You drag yourself from your desk to the gym, where you pop in some upbeat music and jack the treadmill up to 6 mph.
Admit it, while you’re pounding out those three miles, you’re silently judging (even if subconsciously) the person walking next to you.
But experts say we’re unfairly placing the form of exercise in the “pointless” category. It turns out, you may be missing out on an extremely effective physical activity, not to mention a mental boost, by writing off walking entirely.
“Walking can be as good as a workout, if not better, than running,” says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, CSCS, a sports Chiropractor and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in Phoenix, Arizona who works with elite athletes. “You hear of people ‘plateauing’ when they continue to do the same workout routine and stop seeing results. I see patients all the time that plateau from running, they will run the same distance, speed and time, day in and day out. You need to constantly be switching up your exercise routine in order to get the maximum benefit for your health.”
Yes, running is more physically demanding, which leads people to label it a “better” workout.
“While I would love to say that walking can be just as effective of a workout as running, I’m not going to lie to you. In fairness, the two really shouldn’t be compared against each other,” says John Ford, certified exercise physiologist, who runs JKF Fitness & Health in New York City. “Running, due to larger muscle recruitment, greater forces exerted and faster motion capability, will always have the proverbial leg up on walking.”
But while walking may not be a better workout, it may be a better exercise choice for some people.
“With that being said, walking is a really good form of exercise and can help you reach your fitness and weight-loss goals. As a lifelong track athlete, who has marveled at race walkers (check out the Olympic walkers on YouTube!), I don’t scoff at walking,” says Ford. “In fact, walking is the suggested workout over running for many people. For example, those with knee, ankle and back problems and also for people who are overweight to obese. Walking is a lower impact exercise and can be done for longer periods of time.”
And there is no shortage of scientific research to back up the effectiveness of adding walking to your fitness routine.
“There are many reasons to walk for exercise,” says Ann Green, M.S., past heptathlon world athlete, yoga teacher and fitness studio owner. “Walking improves fitness, cardiac health, alleviates depression and fatigue, improves mood, creates less stress on joints and reduces pain, can prevent weight gain, reduce risk for cancer and chronic disease, improve endurance, circulation, and posture, and the list goes on…”
When comparing the results of the most recent National Runners’ Health Study with the National Walkers’ Health Study, researchers found that the energy used for moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease over the study’s six year period.
Which means when it comes to some pretty prominent markers of our health, walking at a moderate intensity can get the job done just as well as running, as long as you’re expending the same amount of energy. Great news for those of us that dread going on a jog.
While the physical benefits are notable, the mental boost that can be gleaned from adding a walk to your daily routine may be more immediate.
One Stanford University study found that walking increased creative output by an average of 60 percent. Researchers labelled this type of creativity “divergent thinking,” which they define as a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. According to the study, “walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
Which makes sense, since science shows that engaging in activities that allow our minds to wander promotes a mental state conducive to innovative ideas and “ah-ha!” moments.
But it’s not only your creativity that will benefit from the mental lift. The act of walking is also a proven mood booster. One study found that just 12 minutes of walking resulted in an increase in joviality, vigor, attentiveness and self-confidence versus the same time spent sitting. Walking in nature, specifically, was found to reduce ruminating over negative experiences, which increases activity in the brain associated with negative emotions and raises risk of depression.