Walking is the trendiest new form of exercise. Here's why.

·7 min read
A group of friends walking a scenic pier in Hawaii.(Getty Creative)
Is walking the latest fitness trend? (Getty Creative)

As a writer who mostly worked from home, attending an exercise class first thing in the morning was a way to see other humans, break up the monotony of the day and stay fit when most of my week involved being planted in a desk chair. Yet when gyms shuttered in March 2020, I found myself moving from my desk to the couch without much activity in between. As a way to keep busy and get in some much-needed exercise, I started going on neighborhood walks with a friend, typically clocking more than 10,000 steps — that's about 4 to 5 miles — in a single session.

Spin class and brunch have since returned, but walking has now become a regular part of my life. Apparently, I’m not alone. Scroll through TikTok and you’ll find people talking about their walking routines with the same enthusiasm as fans of boutique fitness classes like Rumble, Barry’s Bootcamp and SoulCycle.

It seems that walking is having a moment, especially during a time when not everyone is eager to get back to a gym. Mia Lind, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, went viral on social media after she rebranded her daily walks. In January 2021, Lind took to TikTok to introduce the world to “Hot Girl Walks” and revealed how the 4-mile walks she takes around her neighborhood have benefited her life.

“I started ‘Hot Girl Walk-ing’ in November of 2020 because I was looking for a sustainable way to stay in shape without going to a gym because of COVID,” she explains to Yahoo Life over email. “I really was not a good runner and never felt motivated to go, so I needed to find something I actually was motivated to do.”

Despite the image-conscious name, Lind insists that the Hot Girl Walk is not about weight loss or looking a certain way. Instead, there’s a mental health component to the Hot Girl Walk: You must spend your Hot Girl Walk thinking exclusively of things you’re grateful for, your goals and how you will achieve them and, last, how hot you are.

“I think one of the biggest reasons people like to work out, or are motivated to work out, is that there is a community and there is some kind of routine,” she says. “Before the Hot Girl Walk, it kind of felt shameful to say ‘I'm going on a walk’ because it seemed like going on a run is the superior form of exercise. However, once I branded ‘Hot Girl Walking,’ the whole attitude toward walking changed and I think really removed a lot of the superiority complex and gatekeeping behind a lot of exercise communities. Walking 4 miles, or less if you want, is something most people can do, and the mindfulness aspect is something that everybody can do as well. Giving a structure, name and community to walking has validated it as an exercise and essentially given people ‘permission’ to exercise without the sole purpose of burning a ton of calories.”

As it turns out, that’s why a lot of people love walking: There’s no instructor screaming at you to go harder, no calorie tracker on an elliptical encouraging you to raise your resistance. While it may be trendy now to embrace your Hot Girl Walk, many people I connected with on social media about the topic say they were just waiting for the world to get onboard.

Elana Fishman, who calls herself a “power walking evangelist,” started walking at least 3 miles a day more than a decade ago, when she moved to New York City. While it initially was a way for her to avoid the subway, there were surprising mental health benefits.

“I've struggled with anxiety all my life and find long walks to be an excellent way to calm my brain; by removing myself from social media, my to-do list and other daily distractions, I can just be alone with my thoughts. It's like meditation in motion,” she explains. “I hate loud, sweaty workout classes with a passion and find running deeply unpleasant, but power walking is a low-impact alternative that I truly look forward to each day.”

Gigi Robinson, who lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder, also found the practice a welcome alternative to traditional workouts.

“Walking has been one of the only things that I can do [for exercise due to the pandemic] because I am immunocompromised,” she says. “I didn’t like going to the gym to begin with because of my messed up relationship with exercise, so getting outside was a great way for me to start to move my body in a productive way. I can clear my head and try to reset my mindset, especially around social media or when I am consuming a lot of different things throughout the day.”

Wellness and fitness concept — low-angle view of running women in the park on a sunny morning.
Experts say walking has surprising benefits. (Getty Creative)

Kim Caramele, meanwhile, found walking was a reprieve from more intense workouts. Though she played college volleyball, she called the training for the sport “brutal” — it was definitely not something she wanted to do in the off-season. When she started working with a fitness coach who had her walking 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day instead of hitting the gym, something just clicked.

“I hated lifting weights and running on a treadmill ... it all just felt so goal-oriented for me, and I hate feeling like I'm doing something for the sole purpose of losing weight,” Caramele says. “It makes me feel like when I eat something unhealthy, I've undone the workout somehow. But with walking, I never felt pressure to not eat [poorly]. I didn't think it ‘canceled out’ any of my steps.”

Julia Yorks echoed the statement, explaining, “When you think ‘exercise,’ you think breaking a sweat. Being winded. But there’s been enough stress on all of us these past 18 months, and I’ve come to realize that my body actually responds better to gentle, less intense workouts. I’ve been walking and doing 15-minute Pilates workouts exclusively for months now, and I feel more comfortable in my body now than ever before.”

While many of the people I spoke with had a relationship with walking well before the pandemic, it is easy to see the connection between new walkers and the stress of the last year and a half. The coronavirus pandemic revealed the silver lining in a slowed-down life, but for years, popular workouts like HIIT (high-intensity interval training) were praised for providing results as quickly as possible — provided you worked to your peak in that short span of time, that is. Walking, however, never asks you to push yourself to capacity. In fact, while you can extend your walking time, there’s really no way to “improve” at walking.

Tony Coffey, a personal trainer and the founder of Bloom Training, says that in terms of physiological benefits, walking can increase heart, lung, joint and muscular health. But mostly, walking wins out because it “fits into most working adults’ lives.”

“The easier something fits into someone's life, the more likely they can be consistent with it. And consistency is what drives progress over anything else,” he adds. “Walking is incredible at increasing the part of the metabolism we call N.E.A.T. (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which makes up roughly 15 percent of our daily calorie burn. This can be just as impactful as going to the gym or hitting a workout class.”

Joel Sanders, director of adult training at Exos, a physical therapy and sports medicine center, says that the biggest benefits come from increased movement.

“We like to say that movement is medicine and motion is lotion. Sitting is the new smoking. Our bodies were built to move, and people think and feel better when they move,” he explains. “It is incredibly valuable for your physical well-being. Have you ever seen someone confined to a hospital bed that develops sores? Do you ever get a [crick] in your neck when working at a computer? Our bodies crave movement.”

Of course, that movement can come about in many different ways, but if you find yourself happier after taking a Hot Girl Walk — or, you know, just a lunchtime stroll — you’re right on trend.