There are lots of reasons walking workouts are so popular. Walking boasts all the health and fitness benefits of other low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS) workouts.
Plus, they’re convenient and accessible. You don’t need a fancy gym or a lot of equipment to walk. Walking workouts are customizable to your personal ability. And they’re good for people of all fitness levels and ages.
TikToker @exactlyliketheothergirls claims to have coined the term “hot girl walk,” which has taken the social media platform by storm. Her January 2021 video shows her weight-loss transformation that she attributes to the “hot girl walk” (which details her playlist and other recommendations). The video was viewed three million times and sparked the trending hashtag #hotgirlwalk (540.3M views) that appears on videos like those from @meeksbruh (16.6M views), @virginiakilmartin (1.6M views), and @nataliexelise (1.6M views).
But are the glories of walking overrated? Here we bust a few myths and back up the cold hard truth about walking as exercise.
1. Myth: Walking 10,000 Steps a Day Is Ideal
Many people use 10,000 steps as a benchmark for a daily goal, but this number actually originated as part of a marketing campaign rather than coming from scientific evidence, explains Amy Bantham, DrPH, CEO and founder of Move to Live More, a health and fitness consulting company. Bantham has conducted research on physician exercise referrals and patient exercise behavior change.
There isn’t yet conclusive scientific evidence showing that this number is the ideal target for better health than a lower daily step count, Bantham says.
One study published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine did show that walking more steps each day was incrementally linked to more benefit when it came to reduction in cancer and heart disease incidence, as well as mortality up to 10,000 daily steps, at which point the benefit leveled off.
Anthony Wall, personal trainer, and director of international business development for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), says what is clearer from the research is that more steps are generally linked to more benefit. According to another study, published in JAMA in 2020, people who took 8,000 steps a day had a 50 percent lower risk of dying than those who took only 4,000, for instance. And people who took 12,000 steps had a 65 percent lower risk of dying than those who only took 4,000.
The bottom line is that the jury is still out on an exact minimum number of daily steps that delivers the most benefit. And while step counts are good tangible goals that work for many people, there are other good fitness markers like time and frequency, Wall says.
2. Fact: Walking Helps Immune Function and Digestion
People who walk tend to experience fewer colds because mild exercise stimulates your immune system says Michael Fredericson, MD, sports medicine physiatrist, doctor, and surgeon at Stanford Medicine. According to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people who reported exercising five days a week or more (the study specifically looked at aerobic exercise, but not necessarily just walking) are 43 percent less likely to be sick with an upper respiratory tract infection (like a common cold) than those who didn’t exercise during the week. The study showed that even by partaking in moderate exercise for 20 minutes at least one day a week, you are less likely to get sick. (The researchers looked at whether study participants got sick over a 12-week period to reach these conclusions.)
When walking, or exercising, you are increasing your heart rate and blood flow, which increases circulation of immune cells in the body, Fredericson says.
The increase in blood flow is also what gets your digestive tract rolling. One small study, for instance, found that walking and drinking water after a meal kept things moving through the digestive tract (referred to by the researchers on the study as “gastric emptying”) better than consuming a digestif, like brandy, aquavit, espresso, or water alone.
3. Myth: Walking Can Cure Depression and Anxiety
Most exercise is associated with mental health benefits, but in most cases, no single exercise, like walking, can by itself cure a clinical disorder.
How does walking affect mood? Most people operate in a sympathetic or more stressful state, Fredericson says, and exercising can bring a person into a parasympathetic or more relaxed state.
And the increased blood flow in the brain produces more endorphins. “It can help us reset, recharge and refocus, whether we are children trying to concentrate in the classroom or adults trying to overcome writer’s block,” she says.
4. Myth: Running Is Always Superior to Walking
Walking is a low-impact exercise that offers benefits such as promoting endorphin release, increasing blood flow to the body and the brain, and improving bone health, without exerting the extra strain on your joints, Bantham says.
For the general public, walking is easier on the body than running, Fredericson says, and there is less chance of injury. Plus this low-impact activity is something that everyone can do. Running is more of a skill, and some people have bodies that better accommodate this type of activity, he says. Hip and knee alignment, body weight, and the shape of your foot’s arch can either predispose you to issues or lead to your success when running, he says.
A lot of people ask if should they run or walk, Wall adds, and it comes down to one simple thing: What is your goal? If you are looking to get fit and improve things like oxygen capacity and CO2 output, then running is a better tool, he says. If you are looking for things like blood pressure reduction, feeling better, or better sleep, walking is better for this.
Moderate to intense walking can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes when expending the same amount of energy as running, research has found.
5. Myth: You Shouldn’t Walk Every Day of the Week
Because walking is a low-intensity activity, it is perfectly reasonable for people to get out and walk each day, Wall said. “If you think about any population in a city in the United States, these walkable cities, people are walking every day,” he says. “One of the benefits is it’s something that most people, assuming they don’t have preexisting conditions, can do on a daily basis.”
However, if you are really exerting yourself on your walks, Fredericson says, then it might be good to take one rest day a week or incorporate other forms of exercise like cycling or swimming into your routine.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PDF), adults should do 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (such as brisk walking) a week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (such as running) a week for substantial health benefits.
6. Fact: You Must Walk Faster to Burn More Calories
While any activity burns calories, the more intensity you bring to your workouts, the more calories you burn. That’s true for walking, too. The number of calories burned in a given workout depends on the individual’s weight and body composition, Bantham says.
Harvard Health published comparisons of calories burned in 30 minutes based on the activity and weight range. A 155-pound person burns 133 calories per 30 minutes of walking at 3.5 miles per hour, and 175 calories per 30 minutes of walking at 4 miles per hour.
That means if someone’s goal is fat loss, you’re going to need to walk at a higher intensity or walk for much longer than other activities to see those desired results, he says.
To make your walks more of a challenge and up the number of calories burned during your walk, intervals (alternating between higher and moderate or lower intensity periods of movement) are a great way to do this, Fredericson says. Incorporating intervals are great for fitness because your heart rate is more elevated than when you leisurely walk, ultimately burning more fat and calories.
7. Myth: You Have to Walk 30 Minutes Continuously to See Health Benefits
Based on the HHS Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans’ goal of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, Wall recommends people walk 30 minutes every day, five times a week to reach this baseline.
A common misconception, however, is that you must complete these 30 minutes consecutively, Fredericson said. You can break it up into smaller segments and walk five to 10 minutes at a time multiple times throughout the day and still get the same benefits of walking 30 minutes once in a day, he says.