Walking vs caffeine for energy – get a natural energy boost!

Did you know that walking can actually give you more energy than caffeine? A 2017 study found that a 10-minute walk gets you a bigger energy boost than a cup of tea or a single espresso shot. If its mid-afternoon and your energy level is starting to fall, go for a walk instead of reaching for another coffee. You’ll not only feel happier and more creative, but you’ll also have more energy, burn some calories and get closer to your personal daily step goals.

While moderate-intensity walks can give you that coffee-like energy boost and help you hit your daily recommended walking goals, there are tweaks you can make to ensure you don’t burn yourself out on your walks. We’ve also covered additional tips on walking for energy, as well as ways to get your caffeine fix with fewer calories. Here’s how to get healthier and more energetic by getting active!

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Walking really can give you more energy than caffeine

Man walking in the park with coffee
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Low to moderate intensity stair walking made people feel more energized than 50 mg of caffeine, according to a 2017 study from the University of Georgia at Athens. The study compared a 50 mg caffeine pill (about the same as a single espresso shot, half a cup of brewed coffee or a cup of black tea), a placebo pill (that contained no caffeine) or 10 minutes of low to moderate stair walking. 

It turned out that walking beat the caffeine pill, at least for the sleep-deprived women! Stair climbing was chosen because most office workers have access to stairs, and can get a quick workout in by walking stairs regardless of the weather outside. While the study focused on walking stairs, these findings should apply to other forms of exercise as well (like walking workouts).

We should note that the study only involved 18 women, so the sample size was very small. The study also involved women ages 18-23 who did mild but not extreme physical activity and got less than 45 hours of sleep per week (6.4 hours per day or less than recommended sleep). This means that the results may not translate to people who are getting enough sleep, or people who do more activity throughout the day. Still, it’s an interesting finding that seems to work for many people in real life.

Another important finding is that the advantage of walking over caffeine wore off over time. After about an hour, according to Reuters, the caffeine group and walking group reported the same amount of energy boost. Still, walking is generally great for your health and even short walks instead of drinking coffee or soda can help you burn calories and add a few thousand extra steps to your total as well. Over time, that latte you’re drinking instead of walking could be the difference between burning some stubborn belly fat or hitting a weight-loss plateau.

What are other people saying

Office worker walking up the steps at work
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Try taking a walk when you’re feeling tired and see the energy-boosting affects yourself. In a piece for Prevention.com, Concetta Smith tried replacing her morning coffee with a 30-minute morning walk. She found that she had more energy, which lasted through the morning. Concetta also found that she had a more gradual dropoff in energy rather than the energy cliff that came with her morning coffee.

This makes sense, as exercise has been shown to increase energy and boost mood in a variety of ways. While the length of the energy and mood boost varies depending on the study, getting active is a great way to get more energy if you’re feeling tired or down.

Ways to get more energy from your walks

Woman holding coffee and smiling
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Don’t empty your gas tank (for energy walks)

Depending on your situation, both a brisk morning walk in the cool air or a 5-minute stroll around your office building can be a great energy boost. Just make sure that you’re not walking so fast that you wear yourself out and become tired. If you’re tired from sitting at work and go for a quick walking break, you can stand to walk at a quicker, brisk pace since you’re only going for a short time. If you have more time and go on a longer walk, consider decreasing the pace a bit so you have energy left to recover and get back to your other tasks.

Take at least 5 minutes

While standing up and walking to the water cooler is better for your energy than sitting in place, you’re better off extending your walk a bit so you have the ability to settle into a brisk walking pace. This isn’t always possible if you’re at work or watching a young child, for instance, but take an extra minute or two when you can to get your heart pumping a bit during your fitness walks.

Stay active to keep your energy level high

Businessman in dress clothes running up stairs
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While walking did result in increased energy for study participants, this effect was more of a short-term boost. According to Reuters, after about an hour the exercise and caffeine groups were back to having similar energy levels. One walk won’t keep you energized throughout the day, but if you can fit in multiple short walks throughout your day you can keep that energy level high.

Schedule your walking breaks at the right times

Try to schedule walking breaks for periods of the day where you know your energy level will be lower. Many people feel a lull in mid-afternoon, when they’ve been up for a while and they’re digesting their lunch. Developing a habit to walk during these periods is much better for you than reaching for an energy drink, and ensures that you don’t forget or miss this important walking time. Even if you can’t control your break times, try to schedule walking breaks in your day whenever you can make time. You’ll be more likely to stick to your walking plan if you’ve already set a time to walk in advance.

When walking energy isn’t enough

Get more sleep

Man sleeping soundly in bed
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At least 1 in 3 Americans doesn’t get enough sleep, according to the CDC. Lack of sleep doesn’t just result in lower energy, but according to the UK NHS, chronic lack of sleep can put you at risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes and premature death. Instead of using caffeine to make up for poor sleep, focus on removing distractions from your bedroom, putting your phone into sleep mode prior to lying down and stopping caffeine long before bedtime. Scheduling a morning walk can be a great way to get better sleep. It gives you a reason to get up early and can help balance your circadian rhythm so that you’re ready to sleep at night time.

Stick with unsweetened tea or black coffee

Barista holding shots of espresso
jesterpop / Shutterstock

If you do need a caffeine boost, stick to unsweetened tea or black coffee. Coffee and tea are essentially zero-calorie beverages, which can give you the caffeine burst that you need without added calories. A standard latte has about 200 calories, depending on what goes into it, while specialty drinks with flavored syrup shots have even more. That would take almost an hour of walking for a 130-pound person to burn off or more than a half hour for a 180-pound person.

According to Healthline, an average 8-oz cup of brewed coffee has about 95 mg of caffeine, while a standard double shot of espresso has about 116 mg. A brewed cup of black tea has anywhere between 50-95 mg of caffeine. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to about 400 mg/day (or about 4 cups of coffee) is generally seen as safe. For people sensitive to caffeine, that number should be even less. Walking is a great way to get a natural energy boost without adding additional caffeine.

Note that many store-bought, pre-bottled coffees and teas come with sugar and/or milk already added. You can save money by brewing your own, or look for specifically labeled unsweetened iced tea or iced coffee. Cold brew coffee, often sold in concentrated form, is a great (though potentially expensive) alternative to bottled coffee drinks.

Add your own milk or sugar (if necessary) and look into low-cal sweeteners

If you do need to add sugar or milk to your coffee, make sure to do it yourself instead of having your coffee shop or chain restaurant add it for you. You can save calories and sugar by adding as little as possible. You can also gradually decrease your added sugar as you get more used to unsweetened beverages.

There are also a variety of no-cal or low-cal sweeteners that you can try. Research is mixed, and there is some evidence that no-cal sweeteners can lead to weight gain. Using sweeteners sparingly and in limited amounts is generally a good idea.

Swap out sodas and energy drinks

Sugary sodas and highly caffeinated energy drinks are almost guaranteed to blow a hole in your healthy eating plan. Regular soda is essentially pure sugar water, packed with calories and empty of nutrients. Energy drinks combine huge amounts of caffeine and other stimulants with a ton of sugar, which makes them both calorie bombs and a recipe for a sugar crash when the sugar rush wears off. Zero-sugar options are probably better for you, but research indicates that they may still promote weight gain and not be good for your health in general (see links above).

Instead, swap out your sodas and energy drinks for water or low-cal drinks like coffee and tea.

Final thoughts

Walking is a great way to feel energized naturally, without having to use caffeine to get you an energy boost. A brisk walk can give you more energy than a single shot of espresso, and it also burns calories, boosts your fitness and improves your mood at the same time.

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