Walking is a serious exercise option -- and not just for people who are trying to recover from an injury or “take it slow." Instead, it's a bona fide way to weight loss, improved cardiovascular health and more.
Sure, it's not surprising when government officials call for more walking, as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy did recently for his initiative Call to Action. But it certainly makes the exercise seem poised for a trend when someone like celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, who helps actors like Halle Berry and Tobey Maguire get in shape for superhero movies, goes on the record in favor of it. He says walking 12,000 steps each day -- the equivalent of about six miles -- is an important part of his regimen for clients.
Here are four reasons to give walking a try, as well as tips from trainers who use walking to help clients achieve their goals:
Let’s be real for a sec. The federal government recommends that adults do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity every week (and brisk walking falls into that category, by the way). That’s 30 minutes, five times a week, or about 21 minutes of exercise every day. Sounds easy, right?
Well, only 49.2 percent of Americans over age 18 are actually fulfilling these minimum aerobic requirements, which means that most Americans are probably sedentary. It’s no surprise that our country’s obesity and chronic disease rates are continuing to grow.
Here’s where walking comes in. The American Heart Association says you’re more likely to stick to walking than any other exercise. Walking is something that most people know how to do. It is free, simple and sustainable, even for people who are older, overweight or new to exercise.
Step it up: Desi Bartlett, a yoga teacher at YogaWorks in Santa Monica, California, recommends walking to her clients as a simple way to lose weight. While many people initially turn to running to lose weight, walking has less impact on the knees, hips and lower back, she points out, which leads to greater adherence over the long term.
“By keeping the cardio easier, more clients stick with it and see results over a month or two,” she told HuffPost. She recommends alternating fast and slow intervals, walking with a weighted vest, walking with friends and walking with music to help keep strolls fun and challenging.
Just because walking is less intense than high-intensity interval training, spinning and other high-impact exercises doesn’t mean there aren’t real health benefits to walking.
A 2015 study from the University of Cambridge found that a brisk 20-minute walk every day -- the amount of exercise that moves someone from the “inactive” category to the “moderately inactive” category -- can reduce the chance of early death by 16 to 30 percent.
Walking counts as interval training, too. Researchers from Japan found in 2007 that a simple interval walking program (three minutes of a fast pace, followed by three minutes of strolling) for seniors resulted in increased thigh strength and lower resting blood pressure. Counting steps has also been shown to help women with gestational diabetes -- a condition that makes women prone to develop type 2 diabetes after pregnancy -- prevent or delay onset of the disease.
Step it up: Scott Danberg, director of fitness at Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami recommends using a heart rate monitor to make sure walking is helping you hit your target heart rate zone. For moderate intensity exercise, that would be 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. The fat-burning heart zone range is between 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Here’s a calculator to help you figure out your maximum heart rate.
There’s a reason tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg are fans of walking meetings; research from Stanford University has shown that creativity gets a boost while walking and shortly afterward. Researchers have also found that walking around in nature can lift your mood and help you stop dwelling on negative thoughts.
"Mentally, you have more time to reflect on life and truly process things,” said Nick Hounslow, a Los Angeles-based celebrity trainer and star of E!’s "Hollywood Cycle." "I find walking very effective for unwinding and clearing my head, more so than running. You can still get that endorphin rush from a good walk, trust me.”
Step it up: When you go on vacation, skip formal exercise for the exploration of walking tours. When Hounslow visits New York City or London, for instance, he finds that all of the walking he does means he returns home lighter and leaner.
"Many clients freak out when they go on vacation or to a foreign place where there is no spin studio or gym,” he said. "I tell them [to] go on walks! Most laugh at me initially until they actually try it.
Americans walk a lot less than people in other industrialized nations. A 2010 pedometer study found that Americans only walked an average of about 5,000 steps a day (one mile is about 2,000 steps), which is the upper limit for a sedentary lifestyle. Australians and the Swiss, on the other hand, walked an average of almost 10,000 steps a day, and Japanese people walk about 7,000 steps a day.
It’s not really our fault. People who live in the most walkable communities around the world often live in old cities that were built with pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages in mind, or in cities with fantastic public transportation. Lots of American developments, on the other hand, were built with the car in mind, which means people generally think they need cars to go grocery shopping, run errands or commute to work and school. These structural barriers are part of why Murthy’s call to action on walking includes community development experts and politicians -- welcome, walkable spaces don’t just appear out of nowhere.
Step it up: Check yourself (and Google Maps) just to make sure you aren’t overlooking easy walks you can incorporate into your daily life. Are you sure you can’t take a break at work to walk around the block? How far away is your child’s school, and can you walk together? In a feature for GQ, writer and L.A. resident Joel Stein described how his quest to walk 12,000 steps every day made him realize how close his favorite spots really were to his home:
To my shock, the supermarket I always drive to is only a fifteen-minute walk. The great coffee place is 10 minutes from my son's school. As I see my neighborhood on foot, I see it in a new way. I start to recognize constellations for the first time in my life. I call my parents and sister a lot. I run into friends. I listen to audiobooks, including Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and at least momentarily believe that I have found meaning in walking.
In addition to normal step-increasing tips like taking the stairs, Noell Yanik, a personal trainer based in Fort Hill, South Carolina, also advises clients to integrate exercise into social activities.
"Instead of meeting a friend for drinks or dinner, invite them on a walk in your favorite park,” said Yanik. “It's a stimulating and relaxing way to be social."