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It’s no secret that walking is having a serious moment right now. A slew of celebrities have talked about their walking routines and research has shown that hitting a certain step count daily can help lower your risk of a bevy of health issues.
But walking has a reputation for being an easier form of exercise. With that, it’s only natural to wonder, Is walking cardio exercise? The short answer: Yes. But while experts stress that getting in your steps under any circumstances is great, there are a few things you can do to take your walking routine to the next level. Here’s what you need to know.
Is walking cardio?
Yes, walking is cardio. “Walking can absolutely get your heart rate up, making it a good cardiovascular exercise,” says Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab and advisor to Promix Nutrition.
Incorporating a balance of all different types of movements—like cardio, strength, and active recovery days—is essential for a healthy heart and body, explains Marisa Golan, a certified personal trainer, Base Ops Fitness Coach at Fort Athletic Club, and owner of e(M)powered personal training. But a cardio workout doesn’t necessarily need to look like burpees and sprints (though it can if that’s what you want it to be), she says. “It really depends on what your goals are, your fitness level, and what stage of life you’re in,” she adds.
Walking is a good starter form of exercise for people who aren’t very active, but it can also be more challenging if you make tweaks, like picking up your pace or walking for longer periods of time, Matheny says. “If you’re at a good fitness level, increase your pace,” he says. “It will demand more out of your cardiovascular and muscular system, and that will get your heart rate up.”
What counts as cardio, anyway?
What’s most important when it comes to a cardiovascular workout is to get in some kind of movement that gets your heart working hard for about 30 minutes a day, five days a week, says Nicole Weinberg, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. This can sometimes look like three to four days a week of cardiovascular activities, with resistance or strength training mixed in a couple of days as well, notes Andie Hecker, a celebrity trainer who has worked with stars like Margot Robbie.
When it comes to cardio, Golan suggests your heart rate can be a good indicator of how hard you’re working. To calculate your maximum heart rate (the rate you should never exceed) you can use the basic formula of 220 minus your age. Golan says this calculation is not an end-all-be-all, and many studies have suggested it’s a little too general to be accurate. But, it’s a good baseline to work from to get an idea of where you’d like to be for a good cardio workout. Once you know your maximum heart rate, you can figure out where your heart rate should be using the three zones of exercise.
Zone one. Known as the recovery zone, Golan says your heart rate will be between 65 and 75% of your calculated maximum heart rate.
Zone two. To achieve an anaerobic workout, Golan suggests your heart rate will reach around 75 to 80% of your calculated maximum heart rate.
Zone three. For a true high-intensity workout, your heart rate will hit in this range for short periods of time. For no more than 60 seconds, your heart rate will be between 80 to 90% of the calculated maximum heart rate, Golan says.
For what cardiologists consider a cardiovascular exercise, Dr. Weinberg says you’ll need to reach the third zone or about 85% of your maximum heart rate. She emphasizes you do not need to have your heart rate at this level throughout your entire workout, but aim to achieve it throughout your exercise for solid cardiovascular benefits.
“When your heart rate is at that threshold, you have flow changes throughout your arteries,” she says. “Your heart is a muscle, so a lot of it is about working out that muscle, getting good blood flow, and having your heart expand and contrast.”
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In addition to measuring your heart rate using a heart-monitoring fitness tracker, Golan says using the talk test is a great option to ensure you’re pushing yourself to get a cardiovascular workout in. “If you’re doing cardio and you can have a full conversation without being out of breath, you’re likely not pushing yourself hard enough,” she says. Aim to be a little breathless through conversation, and you’ll likely be in a good spot for heart-healthy movement.
What are the benefits of walking, and is walking good for you?
Though you can definitely walk on a treadmill (which is a great option!), Golan says there are some great benefits of walking outside. Strolling in the sunshine can increase your vitamin D, get your blood flowing, and can be mentally refreshing (bringing you joy and lowering your stress). Additionally, Hecker loves that walking can have healing properties and is a common exercise prescribed by doctors initially after surgery.
“Walking is not just good for your heart, but it’s good for building muscle tone, good for respiratory health, it’s good for digestion, and can improve the immune system,” Dr. Weinberg adds. She always suggests taking a walk after a meal, because it can help lower blood sugars, and walking helps burn the food you just ate as fuel for your walk.
Plus, walking is especially great for those who have joint issues. “I love walking. I love it for the joints. It’s just a low-impact form of cardio,” Hecker says. “I would recommend it for anyone who has joint issues or doesn’t want to run and doesn’t want to do that high-impact, high-intensity form of cardio.”
Walking is also easily accessible, Matheny points out. “Everyone has somewhere they can walk—you don’t need to go to the gym,” he says. It can also be a great option for parents, he points out, noting that you can push a child around in a stroller while you walk.
Is walking a good cardio exercise?
Though cardiovascular exercises like running or jogging can really do the trick, Dr. Weinberg is a huge fan of walking as a form of cardio exercise that’s light on your joints. She even says that her patients who have reached advanced ages always credit walking for their longevity. But your daily walk with your dog may not quite cut it. The key to making walking an effective cardio exercise is to ensure you’re a little breathless while you move and that you are consistently moving for the full time period of your walk.
And even if your walking one day is a little lighter, Golan says this can be a great option for active recovery days, which are when you’re not necessarily working out, but are using movement to help you recover from exercise days. Additionally, a slower walk can be a great form of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which are different activities you can do where you’re moving but not necessarily doing high-intensity interval training or lifting weights, like cleaning the house or walking the dog.
“I’m all about taking walks,” Golan says. “If you’re someone who wants to work on endurance training or weight loss, it’s a great gateway to higher intensity cardio workouts.”
How to maximize your walking workout
We know that walking is a great way to get active, but you might be looking to switch things up a bit, and in the process, reap even more cardio benefits from your walk. Good news: if you’re looking to make the most of your walking workout, there’s lots of great ways to start. So, before you lace up your walking shoes, check out these expert-approved tips for kicking your walk up a notch:
1.Pump up the pace
The first thing you want to do is ensure that you’re hitting a speed to get you that breathlessness or higher heart rate. To ensure you’re able to hit the correct speed, Dr. Weinberg suggests that though a podcast can be great while walking, listening to fast-paced music or walking with a friend can help you maintain a good clip.
2. Mix it up
If you’re looking to take your walk to the next level and reap the cardiovascular benefits, Golan suggests getting your blood flowing and heart working by increasing your pace to a speed walk, walking uphill, or adding small weights to your routine. And if you’re really looking to switch it up, Golan says hiking can be a great option to be kind to your joints but still get your heart rate up.
3. Go longer
If walking at a faster rate isn’t in the cards for you, Hecker says increasing the duration of your walk can also be a great option. If you’d normally go for a 30-minute run, but you want to walk one particular day, you can for an hour for similar benefits, she says.
4. Increase your incline
If you’re into outdoor walks, this could mean hitting up hilly spots in your area and pushing your pace while you walk up them, Matheny says. But if you’re a treadmill walker, he recommends increasing the incline. “You will get more benefit,” he says.
How long should a walk be for cardio?
Again, a lot depends on what your fitness level is to start. “If you’re starting from sitting on the couch all the time, five minutes is great,” Matheny says. “But if you’re looking to where science points to a benefit, 20 minutes is a great amount for cardiovascular benefits.”
Got time to walk longer than that? Anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 steps is great for walking, Matheny says.
“There’s no magic number for everyone, but 10,000 is a great goal,” Matheny says. Worth noting: If you happen to do less than that on any given day, Matheny says that “it’s not like you’ve failed.” The goal is to be consistent and try for 10,000, if you can.
In the end, it’s important to just get yourself moving to the best of your ability. “We make exercise so complicated,” Dr. Weinberg says. “It’s really not complicated. You have two feet. You’ve got outside. Just use it.”
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