Walking: Exercise of Choice in a Pandemic
Question: “In the past few months, I’ve noticed more people walking for exercise than ever before, perhaps because health clubs have been closed due to the pandemic. How beneficial is walking as a substitute for more strenuous workouts?”
I am in the habit of walking my dog Winston a couple of times every day and I’ve also noticed an increased number of walkers — and that is a good thing! Walking can arguably be considered the perfect exercise during a pandemic. It is low impact, easy on muscles and joints, and, for the most part, injury free. Walking does not require special athletic ability, expensive gear or a health club membership, so almost everyone can do it. Unlike other forms of more intense aerobic exercise, walking also offers options ranging from a leisurely stroll while chatting with friends to a high paced power walk with competitive workout buddies. For all those reasons and more, walking appears to have become the exercise of choice for many during the pandemic.
As to whether walking is a viable substitute for more strenuous exercise, my response would be “it depends” on your reasons for exercising and expected outcomes. For example, walking does not stress the same muscles and physiological systems as does weight training, at least not to the same degree, so walking will not provide the same outcomes (greater strength and larger muscles) as lifting weights. Similarly, walking several miles a day will not necessarily improve the 10K time of a serious runner who has already developed a high level of aerobic fitness. Walking, even at a fast pace, will not stress the cardiorespiratory system of a physically fit person to the extent required for stimulating even further improvements in aerobic capacity.
All that aside, walking on a regular basis can and does provide a variety of health-related benefits. Studies suggest that regular walking can improve blood profile and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and sudden death. It also strengthens the immune system which improves your ability to fight off illness and disease, an especially important safeguard during a pandemic.
Walking, regardless of the pace, burns calories which helps in efforts to maintain a healthy body weight. Adding just 2,000 steps to your daily walks, a distance equivalent to about 1 mile, will burn an additional 80 to 100 calories per day, which can result in a several pound weight loss (or prevent a several pound weight gain!) over the course of a year. Keep in mind that, in terms of calories burned, it is not so much the pace (speed) of the walk that matters but rather the distance covered. Walking a mile burns almost as many calories as running a mile — it just takes longer for you to do it!
Because walking is a weight bearing activity, it also strengthens bones, joints, and even muscles to a slight degree. The consistent “step after step” impact of your feet with the ground provides the stimulus required to make bones stronger and less brittle.
There are psychological benefits associated with walking as well. Research has demonstrated that walking and similar forms of moderate-intensity exercise reduce stress, improve creativity and can even help alleviate depression.
How much walking is enough?
You may have heard of the “10,000 steps per day” goal that has been popularized by many of the fitness tracker companies. Ten thousand steps per day equates to 4–5 miles of walking for most people, so it does provide us with a realistic and reachable target. And, as the saying goes, “you won’t hit the target if you don’t have one.”
However, the 10,000 steps goal is not actually based on hard and fast scientific data but is rather the creation of a marketing strategy by fitness companies. Research cited by the Harvard Medical School suggests that significant health-related benefits can be realized by walking substantially less than 10,000 steps a day, particularly for people who have been extremely sedentary. So, while more walking may be better and 10,000 steps is a realistic target, some walking is always better than none.
The overriding goal, particularly during a pandemic, is simply to get moving and stay moving as much as possible. Walking is one of the easiest and most convenient methods to do so. All you need to get started are a comfortable pair of shoes and a place to walk, and the best place to walk during a pandemic is outdoors where you can easily maintain social distance from other walkers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, of which walking is a suitable activity, per week. That roughly translates to 20–25 minutes of walking per day which is not too tall an order for most people.
In summary, although walking may not be a suitable replacement for all other forms of exercise, it should be an essential part of every adult’s overall exercise plan. Walking for health and wellness should be considered time well spent.