The Science of Walking: It’s Really THAT Good!

At this point, we all know that walking is good for us.

In an attempt to make it even better, the science of walking now tells us how to get the most out of this seemingly casual form of exercise.

In some ways, this kind of takes the relaxing, socializing, nature-loving, exploring, parts of walking away from it. On the other hand, applying a little scientific analysis can help us use walking more effectively for our health.

For the record, the health benefits we are talking about are combating coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, and many musculoskeletal diseases and conditions.

So, let’s call this the “walking appreciation” blog, and get on with contemplating a few basics.

Anyone who has been told by a doctor to start walking has probably also been advised to make it “brisk” in order to get health benefits. True. But, what is “brisk” anyway?

One way to answer that is by taking a look at what sort of pace people will naturally select if given their druthers. Most of the time that pace is around 2.8 mph. That is slightly less than 20 minutes to walk one mile. It turns out that that pace is where we all burn mostly fat to provide the fuel for our efforts. Above that pace we begin to burn more carbohydrates. When we are burning more carbohydrates we feel like our activity is taking more effort, partly because carbs are not in such great supply as fat is in our bodies (sad, but true).

The fat-burning zone, while comfortable, is not considered “brisk”. When people self-select “brisk”, it gets them somewhere between 3.3 and 3.5 mph. That is more in the range of a bit over 15 minutes per mile. To put in another way, the walking feels more purposeful and perhaps a bit uncomfortable. This is “brisk”.

Just to make sure, there have been studies to find out if “brisk” walking does indeed get us into the health benefit zone. What is that? It is when you have a shot at meeting the guidelines for health benefits from walking set out by the American College of Sports Medicine, and the government. That is, getting 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day, 5 days a week. It turns out that “brisk” walking does qualify as moderate intensity exercise and give you the health benefits mentioned above.  Alas, regular walking does not, but it is still good for many, many, other things.

In case that sounds like too much time to spend, there are ways to kick it up a notch to get you into more vigorous territory. Once in that zone, the guidelines let you exercise for 20-60 minutes 3 times a week.

There are a couple of practical ways to do this. You can do intervals of more vigorous walking followed by going back to the “brisk” zone. More vigorous walking would be more like 4 mph, which is close to having to break into a run. You can start with 20 or 30 second intervals followed by 3-4 minutes back to brisk, and keep doing that for 30 minutes or so. You can work up to longer intervals at the higher speed as you become more adjusted to it.

Another way to get more vigorous is to walk hills (without slowing down) or go on a treadmill where you can adjust the incline and go for around 5-9%. Again, you can do intervals at an incline, interspersed with walking at a brisk pace without the incline.

All that being said, the bottom line is really simple. If you push yourself a bit when you walk, you will be doing more for your health. If you push yourself a bit more, you can spend less time walking and still get the same benefits.

So, find a friend (or a fast-walking pet), and go for it!

How do you challenge yourself when you walk? Leave a comment below.

P.S. I realize that not everyone is able to just “go for it.”  Look for future blogs about how to make the best of your situation.

Best, Kristen

© 2016-2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.

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