Walking is the most popular and widely recommended type of cardio exercise, and all cardio workouts should share some important elements. Cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, gets your heart pumping and helps to strengthen your heart and lungs. You’ll also burn calories, increase your endurance and feel energized and amazing while doing cardio walking. Treat walking like a real cardio workout and you’ll feel better before, during, and after and maximize the benefits from your walking. Serious cardio walking will get you further towards your step goal at the same time!
You should follow many of the same rules when walking for fitness or doing any kind of cardio workout. Here’s how to do your walking workouts like a pro!
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What is cardio?
Cardio or cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, is exercise that raises your heart rate, speeds up your breathing and requires more oxygen for your body to continue to perform it. The word “aerobic” means “with oxygen.” Typically, cardio or aerobic exercise is an exercise that’s done at a moderate intensity level but sustained for a long period of time. Think walking or jogging as opposed to sprinting or lifting weights.
Because cardio workouts require your heart and lungs to keep pumping oxygen so your muscles can keep going, over time cardio exercise will improve the performance of your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. If you’ve had a layoff due to injury or inactivity, you may notice your heart really pumping hard and you may feel out of breath from a cardio workout that was previously not difficult at all. As you build up your endurance and do more cardio, you may feel not feel out of breath even during a fast-paced, brisk walk.
Contrast this with anaerobic exercise, which is typically very short but intense bursts of exercise. Lifting weights or strength training is an example of anaerobic exercise. You might lift a heavy weight for 2 seconds at a time, 8 times in a row. You probably would not be able to bench press continually for an hour, however. Anaerobic exercise requires more energy than your body can produce from just oxygen and produces lactic acid that builds up in your muscles. This makes your muscles tired, which is one reason why anaerobic exercise usually cannot be sustained for very long.
Is walking cardio?
Walking is absolutely a form of cardio exercise! Walking is actually recommended by almost all health organizations (like the CDC) as the main or base form of cardio for most people. Walking is classified as moderate-intensity aerobic activity, though a very leisurely walk may be on the light end and interval walking or some intense incline walking might be on the higher end.
The CDC recommends 150 minutes of walking (or other similar cardio) per week at a minimum. That’s about 30 minutes of walking per day, 5 days a week. You could also swap that for 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio (like jogging or team sports). You can get even more benefits by increasing that number to 300 minutes of moderate cardio (about an hour a day of walking) or 150 minutes of vigorous cardio daily. There’s no one solid line differentiating moderate and vigorous-intensity exercise, however, so doing some brisk power walking or a short, intense walking workout can help get maximum benefits from your weekly cardio if you can’t work 300 minutes in per week.
What should a cardio walking workout look like:
A proper, effective cardio workout consists of a few separate components. You could theoretically just start walking or jogging as fast as you could, but that’s not the best way to get your exercise and prevent injuries. An effective cardio workout consists of a warmup, a working period of your main cardio walking, and a cooldown.
Before you start getting into your brisk fitness walk (or other form of cardio), you should start with a warmup that gets your blood flowing into your muscles and prepares your body for your fitness walk. The best way to start your warmup is to simply start a slow, leisurely walk and gradually pick up the pace. Most warmups should last at least 5 minutes. You’re still getting steps, getting active and reducing your risk of injury so those 5 minutes are very important indeed.
While stretching can be part of your warmup, you don’t want to start intense static stretches until after you’ve warmed up. Cold stretching can actually increase your risk of injury. When you do stretch, most experts currently prefer dynamic stretching – using movement and light stretches instead of trying to pull on your limbs as hard as possible. You can try these Pacer walking stretches, preferably after you’ve walked for a few minutes and are feeling limber.
Your warmup should bring you to at most about 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. This should be at less than a brisk pace. If you’re feeling out of breath or tired during your warmup, you’re warming up too hard.
Main cardio exercise
Once you’re warmed up, you can increase your speed to your brisk, cardio walking pace. This should form the bulk of your workout. That doesn’t mean that you can’t vary your walking speed during cardio exercise! You can walk at a steady pace, or incorporate intervals or different types of fitness walking to increase and decrease the intensity as you see fit.
A great way to vary your cardio walking workout is to plan for a tougher section, with hills or stairs to walk up or down during your walk. That’s the equivalent of varying the difficulty settings on a treadmill, and can help boost you closer to that vigorous-intensity level at certain points in your walk.
If you do add in some intense sections, try to balance those with regular or even slower walking sections to help your body recover. Aerobic cardio exercise becomes more like anaerobic exercise at very high-intensity levels. That means that as you get very intense (think of running at a full sprint), your body requires more energy than it can obtain from oxygen alone. It’s not necessarily bad for you (though it can be dangerous for people with certain health conditions), but it does mean that your body will need time to recover. If you decide to quickly walk up a long outdoor staircase, you may want to slow your walk for a few minutes afterward to balance it out.
Especially during intense exercise, you should gradually taper off your exercise instead of stopping abruptly. Take 5-10 at the end of your workout to walk at a slower pace, which will allow your body to gradually return to a resting state. There are a couple important reasons to cool down.
As you do intense cardio exercise, the blood vessels in your legs expand to help carry that oxygen to your leg muscles and power your walk. If you stop suddenly, you may start to feel dizzy or lightheaded as that oxygen-carrying blood was pooling in your legs. In extreme cases, it’s possible to faint from stopping exercise so quickly.
Cooling down also helps to prevent muscle soreness after exercise. Stopping suddenly without cooling down can result in muscle pain and cramps, especially in the legs.As you exercise, your muscles consume oxygen and produce waste products that are removed in your blood. You want to ensure that you’re still getting good blood flow to your muscles so that lactic acid and other exercise byproducts can work their way out of your muscles.
How often should I do cardio?
According to the CDC and other health organizations, people should do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise (like walking) per day, 5 days per week. You can get “substantial benefits” by increasing that to 300 minutes per week, or 60 minutes per day, 5 days a week. These benefits include an even lower risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
If you’re doing vigorous-intensity cardio (like running or basketball), you should do at least 75 minutes per week (15 minutes per day, 5 days a week) or 150 minutes per week (30 minutes per day, 5 days a week) for maximum benefits. Of course, even runners walk much of the time, so in reality your actual mix of vigorous and moderate-intensity cardio will fall somewhere in the middle.
The general rule of thumb is that the more intense your cardio is, the less of it you need to get the maximum benefits. The more intense you walk (or run), the more your body also needs to rest. It is possible to overdo cardio, which can result in overtraining – muscle soreness and fatigue from exercise.
How long should I do cardio?
There’s no one answer as to how long each cardio session needs to be. You should warm-up and cooldown during each intense cardio session, however, so your fitness walks should ideally be more than 10 minutes. This gives you enough time to get in a warmup and cooldown while still getting a brisk fitness walking portion. That doesn’t mean that you need to go so long or walk so fast that you’re exhausted from your walking workout. Find what works best for your situation.
By incorporating intervals into an intense walking workout (like this 15-minute walking workout), you can get more steps in and get more intense in a shorter period of time. This can be great for people who are strapped for time, as they’re simply not able to get in long walks. Slower walking is great for you as well, but you will need to do more of it to get the same benefits. You should consider your own unique situation to decide whether a short fitness workout (or run) is better for your situation than a long walk. When in doubt, just get out and exercise. Even if all you can do is a 5-minute, slow-paced walk that’s still better than nothing.
Be sure not to overdo your cardio workouts. If you’re feeling very tired or sore, it’s fine to start your cooldown early or stop and take a break. Listening to your body is the best way to ensure that you can walk day after day for years and years.
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