Do I really need interval training for fitness walking results?

Interval training is great for heart health and burning calories faster while walking, but it’s not strictly necessary for best results. Interval training involves short periods of brisk walking followed by rest periods of regular walking to catch your breath. Varying your speed can burn calories faster than regular walking, allowing you to get a more efficient workout in a short time or burn even more calories in the time you have. That said, doing intervals or varying your speed isn’t the only way to get fit and burn calories. Fortunately, intervals are versatile enough that almost anyone can do them, and they’re often easier than speed or power walking for long periods of time.

We’ll cover whether interval walking is really necessary for fitness results, and how brisk walking and leisurely walking can approach interval results as well.

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Why people use interval training, or switching speeds while walking

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Alternating speeds during your walk or “interval training” (when done at regular intervals) is a popular way to increase the intensity of your exercise. When walking for weight loss or fitness, it’s common for people to look for any advantage that they can get to get the most of the time they have to walk. Interval training is great for cardiovascular fitness, and it burns calories faster than steady state walking meaning that you can get your workout done faster.

Fast, intense walking can be tough because it’s easy to burn yourself out early in the walk and be unable to maintain the pace. You may find yourself having to take breaks or cut your speed to rest up. Interval training is actually doing precisely that, only intentionally! Walk at a very brisk pace for a short time, then slow down to rest and recover. You can be creative and set intervals however you like – 30 seconds on and 2 minutes off, 1 minute on and one minute off or whatever works for you.

You’ll get the benefit of hard, intense exercise without having to maintain it for a long time in a row. Studies on interval training often focus on high intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves doing very intense exercise in short bursts followed by longer periods of recovery. That includes maximum or near maximum effort, like running at a dead sprint or doing intense fitness moves. Your calorie burn from interval walking will depend on just how intense you’re getting on your fast intervals. Varying your pace can still increase your calorie burn and add a fun challenge to your walks, however.

Is there anything wrong with walking at a steady speed?

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There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fitness walking at a constant speed. Speed walking or regular brisk walking is a great way to burn calories and get fit as well. Even if you’re not intentionally walking intervals, you may need to adjust your speed during your walks depending on your energy level and where you happen to be in your route. Keeping up a consistent, fast pace takes practice and trial and error to pace yourself correctly. 

One of the main benefits of interval training is that you can burn the same amount of calories in a shorter amount of time, with the added intensity that it brings. You can duplicate the benefits of interval training by just walking longer periods of time, or increasing the pace of your walks. For intense HIIT at near maximum intensity you’d need to do about 50 minutes of steady cardio to match 20 minutes of HIIT. Fitness walking intervals will probably not be anywhere near that intense, so you won’t need quite as long to match the calorie burn from intervals. 

To increase your pace, try using Pacer’s GPS walk tracking to track your speed and check your pace from time to time to see how you’re doing. You can also add extra time to your walks little by little until you’re walking longer and burning a ton of calories.

What if I just want to do a leisurely walk?

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The truth is that every step you take counts towards health and fitness. Studies have shown that even light or low-intensity physical activity offers great health benefits – particularly compared to sedentary behavior. Getting up for a few minutes during long periods of sitting, or replacing a little TV time with walking really adds up. A fun, leisurely walk can be just the thing to get you up and moving. 

Some people simply don’t like to do intense fitness walking, and that’s ok! While it is possible to increase your calorie burn by walking faster, the increase is typically less than you might think (25-50% at maximum). Even a leisurely walk while window shopping or checking the scenery means burning calories and improving your fitness. It is important to be realistic about your calorie burn and pair walking with healthier eating, but you can succeed in hitting your fitness goals no matter how fast you walk.

In addition, no one exercises ALL of the time. Even elite athletes don’t sprint around while going to the grocery story or shopping for clothes. By walking more when you’re not doing a dedicated exercise session you’ll burn additional calories and get more benefits than exercise alone. Try taking the stairs periodically instead of the elevator (or walking a floor or two when you do take the elevator), taking an indirect path when taking breaks at the office and going a little out of your way when walking outside. It’ll be easier to get those steps since you’re already out and active, and you won’t need to take time away from your regular exercise routine.

How to pick up the pace (and have fun)

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If you’re interested in adding fast intervals to your walks, here are some tips to add them in safely and effectively.

Tips for adding intervals

  • Find the right path: A flat, long, uncrowded area works best
  • Warm up and cool down: You should do this every cardio session
  • Ease in gradually: Start with slower and shorter intervals than you believe you can do and work your way up
  • Time your intervals: This ensures you’re doing the proper amount of intense and moderate exercise
  • Skip intervals when necessary: You can always skip one or more intense intervals if you’re feeling tired

Make interval walking more fun

  • Track your overall pace: Use Pacer’s GPS walk tracking to see how far and how fast your interval walks are
  • Gradually increase speed and time: To get more intense, increase the speed of the fast intervals, the length of fast intervals, or both (but gradually). Have fun breaking your old records!
  • Listen while you walk: Music can help keep up the pace during fast intervals. Podcasts are a great way to keep you company too.
  • Dress for success: Intervals can be intense, so wear light, moisture-wicking clothes to stay cool
  • Embrace your inner athlete: No matter what your fitness level, interval walking can make you feel like you’re doing an incredible workout. Get into the zone and have fun!

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