There are lots of walks in life: the catwalk, the moonwalk, the walk of shame. But for most of us, walking is just a great way to get around. It’s also one of the easiest forms of exercise, since it requires no equipment and minimal training.
At the same time, we all know that walking from the bedroom to the living room isn’t going to count toward your cardio goals. So when does walking turn into legit exercise?
How to turn walking into a cardio workout
If you want to get a real workout in during your daily walk, you’ll need to challenge your cardiovascular system enough to at least hit a moderate intensity level. You can do that by picking up the pace, adding an incline (hello, hills!), or walking a longer distance.
But how do you know if you’ve reached the right intensity level? Well, according to the CDC, moderate intensity means you should be able to talk but not quite able to sing.
If you’re not willing to belt out a ballad to see if you’re working hard enough, you can also check your heart rate. It should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate.
Before you get too caught up in the details, know that walking in all forms and at all paces is still good for you. According to Dr. Robert Graham at FRESH Medicine at Physio Logic NYC, “All exercise counts. Exercise helps everything from preventing heart disease to depression.”
But if you’re looking to use walking as your daily sweat sesh, when does it become cardio?
“Cardio” — short for “cardiovascular exercise” — refers to activity that involves or requires oxygen to meet the energy demands of your body. Any activity that increases your heart rate and respiration rate while using large muscles repetitively and rhythmically (yep, including sex) can fit the bill.
Walking can fit into that category if you walk at a moderate intensity, which means it’s actually challenging your cardiovascular system by putting increased demands on your muscles and heart.
But what does “moderate intensity” even mean? According to Graham, a moderate level of activity noticeably increases your heart rate and breathing rate.
“Simply put, you may sweat, but you are still able to carry on a conversation. You can talk, but you can’t sing,” he says.
You can also check your heart rate to see if your efforts are up to snuff. The CDC says your heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate during moderate intensity exercise.
Finding your moderate intensity heart rate
To start, you’ll need to find your maximum heart rate. It’s not a perfect science, but you can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.
For example, if you’re 30, your maximum heart rate is about 190 beats per minute (bpm).
You then need to find 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate to determine your moderate intensity heart rate range.
So, if your max heart rate is 190 bpm, your moderate intensity heart rate range is 121 to 144 bpm.
You’ve got options. To increase your walking intensity, you can add an incline, pick up your pace, or walk a longer distance — or all of the above!
The specific incline, pace, and distance you’ll need to tackle to achieve moderate intensity totally depends on your activity level, weight, and health history. No two walkers are the same, so what feels like an easy stroll for you could be a moderate intensity walk for your BFF, or vice versa.
According to the CDC, a “brisk walking” pace for most people is 3 miles or 5 kilometers per hour, or about 20 minutes per mile and 12 minutes per kilometer. Walking faster than 4 miles per hour (under 15 minutes per mile) is considered a fast pace — and definitely cardio.
Not sure what pace you’re walking at? Put a little pep in your step during your next walk. See if you break a small sweat. Or next time you hit the gym, get on the treadmill and set the pace to 3 miles per hour to get a feel for it. Then ask yourself if you can safely increase the pace to 3.5 or 4 miles per hour and maintain that pace for at least 30 minutes.
Walking is exercise — and it comes with a lot of benefits.
“Walking improves everything, [including] general fitness, cardiac health, depression, and fatigue. It improves mood, reduces the risk for cancer and numerous chronic diseases, [and] improves circulation and even posture,” says Graham.
Wondering if running might be even better for you than walking?
A 2013 study compared the results of a National Runners’ Health Study with those of a National Walkers’ Health Study and found that the energy used for moderate intensity walking and vigorous intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease over a 6-year period.
So yes, running is an excellent workout, but you’ll see a lot of the same benefits from slowin’ it down a bit.
If you want to see some major benefits from walking, challenge yourself by increasing your intensity to at least a moderate level. You can do that by walking faster, picking a longer walking route, or hitting the hills.
Moderate intensity walks are super beneficial for your body (and your mood) and may be just as effective as running in warding off chronic diseases and health conditions that can lead to much bigger problems. And how many of your favorite workouts can you do at every age? Walking wins.
Plus, it’s fun. Hit the pavement with a friend, enjoy a stroll with your pup, or catch up on your favorite podcast while you’re out and about. Need more than that? Try picking a fun destination or using a fitness tracker to keep a step count competition going with your friends or co-workers.
Get some comfy sneakers, put on a colorful sweat-wicking outfit, pop in some headphones, and get those legs moving. Do it for your heart, your body, and your soul.