Walking is Not a Fitness Program

I perform a lot of one on one health and fitness consultations for our corporate clients. There is one thing in particular that comes up all the time that drives me a little crazy. Walking.

 

When I am talking to someone new I need to know what their current activity consists of, what they think they should be doing from an activity perspective, and what they can see themselves pursuing for physical activity.

 

At least a few time a week I am told that the person is going to start walking or has already started walking. Even more entertaining for me is when I am told that they started walking for fitness but they no longer do. Why is that entertaining? Because this is a great example of the inability of walking as a primary exercise source to make you healthier and keep you healthy for the rest of your life!

 

Your going to start walking? When did you stop walking? Don’t you already walk all the time everyday? When you go to the kitchen, go to your car, go to the bathroom, or go pretty much anywhere else during the course of your day?

 

This mindset is the same as people going to the gym and using 5 pound weights right before they pop over to the grocery store and life up 20 pound grocery bags. What was the point of the weight training?

 

I know, walking is better then sitting your lazy butt on the couch. I agree. As a fitness professional it is my job to educate people what the best options are, however, and to not be satisfied with mediocrity with relation to the public health.

 

Walking is not a good exercise program. It does not build strength well, it does not improve your cardiovascular fitness very well, it does not improve your body’s biomechanics, and it is not a very good calorie burner.

 

Yes, walking is better for you then sitting on the couch or riding around in one of those motorized chairs that were originally designed for injured and debilitated people and are now used for pacifying a lot of lazy people.

 

And before you get too stressed about my last paragraphs, I do recognize that there are benefits to walking. For people who are totally sedentary and need to initiate an exercise program getting walking will provide benefits for the first few weeks. The key is that we need to challenge the body further and not rely solely on walking for exercise.

 

Let’s go through the list:

 

Strength: Walking is endurance based, not strength based. You will not build a lot of strength walking. In order to build strength you need to move your muscles through their full range of motion and be working the muscles through resistance.

Cardiovascular Health: Walking is not a good cardio exercise. It does not elevate the heart rate very much, especially for already moderately active people. If you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness you need to challenge it. If you are not breathing hard and sweating you are not working hard to make improvements to your cardio system.

 

Your Bodies Biomechanics: This is simply a fancy term for the way your body is supposed to move. Your joints and muscle are designed to work through full ranges of motion and full movement ranges. Essentially, you should be able to squat down and touch your butt to your heels and you should be able to do a pushup and get your chest to the floor (a little generalized but this is a blog, not a textbook!).

 

Walking does not force your body to work through this full range of motion. After a long enough period of time with improper movement patterns your body begins to lose the ability to maintain those patterns. Muscles begin to shorten and tighten, joints lose their flexibility, and balance and coordination begins to decrease.

 

Calorie Burn: You are not going to burn many calories walking, at least not compared to walking up stairs, hiking, playing tennis, swimming, or any other host of activities. Sure, you will burn more then you would if you sat on the couch, but we have already discussed that.

 

Walking is not a fitness program. It is a safety net. It is in your life to get you places and to stop you from becoming so sedentary that your body shuts down.

 

When you want to start a fitness program you do not start walking. Try rock climbing, mountain biking, swimming, pushups, hiking, martial arts, strength based yoga. Move your body, breath hard, challenge your muscles, work your body!

 

You should already be walking.

2 thoughts on “Walking is Not a Fitness Program”

  1. Hi Taylor – while I agree with much of what you wrote about walking, as a public health professional and fitness instructor, I disagree that walking is not a good exercise program.

    Exercise is defined as a bodily activity that develops and maintains physical fitness and overall health. Many studies have proven regular walking to build bone strength, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improve cardiovascular fitness and muscle endurance, reduce the risk of illness and chronic diseases, increase energy,improve mental health, and assist with weight loss and weight maintenance (to name a few).

    As I’m sure you’re well aware, the majority of our population nowadays are considered to be overweight, or obese, and almost half are not active enough to achieve health benefits. We are in the midst of an epidemic with Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer on the rise – all linked to excess body weight and inactivity.

    Walking is the most natural movement humans do. As you mentioned, we walk to the kitchen, to the car etc. Walking gets us from Point A to Point B. However, this type of walking would be considered ‘functional’. We walk because we have two legs and that’s how we get around for the most part (when we’re not sitting on our butts in a car!)

    Walking in and of itself as we move throughout our day will certainly not do much to improve fitness. It may give our butts a break and legs a stretch from our office chairs, but it’s not going to yield fitness benefits.

    However, walking with a purposeful stride – a fast pace and arms pumping WILL yield fitness benefits. No, the cardiovascular benefits will not be as high as jogging or other types of activities, but done at a good pace, it will elevate the heart rate and burn signficiant calories.

    And by ‘purposeful pace’, I mean at a pace fast enough to raise the heart rate and increase breathing – for me, that would be at a pace of about 4.0 – 4.2 mph. Add some inclines and hills, and you also get great butt-blasting benefits.

    Now back to my first paragraph on the crisis of an inactive population – at least if people are walking, they are moving. Now here is where I agree with you – walking is not going to give people the strength benefits that only resistance or strength training activities will, and true, it doesn’t take the body through it’s full range of motion, or really elevate the heart rate into that maximal training zone. It is not anaerobic. I agree with all of those points.

    I also agree that walking should not be one’s primary fitness program BUT, it can be an integral component of it, along with cross-training activities like swimming, strength training using body weight, or yoga. Not everyone wants or needs to train like an athlete – I think with the inactivity crisis we’re facing right now in modern society, that we should be promoting and encouraging ANY form of activity that gets people away from screens, and up off of their butts.

    I teach spinning and body sculpt classes, swim, run, do yoga, hike, etc. but I also enjoy the benefits – physically, mentally, and spiritually – of a brisk walk outdoors. I can raise my heart rate and often feel it in my shins the next day. In fact, I think I was in the best shape of my life when I lived in Ottawa, didn’t have a car, and walked everywhere.

    I agree that people make a mistake when they choose only to walk for fitness, but I wouldn’t discount walking as a great form of exercise that is not only practical, but convenient, cheap, and an activity that appeals to all ages and sizes.

  2. Deeber,
    for sure, you make many great points. I think that if people want to add walking in as a supplement to a more vigorous exercise program that is just fine.

    My main complaint is simply that walking in and of itself should not be a primary fitness program, for the reasons I have already mentioned.

    It is like protein pownders and viamin supplements, the key word is supplement. Vitamin pills do not make up for unhealthy eating practices. Once your diet is in check, then you can add a mulitvitamin as an insurance policy.

    Once people have a fitness program that is varied and able to increase strength, cardiovascular health, bone density, and other fitness markers in the long term, walking can be used as an enjoyable supplement to that program.

    There is research dedicated to the efficacy of walking programs and the increase in helath markers for the participants. The key to note with those programs, however, is who the participants were and the length of the study. In general, the studies finding positive health effects were conducted on previously sedentary individuals with little to no fitness experience. The studies also tend to last between 6 and 12 weeks. Studies that go longer then that find that after the 6-12 week mark the increase in health benefits plateaus.

    I do not consider 250 calories and hour to be significant calories, and that is about how many calories the average 130lbs (lean mass, not fat mass) women will burn in an hour of walking at 4mph. Thats one cookie at most donught shops or about 3/4 of most chocolate bars. Think about the 100 calorie packs that most people use as the latest excuse to eat crappy junk food, eat 2 of those packs and you essentially just negated the walk.

    Not to mention that most people say they do not have an hour a day to walk. Time is the biggest excuse people give us. So why not recomend other activities that have the potential to lead to higher intensities and actually improve strength, bone density, cardiovascular function, and insulin response in the long term and not just in the short term?

    For example, rope jumping, just 15 min for the same example above is 188 calories. Or 30 min of tennis at 188 calories, 30 min of raking the lawn burns 178 calories, and 15 minutes on a punching bag will burn almost 100 calories. Pilates for 30 minutes burns 175 calories. Not to mention sex pulls in at 130 calories per half hour, maybe people would find the time for that?

    Each of these activities burns more calories in the same period of time making it more time effective. In addition, each of those activities also has the potential to push people beyond a basic exercise program, they have more room to grow. These exercises also are better then walking for biomechanics, strength, cardiovascular function, hormone response, blood sugar control and a host of other variables.

    In the health and fitness profession we must make every effort to maximize peoples health and fitness for the rest of their lives.

    Its not that wlaking is bad, it is that it is not enough. It shouldnt be what people think of first to keep healthy. If it is, thats better than watching another tv program. But fitness professionals should be recomending the best of the best, not just the basics.

    In my opinion walking is simply not physically challenging enough to keep people healthy and active for the rest of their lives. I am not saying people shouldn’t walk, I am just saying that it is not enough on its own.

    I can take any walker or runner and in 20 minutes with no equipment give them a workout that will leave them stiff and sore the next day simply by movnig them through the appropriate proper biomechanical range of motion that their bodies were designed to move through. If either of these activities were good at maintaining strength and function over time this should not be the case. Simple bodyweight lunges and squats should not be an issue for anyone following a basic and effective exercise program.

    However, time and again, walkers and runners come to me and after their assesment tell me how sore and stiff their quads and glutes were the next day.

    So, while walking is better than nothing and does have benefits for previouslt sedentary individuals, it is not enough on its own to maximize the health of the human body.

    Now, sitting at your house doing squats and lunges is also something that most people will not commit to in the long run, just as walking programs have a very low long term adherence rate. The real issue is how lazy people are. They just dont want to do anything. It is a culture of laziness that is leading to a culture of fat people.

    But I have already posted on that…see my post on me not accepting peoples excuses for more on that.

    Thanks for the post, I love to have a running dialogue on here!

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