When I think of walking for cardio, I picture Jane Fonda-vibes outfits (hello, brightly-colored, high-cut Spandex and sweatbands), wrist and ankle weights, and wildly pumping arms. And then I shrug it off. I mean, cardio has to be high-exertion and super sweaty, right? Or is walking cardio after all?
First, let me clarify: Cardio—short for “cardiorespiratory” activity—refers to physical activity that relies on your circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to your working muscles, explains Steve Stonehouse, CPT, director of education for the running studio STRIDE. (You’ve also heard it referred to as “aerobic exercise.”)
Any low- to moderate-intensity exercise is considered aerobic, which means you don’t have to go all-out to get a good cardio workout. In fact, you can reap the benefits without maxing out your muscles at all.
“Cardiorespiratory activity can help improve heart and lung conditions—and it definitely doesn’t have to be a super-sweaty situation,” says Stonehouse. Low-impact cardio workouts FTW!
Here’s what to know about why walking totally counts as cardio—plus pro tips for making it an effective part of your exercise routine.
Does walking count as cardio?
Good news for anyone out there who hates running: “Walking can definitely count as cardio,” says Stonehouse.
Since cardio pretty much encompasses all low-intensity and moderate-intensity exercise, your strolls around the neighborhood, hilly hikes, and power walks all fit the bill.
“There are many different training intensity levels that fall in the category of ‘cardio,’” Stonehouse says. “With the right speeds and inclines, you could reach any of them with walking.” (In fact, STRIDE often builds walking intervals into its tread workouts.)
What are the benefits of walking?
The biggest perk of getting your stroll on: 150 minutes (or two-and-a-half hours) of moderate-intensity cardio per week significantly reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Yep, just five, 30-minute walks a week can go a long way for your health.
In addition to supporting your heart and strengthening your lungs, research shows that walking can also boost your overall energy and immune function, according to Stonehouse.
Also important, though: Walking is a leisure activity you can do on your own to clear your head, spend time with your pet, or be distant, but social, with other people—all of which can be seriously relaxing.
Is walking as good of a cardio workout as running, though?
Whether you’re an avid marathoner or consider running a form of torture, you’re not the only one who’s wondered if walking is as effective as pounding pavement.
Ready for a pleasant surprise? It totally is, if not even better. “Walking and running both produce many cardiorespiratory benefits,” says Stonehouse. “It’s important to train at different intensity levels for different lengths of time.”
Opting to walk instead of run can be especially helpful for those who experience knee and joint pain, though. “Running is higher-impact and can present more overuse injury risks than walking,” Stonehouse explains. “Running takes sound mechanics and the right gear, and often having a coach to help you along the way.” Walking, though—which is lower-impact and less technical—is more forgiving (especially on your knees, ankles, and hips).
Prefer your cardio full-body style? Give this head-to-toe cardio workout a go (view video here)
Then, of course, there’s the question of walking and weight loss. Thing is, one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
“Both walking and running will help you burn more calories,” Stonehouse says. “That said, if your running intensity is too high, there is a point at which your body may begin burning muscle for energy rather than fat.” This is no good, since muscle boosts your metabolism (a.k.a. how many calories you burn). Walking though? Hard to do at an intensity high enough to cause muscle breakdown.
There are a couple of areas where steady state running (or even sprinting!) have advantages over walking: Namely, you’ll burn more calories in a shorter amount of time by picking up the pace. You’ll also increase your VO2 Max, or the most oxygen your body can consume at one time, by running vs. walking.
Your body can benefit from a combination of both types of exercise. But just know that walking still increases your energy expenditure (calorie-burn) and does help you get (or stay) fit.
How can you make walking a legit cardio workout?
To get the most workout bang for your buck with walking, you’ve got to find your ideal intensity level, which is challenging but doable, Stonehouse says.
“Two people could walk at the same speed and one may barely see an increase in their heart rate while the other might be a sweaty mess,” he explains. The goal is to get into your target training pace as quickly as possible—and then to hold that pace for as long as you can. That goes for whether you’re walking (or jogging!) on a tread, the road, or a trail—and whether you’re on a flat surface or an incline.
A moderate intensity is considered a three to four out of 10 in terms of effort, if 10 is your all-out dead sprint. (Low would be two, FYI.) Another way to think about it is that moderate intensity is 30 to 40 percent of your heart rate max (HRmax), while low is 20 percent. You can determine your HRmax by subtracting your age from 220. At either pace, you should be able to easily carry on a conversation or talk.
If you’re a beginner, Stonehouse recommends:
- Walk: 15 to 20 minutes (working up to 30 to 40 minutes), 3 to 5 times per week
If that’s literally a walk in the park, try:
- Walk/Run: 20 minutes (alternate between 2 minutes running and 3 minutes walking) 4 times per week, working up to 30 minutes (alternating between 4 minutes running and 2 minutes walking) five times per week