Woman walks outside, questions is walking cardio?

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Is Walking Cardio? We Asked the Experts

You'll want to read this before your next stroll.

By Karla WalshApril 22, 2024


From tech-free silent walks to “cozy cardio,” walking is seemingly more popular than ever. Whether it’s outside or on a Peloton Tread, everyone seems to be walking for exercise. But if it feels like a stroll in the park, can walking actually be considered a cardio workout? Read on for the answer.

5 Benefits of Walking

“Walking has been widely studied as a form of exercise that can improve [your] health,” says Renee Moran, a physical therapist and clinical director at FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers Twin City Bangor in Bangor, Maine. Here are some of the key benefits of an intentional stroll: 

1. Walking Builds Stronger Bones, Muscles, and Joints

“Walking is low impact, so it’s easy on [your] joints,” says Jess Sims, a Peloton instructor. 

Since it’s a full body movement that involves gravity and the impact of the ground interacting with your body, it qualifies as a weight-bearing exercise, says Gerad Robertson, a physical therapist and the regional director of FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers in South Dakota. “This stress on the bones and muscles stimulates the body's natural ability to respond to stress by becoming stronger to tolerate the loads being put on it,” Robertson says. 

It might also help you keep your bones and joints healthy. A 2022 study published in PLoS One of premenopausal women suggests that just three 30-minute walks per week can help prevent bone loss.

2. Walking Can Give You a Mood Boost

“Walking increases blood flow and circulation to the brain and the body,” Robertson says. “One of the areas targeted by this is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which helps calm your nerves and your mood.” Walking also contributes to the release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones that reduce your risk for depression and anxiety, boost your mood, and, as you age, can help preserve mental sharpness, Moran adds. 

Even though it’s a physical movement, the impact of walking on your mental state is clear. “It allows you to get the blood flowing and can help you get mentally ‘unstuck’ by getting into your body and out of your head,” Jess says. “Some even enjoy walking as a meditation to focus on the breath.” 

You’ll accrue even more psychological benefits if you take it outdoors. A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that nature walks positively improved participants’ mental health, particularly in regard to depression and anxiety.  

Woman walks through a city on her phone

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3. It Will Burn More Calories Than Sitting or Standing 

If weight loss is a goal for you, walking regularly (in combination with a focus on nutrition, sleep, and stress reduction) can help you burn calories, Robertson says. 

If a 155-pound person walks at four miles per hour (a 15-minute mile pace), for 30 minutes, he’ll burn 175 calories, according to Harvard Medical School. If the same individual was simply standing still, he would burn about 35 calories during that same half hour.

4. Walking May Lower Your Risk for Certain Chronic Diseases

“Walking has been associated with results such as a decrease in cardiovascular disease and reduced mortality rate,” Moran says. Research backs this up: Using pedometer data from more than 6,000 people, scientists found that 8,200 steps per day was correlated with a lower risk for chronic diseases.

5. It May Help Bolster Your Immune System

A 2021 systematic review published in Sports Medicine suggests that regular moderate to vigorous exercise enhances the first line of defense in your immune system, as well as reduces your risk of community-acquired infectious diseases. Depending on how quickly you walk, what terrain you traverse, and if you carry a load while doing so, walking can certainly qualify as one of those exercise categories. 

“During and after exercise, the body also releases pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines,” Robertson says. “Lymphocytes increase in the blood, and cellular recruitment increases, which helps fight off infections and reduce inflammation.”

How Walking Affects Your Body

According to Jess, walking works your muscles from head to toe, including your:

  • Heart

  • Core

  • Hips

  • Glutes

  • Hamstrings

  • Quadriceps

  • Calves

The type of walking workout you do will also affect the muscles you engage. “Walking on a flat surface is easier due to less challenge against gravity, but the same muscles will still be working,” Robertson says. “When walking on an incline, you start to recruit even more of the bigger muscles of the posterior side of the body, the steeper the incline. These are some of the biggest muscles of the body [glutes, hamstrings], and they will burn more calories and be more challenging for the cardiovascular system.”

Beyond adding incline, you can also add weight to challenge your muscles. Major Kate Nelson, a Chicago-based Army officer and rucking expert, swears by rucking, or wearing a weighted backpack as she walks or hikes.

“This added weight adds some extra intensity to the low-impact workout,” she says. “Both flat and incline work your lower body, and with an incline or varied terrain, I feel more of a workout in my core than I do on a flat surface.”

Is Walking Cardio?

“Walking can or cannot be considered ‘cardio’ depending on the intensity of the walking, and if it gets your heart rate to its targeted range and is maintained during that activity,” Robertson says. Any activity that elevates your heart rate enough to require additional oxygen is considered cardio, he adds. 

If you’re a beginner, your target heart rate for cardio should be 65 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. However, for elite athletes, this can jump up to 85 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate, Robertson says. Unsure of what your maximum heart rate is? A simple way to estimate is to subtract your age from 220. (For example, a 35-year-old’s maximum heart rate would be 185.)

While a casual stroll through the supermarket or around the block might not technically qualify as cardio, if you carve out time for a purposeful, brisk walk for 20 minutes or more that keeps your heart rate elevated the entire time, you should feel comfortable counting that as “cardio,” Jess says. 

How to Make Walking an Effective Cardio Workout

There are a few variables that you can play with to make walking more challenging or easier, depending on your goals and current fitness level.

Moran breaks down some options:

  • To build endurance: Maintain a steady and comfortable speed on a level surface for a longer period of time. 

  • To increase muscular strength: Change the terrain to an incline or walk with weights (using a weighted vest, pack, ankle weights, or hand weights).

  • To improve balance, stability, and postural control: Walk on uneven terrain or in an area that involves avoiding obstacles, stepping over barriers, or changing directions frequently.

“If you want to elevate your program, I would suggest making small changes to one variable at a time to reduce the possibility of injury with too much change all at once,” Robertson says. 

To make your walking workout easier, dial in the speed and distance to fit your needs, while maintaining your target heart rate for cardio.

Is Just Walking Enough Cardio? 

The fitness experts we spoke to agree: Yes, walking can totally “count” as your cardio workout if you format your walking workout to be challenging enough for your body. 

To maintain a healthy fitness level, try to walk at least three days a week. To improve your fitness level, aim to hit five to six days per week of 30 minutes or more of walking, Robertson says. To continue challenging your body, increase the distance, duration, speed, or incline, he adds. 

In between your walking workouts, mix in at least two to three days per week of total-body strength training workouts, Robertson says. Short on time? You can also elect to tack on a walking workout after a strength training routine, Jess says. But regardless of your schedule, make sure to add in one to two rest days a week with a focus on recovery. 


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