Cyclists or runners may zoom past you while you take your daily walk around the neighborhood, but are their fast and furious workouts any better than your choice of movement? After all, getting in a run, ride, or swim may not be possible for everyone, at every fitness level, at every stage of life. We asked experts to answer our question once and for all: is walking cardio? Plus, we’re sharing all of the benefits of walking and how to make it an even more effective workout (hello, power walking!).
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.
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.
Is walking cardio? And what counts as cardio, anyway?
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.”
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.
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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