More than 145 million adults use walking as a form of exercise. Walking is the most popular aerobic activity in the U.S., as 6 in 10 people regularly walk to stay healthy, according to the CDC.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Walking has several health benefits, such as reducing your risk for heart disease and osteoporosis, improving blood pressure and helping people maintain a healthy weight.
However, walking leisurely isn’t enough. You need to pick up the pace and increase your heart rate to make walking a more effective workout. In honor of February being American Heart Month, here’s some information about how to maximize every step you take and improve your health:
How Often to Walk
The average person needs at least two and a half hours a week, or about 20 minutes a day, of aerobic physical activity. Walking is a low-impact aerobic activity that almost anyone can do. For beginners who are just starting to walk for exercise, it’s important to ease into it and gradually increase the time and distance you walk every day. Ideally, you should try walking three days a week and increase to five days a week, with rest days in between. Your walking workout doesn’t have to be hours-long to be effective, but you can get more fit if you increase the intensity and speed of your walking pace, even by a small margin.
How to Make Your Walk a Better Workout
If you’re walking for exercise, you should keep this acronym in mind: FIT, which stands for frequency, intensity and time. As I mentioned above, three to five days a week of walking is optimal. Intensity is important because walking at a more brisk pace that elevates your heart rate will make your workout more effective. A 2013 analysis by the National Walkers’ Health Study showed that people who increased their walking pace experienced more health benefits from this form of exercise than those who walked more slowly.
If your current pace is between 20-25 minutes per mile, for example, do your best to get that down to a more moderate pace. Research shows that people who walk at a brisk pace of four miles per hour burn more than 300 calories in that timeframe. However, you don’t have to walk continuously to get the most intense workout. Several 10-minute mini walking workouts can help increase the amount of exercise you get in a given day. It’s also important to have the right form when walking—head up, back straight and relaxed neck and shoulders. This can help you get the most out of your workout and prevent future injury.
Before you begin a walking program, find out your target heart rate. This will help you determine how intensely you should exercise to get the best health benefits. Once you know this number, use a pedometer while you exercise to measure your steps and pace each day. The great thing about walking is that you can do it anywhere, whether it be your backyard, a local park or a high school track. Walk around your neighborhood, walk to a nearby store rather than drive or use a treadmill to increase your physical activity. If you’re able, sign up for a local 3K or 5K charity walk. Your whole family can do this activity together to stay healthy and raise money for a good cause.
Walking is a relatively simple workout that people of any age can do to stay fit. If you’d like to begin a walking program, talk to your doctor about the best ways to safely and effectively benefit from this workout. You also can take this quiz on the American Heart Association’s website to receive information about a personalized walking, stretching and strength-building plan. So, take several small steps every day. Even a short walk can better your health.