We all know that getting out the house for some activity can make us feel better, but that doesn’t mean we always have the energy for explosive interval training or the stamina for a long run. But can you improve your fitness with just a daily walk?
And it comes with a lot of health advantages, too. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who adhered to a walking program showed significant improvements in blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, improved depression scores with better quality of life and increased measures of endurance.
Yet despite the benefits of walking, it’s not often thought of as a way to improve your physical fitness. Instead, we tend to focus more on running or HIIT as the best ways to improve cardiovascular health and endurance. Could that be an oversight?
“One of the main false assumptions people make about walking is that they can’t get fit from it,” says Joanna Hall, founder of Walk Active. “In fact, it’s one of the most accessible forms of exercise for the majority of people, and suitable for any stage or phase of life.”
Kerry Dixon, founder of The Athlete Method, agrees. “There’s this notion that if you’re not dying after exercise, it doesn’t count. That’s not the case, and it’s not always a true indicator of improving your fitness,” she says.
How does walking improve fitness?
Exercising to improve your fitness is going to be different depending on your exercise experience and what your body can withstand. But, generally, walking can help to keep you fit, or improve your fitness.
“The body adapts to what you do most often, so if you are someone who runs all the time, walking probably won’t improve your endurance, but it can support other elements of fitness, including mental fitness,” says Kerry.
The reason being that “the more you increase your heart rate and breathing through exercise, even if it’s only slightly, the more efficient your body gets at these things,” Kerry explains. “Walking requires more blood and oxygen to circulate throughout the body so your muscles can move, and the more you practice, the stronger these organs get. Effectively, it makes the body more efficient and means they don’t have to work as hard.”
A 2013 study published in the American Heart Association journal found that walking can lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes as much as running can. The researchers compared people who moved the same distances – just at different intensities – to find that you are no better off running a quick paced 5k than you are walking it at a more gentle speed. In fact, many of the walkers actually had less of a risk of hypertension and high cholestrol, perhaps because it is more of a sustainable activity.
“Around 53% of runners will get injuries, but walking is much easier on your joints and bones,” says Joanna. “The other thing about walking is that it’s actually it’s less stress inducing, so your cortisol levels will be less elevated, which can improve the mental and physical benefits.”
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“Walking won’t get you as fit as other forms of exercise because it can’t build muscle mass in the same way as resistance training,” adds Kerry. “However, it can be a low impact way of supporting bone strength, along with increasing other elements of fitness.”
It turns out that walking can help hack your immune system, too. A Harvard Health study found that people who walked for at least 20 minutes a day, at least five days a week had 43% fewer sick days than those who only exercised once a week. And if they were ill, it was for a shorter duration and their symptoms were milder.
How to walk to get fitter
“Intensity is determined by the amount of muscle mass that is recruited, the speed and the incline,” says Joanna. “However, technique is key. Often when people want to increase their speed, they end up shortening their stride length, which reduces the muscle mass being recruited and therefore the intensity of the training.”
Nordic walking is another way to improve your fitness levels through walking. In a 2015 Spanish study, the use of Nordic poles generated higher oxygen uptake than standard walking – with no difference in perceived exertion in the individuals. Essentially, the body was getting fitter without people feeling like they were doing more.
If walking for fitness is your goal, Kerry suggests adding inclines, hand weights and increasing the speed “in order to challenge the body. But the great thing about walking is that it’s an activity we can incorporate into everyday life. Even taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting off the bus one stop early or walking rather than driving to the shop is going to have benefits on your fitness and health.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).