my heart could handle.
Each day I would run a little further and add another driveway. It took weeks before I could run a mile. My heart was adjusting to the intensity of the running.
Obviously, walking doesn’t have the same intensity. Most of us have probably adjusted our walking pace to something that’s comfortable. While research indicates that even light intensity physical activity has benefits, it’s doesn’t fall into the 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise we need to get each week.
We vacation at the Outer Banks every year with close friends. There have been a few evenings where we all go for a walk on the beach. One night, when this was suggested, my friend said he’d be OK with doing that as long as it wasn’t a “forced march.” We all laughed, but the point was obvious…moving at a more intense pace would not be enjoyable for him.
For walking to meet the CDC recommendation we need at least 22 minutes every day moving at a brisk pace. If you’re getting about 1,000 steps in ten minutes you are likely going at a speed the CDC defines as a moderate.
In other words, if you take a 30 minute walk and get 3,000 steps every day you will be getting 210 minutes of the moderate level cardio exercise that has real health benefits. If you have a Fitbit that measures your heart rate you can also check to see if you’re spending enough time in the Cardio Zone.
Bottom line…for walking to work as exercise, I need to be intentional about my pace. Casual walking around the house is good, but not good enough. I need to “take a walk” every day. That’s how I get the intensity I need.
If you’re crunched for time, running is a better exercise. The CDC acknowledges this in their recommendations. If you are engaged in a vigorous-level activity you only need 75 minutes a week instead of 150.
I love time efficiency, but I’d still pick a 30 minute walk over a 15 minute run. Walking gives me the opportunity to multi-task in a way that running never did. Most of the time I was running I was thinking about what I was doing.
The first mile was always the hardest so I was convincing myself to keep going. Once I settled in, I was still thinking about my pace or the occasional twinges of pain I felt in my legs and feet. I never wanted those to get worse so I’d be making adjustments.
But, when I’m walking, even with some intensity, my mind is free to roam. I listen to podcasts or think through issues that need solutions. Walking is a great opportunity to solve problems. In fact, I’ll often delay finding a solution to a challenging issue until I can go for a walk. Walking also spurs creativity.
When I’m walking I’m usually getting other important things done at the same time. In fact, I’ll often walk longer than 30 minutes because it just feels like a super productive use of time. This is why I looked forward to that one-mile cool-down walk after my run. My mind was finally free to think about something other than running.
When I was running I always thought of it as exercise. It was a box that I had to check off to stay healthy, keep my weight down, and feel better. But, when I’m walking I almost never think of it as exercise even though it is! It’s actually one of the highlights of my day.
Even as I’m moving with some intensity walking is something I always enjoy. I mention that I use this time to listen to podcasts or think more deeply.
The flexibility of walking also allows each of us to find our own fun. One of my favorite places to walk is through Washington DC. We live less than an hour away and I try to get over there at least once a month. Each time, I mix it up between some of my favorite places in DC with discovering new areas I’ve never been.
Your thing might be hiking trails, new neighborhoods, or even on a treadmill as you binge watch a favorite show. Walking is flexible enough that most of us can find the fun!
To be clear, I didn’t hate running. There were times when it was fun too. I especially enjoyed the organized races. Being part of a large group of people doing something hard was fun. There was an energy at each of those events that I miss.
But, for daily enjoyment no physical activity, I’ll even call it exercise, has come close to walking for me.
After running a few half-marathons I decided to do a full marathon. I wasn’t really looking forward to it, but felt like I needed to do at least one. What I really wasn’t looking forward to was the many weeks of training. Race day with all that energy would be fun, but weeks of long runs felt tedious.
I never got past 15 miles, though. The pain in my right leg wouldn’t let me. There’s a ligament that runs from the pelvis down to the shin called the ITB and it was not happy. I couldn’t run more than a few miles before the pain was too much. I canceled the marathon.
Again, I’m not a doctor and I don’t want this taken as medical advice. This is simply observations from my experience.
During the five years I was a runner it felt like there was always something that hurt. If it wasn’t the ITB, it was my knee. If it wasn’t my knee it was my hip. If it wasn’t my hip it was my feet.
Now, it’s entirely possible, even probable, these issues were from doing things the wrong way. In fact, my wife kept telling me that. Ava is a runner and was able to let me know what I could do to help prevent some of these issues.
My experience of walking for exercise has been far different. I’ve been doing this for seven years now and I haven’t had to miss even a single day because of an injury. Walking is a low impact physical activity so this makes sense.
That doesn’t mean, you can’t get injured while walking. With any physical activity that’s always a possibility, but I like my long-term outlook. I believe walking for fitness is something I can keep doing even as the numbers get large on my birthday cards. I like that!
Running was my primary exercise for five years. Walking has been my primary exercise for the past seven. Not everyone wants to make that change. Ava LOVES running and would have a different take on this conversation. I’m happy for her. Truly.
As long as I’m intentional about the intensity of my walks and getting my heart rate up walking has been a great exercise for me. I’m happier and even healthier since I made the change.
If you have struggled with establishing a habit of exercise, walking is a great opportunity to change that. Casual walking is good for you, but has limited exercise value. For walking to reach the level of exercise you need to increase the intensity and your heart rate and do it consistently.
If your walking is typically a casual stroll when the weather is nice and it’s convenient, that’s a great start to establishing the habit of exercise. Instead of trying to convince yourself several times a week to get to the gym, why not turn what you are already doing and enjoying into something a little bit more.
I recommend starting with this free guide to The 30 Day Fitness Challenge.
Unless you are one of the few who can establish habits quickly, you might consider doing the Challenge two or three times until it becomes a habit for you.
If you don’t have a Fitbit I recommend the Fitbit Inspire HR. While it’s not cheap, it’s less than a few months at the gym. The Inspire HR also tracks your heart rate and sleep so you get an even wider picture of your fitness progress.
Lastly, this blog is designed to help you embrace walking for exercise. As a fitness activity, walking is sustainable, flexible, effective, and fun. Every week I post new articles with stories and helpful suggestions.
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