How to get the most benefits of walking for everyday health, weight loss, and energy

While getting more steps is great for your health, there are steps that you can take to maximize the benefits for your specific walking goal – whether it’s everyday health, weight loss or energy and mood. Walking one of the best exercises you can do for both your physical and mental health. Depending on your specific goal, you may want to focus on short, intense walks, long-distance cardio sessions or calming walks through nature.

Versatility is one of the best things about walking, but it also means that you may need to do a little planning to get the most out of your walks. Here’s how to get the most out of your walks, whether you want to meet your daily exercise goals, lose weight, improve your cardio, or get more energy and feel better. Scroll to your individual goal or find out a new way to walk!

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Goal: Meet your daily recommended exercise goals

Couple jogging on a bridge for fitness
nd3000 / Shutterstock

To get the benefits of walking for health and fitness, you should first aim to hit your minimum exercise recommendations. Most health organizations recommend at least 30 minutes of walking per day, 5 days a week. That’s only a start – there’s more that you can do!

1. Make a Habit to Walk Every Day

The best way to ensure that you hit your daily minimum steps is to create active habits and make walking part of your daily routine. A great way to do this is to start taking a morning walk every day, but there are many other ways to work walking into your schedule. If you’re constantly trying to figure out where and when to walk, you’re likely to frequently miss your goals. Sustained daily walking also helps build up your endurance, making walks easier. Slow and steady wins the step race, while several days with no steps followed by one day of a huge step count can lead to fatigue and injury.

2. Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good

Your first priority should be to get your steps in whatever way and at whatever pace you can. If you’re not able to hit 30 minutes per day, or if you can’t work up a brisk pace that’s ok! Even small amounts of steps (going from 2,700/day to 4,400/day) have been shown to lower your risk of serious health problems dramatically. If you can increase your pace, walk longer or get more intense that’s great, but everyone has unique limitations and everyone has to start somewhere. Relish all of your small wins, because every step you take goes a tiny bit towards improving your health.

3. Don’t Stop at the Minimum – Double It!

While 30 minutes per day is the minimum recommended walking time, you can get even more health benefits by doubling this to walking 60 minutes a day or 300 minutes per week. The CDC reports that increasing activity from 150 to 300 minutes a week can give “substantial” health benefits, including an even lower risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. This doesn’t mean you need to start at an hour a day, but with effort and repetition you can work your way up to longer walks! You can also work in multiple shorter walks instead of one long walk, just as long as you keep up a brisk walking pace on average.

4. Keep it Brisk

Walking is great for your health, even if you can’t manage a brisk walking pace. Studies have shown that even light activity can reduce your risk of death substantially. To get the most out of your walks and to get a more full cardio workout, try to keep up a brisk pace. How fast is brisk walking? The actual walking speed varies from person to person, but it’s generally seen as 3-4 mph (4.8 – 6.4 km/h). For more info, check out our guide on brisk walking. Alternatively, start at a leisurely pace and go just a bit faster. You shouldn’t feel out of breath, but you should feel a bit more intense. At a real brisk pace, you should be able to speak the words to a song but not sing it.

Goal: Burn calories and lose or control weight

Couple sweating after a fitness walk or run
Dragon Images / Shutterstock

Many people start a walking or fitness routine to lose a bit of weight or burn off some stubborn belly fat. Or your weight may be fine, but you want to help ensure that it stays that way. It’s important to be realistic and honest – walking does burn calories but it’s not a magic bullet. You can use these ideas to get the most out of your walks for weight maintenance.

1. Pair Your Walking Routine With A Healthy Diet

It’s a good idea to pair your healthy exercise routine with a healthy eating routine. It’s always easier to eat or drink more calories than it is to put in the hard work of walking for exercise. Try to reduce or swap out some obvious, unhealthy extra calories (like swapping soda for water). Understand portion sizes and try to fill your plate with more greens and lean protein options and fewer starchy carbs. Snack smart by looking for low-calorie snack options that keep you feeling full longer. You don’t have to make all of these changes at the same time – try to make little moves around the edges that keep you healthier and feeling great to power your walks.

2. Make Your Walks More Intense

You can’t add more hours to the day, but you can burn more calories for every minute you walked by increasing your walking intensity. A simple way is to just increase your walking speed. You don’t need to add jogging to get more intense (although you can). A great way to walk faster and burn more calories overall is by incorporating interval training. Mix in short bursts of fast walking with recovery periods of regular walking to get a great workout without having to jog. You can try this 15-minute walking workout or this 30-minute walking workout to get started.

Other ways to get more intense add a bit more impact to your walking. Incline walking, whether on a treadmill or a hilly area, burns more calories and gets you more intense even at slower walking speeds. Walking up and down stairs might be the best way to burn calories, though it can add impact to your joints. Be careful to gradually increase the intensity of your walks and incorporate rest days to ensure that you don’t hurt yourself from going too intense, too soon.

3. Include Strength Training In Your Routine

Adding strength training is a great way to get stronger legs, while helping to increase and retain muscle mass. Strength training and increased muscle mass can actually increase your metabolism by a bit, and is generally useful in your daily life.

You can start with some basic stretching exercises or something like power walking and move into more advanced bodyweight exercises – try Pacer’s guided workouts for some ideas! Just make sure to perform each exercise using perfect form (ask an expert for help if you’re not sure) and keep weights to a minimum until you get more practice.

Goal: Improve your cardio or walk longer

Couple on a long walk for fitness or cardio
Rido / Shutterstock

Walking is a great form of cardio exercise, and the more you do it, the longer you’ll be able to walk. If you really want to improve your ability to do long-distance walking, try these tips.

1. Make Sure Your Walks Are At Least 10 Minutes Long

The CDC recommends that you do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. This can be a little overwhelming for beginners, but you can break up this recommendation into much smaller increments. The key is to sustain the exercise long enough to get your heart working faster. While 5-minute walks can be useful, walking for 10 minutes or more allows you to build up your heart rate safely and sustain a brisk pace. You’ll need to start preparing your body this way to get used to long-distance walks.

2. Stay At a Moderate-Intensity Level

Try to practice maintaining a pace that’s still brisk, but that you can maintain over your entire walk. You want to walk fast enough that you could still hold a conversation, but feel a bit out of breath while doing so. This is considered a sign that you are doing moderately intense exercise.

While jogging or fitness walking is great for burning calories, you’re going to have difficulty jogging for an hour (or even half that) unless you have a lot of practice. Practicing keeping up a sustained brisk pace can help you extend your walks to an hour or more!

3. Get Intense Without the Impact

As your endurance increases, you will need to increase your intensity to get your heart working faster. A great way to increase your intensity with lower impact in your joints is to get a more full-body walking workout. Power walking and Nordic walking are both great options. You can use your arm movement or walking poles to get your upper body more involved, while engaging your abs as you walk to get a core workout.

While you can go for more intense forms of walking like incline walking, it can be hard to sustain hills over long distances. Once you perfect your power walking form, you can keep it up for a larger percentage of your walk.

Goal: Get more energy and improve your mental health

Happy family walking in a natural park setting
Leika production / Shutterstock

The mental health and mood benefits of walking are not as well-known as the physical benefits, but they are definitely real. Here are a few things you can do to get that therapeutic boost.

1. Choose Routes Through Natural Surroundings

Walking through nature has been shown to reduce stress and help increase your ability to focus. You don’t need to go deep into the woods for this to happen: you can pick a walk through the local park or down a tree-lined bike path. You’ll see some great sights, feel a calming influence and have some great photo opportunities as well.

Depending on where you walk, the path may not be as smooth to walk on. You should take into account the footing and walking surface before deciding how far to walk into nature.

2. Join A Group

A lot of people are unnerved by traditional therapeutic surroundings, but they open up if they are exercising beside someone else. Walking with friends can be a non-threatening space for you to talk about your life. What’s more, it helps you bond with people, which is beneficial in and of itself. Your friends can also become extra motivation to hit your step goals, as you can compare step totals and encourage your friends to meet you for your daily walks. Ask friends if they would like to join you on your strolls, or look into groups who specialize in city walking tours. You can also find walking groups in Pacer, which allow you to walk virtually with other members of the Pacer community.

3. Set Reasonable Goals

We all like to feel like we are accomplishing something, but setting goals that we can’t reach can damage our motivation and lead to stress. It helps to write out concrete, small goals that you can accomplish and check off. Try setting these goals in Pacer, and check-in when you achieve them. You might start out with a 3,000 step goal, and increase it by 1,000 after a week or two. You can also try to walk for a certain number of minutes per day, and check off in a notebook or note on your phone when you complete it.

You’ll feel less stress, and get an extra positive feeling when you complete your small tasks. You don’t need to hit 10,000 steps or 30-60 minutes a day all at once and all right away.

Final thoughts

When you are first designing an exercise program for yourself, it can be a little intimidating. However, if you decide what you want out of your routine first, you can follow the tips that will emphasize your chosen goals. Soon, you will be able to brag about everything you accomplished through it.

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