Is walking really an aerobic activity, or a form of exercise that qualifies as “cardio”. Someone recently asked me how many days of cardio I do to stay lean. My answer was, “Zero. Unless you count walking.” Which I do personally, but I know that’s not what she meant. She presumed I was running myself into the ground 5 or 6 days a week to burn calories.
Is that form and intensity of cardio really necessary for our weight loss clients or to stay lean? Most of the aerobic challenge necessary for health and fitness can be gained from simply walking and coupled with a few days of resistance training. Similarly, this approach to “cardio” works for fat loss as well. The caveat is that the act of walking must be purposeful.
Why Intense Cardio Can Backfire
Many people who endeavor to lose fat start by restricting calories and increasing activity in some way (as they should). This works for a while if the person is consistent, and when results stall out, the conventional impulse is to ramp up the intensity. More is more, right? Not always.
One interesting study recruited participants to begin a HIIT program that started out easy and intensified over a three-week period, ending at a cumulative 152 minutes of high-intensity exercise. Several health markers like oxygen consumption and metabolic efficiency improved in the first two weeks. But interestingly, these measures dipped below baseline levels during week three when output and effort was greatest. This suggests there is certainly a “line” of what might be too much aerobic intensity.
The problem arises when those who have successfully shed many pounds this way up front may have a hard time accepting that they have to focus on muscle-building to a reasonable degree, rather than more cardio. They must also ensure proper recovery time and not allow the calorie deficit is to become too great. Eating below your BMR causes a cascade of deleterious effects on the body, including catabolism—the body’s defense mechanism of preserving fat tissue and instead burning the more accessible proteins of muscle tissue for energy instead. Expending too many calories with cardio and being in a “deficit” is antithetical to muscle growth. Aiming for caloric burn goal of 600 calories a day while also eating below your needs will prevent one from hypertrophy and instead lower the metabolic rate, making the body inefficient at burning fat for fuel.
This effect can be seen more clearly among those including high-impact aerobic activities like running and jumping. These activities require more recovery than most people allow their bodies to take. Poor recovery equates to poor muscle building and overtraining. This will feel like hitting a wall—energy is low, weight loss has stalled out, muscle growth has halted, and one will probably feel crappy overall.
While HIIT and running programs have their place, there is a delicate balance that must be struck to get the equation to work in one’s favor. For most fitness clients, simply moving more and sitting less throughout the day will do more to pay off a calorie debt more than running 60 minutes a day will anyway.
Eating healthful, nutrient-dense foods, limiting added sugar, and sleeping well should be the priority outside the gym. In the gym, 3-5 days of smart resistance training coupled with lower intensity cardio efforts, both of which should total at least 150 minutes a week at a minimum.
For those with limitations such as joint pain, equipment availability, harsh elements, or even just an aversion to running or biking, walking is a perfectly reasonable option for cardio. Same goes for those with the goal of putting on lean muscle mass: ingested calories will be put towards muscle growth.
Why Walking Works
Harvard has put out a program Walking for Health to make people more aware of the benefits of walking and to get those tootsies moving. A low-risk activity associated with decreased risk of obesity and heart disease, walking requires no equipment (not even shoes if you want to go barefoot!), can be done anywhere (I pace around my house briskly when chatting on the phone), and can make one feel instantly destressed and enervated.
Walking briskly should place the target heart rate at around 60-70% of maximum heart rate, but can range between 50%-80%. When walking hills, intensity is also increased. This is the optimal range for a cardiac benefit and for fat loss. Nothing to knock there!
While a more leisurely pace may not elevate the heart rate beyond 50%, it’s still requiring more effort from the heart and is most certainly beneficial (more so than couch surfing!)
Getting the Most Out of a Walk
Creating a more challenging walk involves a little mindfulness and intention. I recommend that someone walk alone to incorporate some of the following tips since sometimes walking with a friend can be distracting to this effort. Most people chat when they’re walking together! This is one reason why walking for exercise can create a sense of connection and community with others. However, I’m only suggesting that a week or two of intentional walking alone will integrate these habits below consciousness so that they will happen without as much mindfulness and the camaraderie can be enjoyed.
This practice is not only physically challenging and helpful, but is also meditative—a bonus for those who have a hard time sitting and meditating.
Tips for Walking with Purpose:
- Breath. Focus on creating a rhythm with the breath. Perhaps breathe in for four steps and out for four steps. Maybe it’s three in and two out. Experiment and find what works.
- Be mindful of posture. If you know you slouch when working at a desk (or, in general!) take this opportunity to actively pull your shoulders back and down. Stretch the back of your neck if a forward-head posture is an issue.
- Engage the core! This goes hand-in-hand with posture, but actively pull the naval in and the pelvic floor up and try to keep it there while you’re breathing. Notice when you’ve “let go” which is bound to happen, and engage again.
- Squeeze those glutes. Think of every step as an opportunity to engage every muscle from the foot to the hip. Emphasize dorsiflexion and pull that forefoot up while stepping forward, fully extending the knee while simultaenous pushing off with the toes of the back leg, extending that knee, and squeezing the heck out of that glute until it burns a little.
- Pump the arms. You don’t have to look like a power walker here to put more effort into the upper body. I found my heart rate increased by 10 points when I swung my arms more noticeably at the elbow and shoulder.
- Play with stride length. Everyone is different here, there is no right or wrong. Taking longer strides may provide a different challenge than shorter ones.
- Go for the hills. Whether walking in outdoor terrain or on a treadmill, the more variable the incline, the more challenging. Don’t shy away!
- Enjoy it! Walking in nature is always preferential to your living room or a treadmill. It’s good for the soul if not for the walking experience itself. If that’s not possible, listen to some inspiring music and turn your attention inward.
Once the above has been implemented for a few weeks, it will all become like second nature. One can absolutely reap the health, fitness, and weight loss benefits by making walking central to any exercise program with modifications and skillful tailoring.