Walking is a popular form of exercise, and for many good reasons: It’s low impact, doesn’t require travel to a gym, and aside from purchasing a supportive and comfortable pair of shoes—it is free.
If done briskly enough, it’s also extremely beneficial to your heart health.
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the strongest risk factors for heart disease, so any form of regular exercise, including walking, is better than nothing.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” Liam Murphy, MD, a functional medicine doctor with Melbourne Functional Medicine in Australia, told Verywell.
However, experts advise that a casual stroll around the neighborhood may not be intense enough to promote health benefits. Here’s how vigorously you need to be walking.
How to Know If You’re Walking Fast Enough
Most adults will need to walk faster than 3 miles per hour (20-minute miles) to reduce their heart disease risk. However, unless you are on a treadmill, it can be difficult to determine how fast you are going.
One way to determine your ideal pace is to monitor your heart rate with a fitness tracker or smartwatch during your walk. You can calculate your ideal exercise heart rate range by using the following formula:
- For maximum heart rate during exercise: Start with 220, and subtract your age.
- For example, a 50-year-old will come up with 170. This should be their maximum heart rate during exercise.
- Subtract your resting heart rate.
- If the 50-year-old above has a resting heart rate of 70, the new number on which to base this calculation would be 100.
- For the lower end of your optimal heart rate during exercise: Calculate 60% of step 2, then add back your resting heart rate.
- In the case above, 60% of 100 is 60. Adding back in the resting heart rate of 70 brings this figure to 110.
- For the higher end of your optimal heart rate during exercise: Now calculate 70% of step 2, the add back your resting heart rate.
- 70% of 100 is 70. Adding back in the resting heart rate of 70 brings this figure to 140.
Another way to determine if your physical activity is vigorous enough is to perform the talk test. A moderate-intensity walk should leave you able to carry on a conversation, but not able to sing. If you are aiming for a vigorous level of activity, you should still be able to speak a few words at a time without pausing to catch your breath. If you are too short of breath to speak, your intensity level may be too high.
You may also notice that your pace varies from day to day. If you are feeling tired or sore from vigorous activity the day before, then it is OK to reduce your pace the following day.
“The goal is to feel better after you exercise, and you do not need to overdo it,” Gerald Jerome, PhD, FAHA, a behavioral exercise scientist and professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Towson University, told Verywell. “Some days you might have lower energy. Consider sticking with your routine even if you are at a slower pace.”
How to Increase the Intensity of Your Walk
Your pace and intensity will depend upon your fitness level.
“Intensity is relative. What is a brisk walk for one person may be too fast or slow for another,” Jerome said.
If you already walk regularly, you may find that your usual route begins to feel easier than it used to. If you find that a walk around your favorite park does not seem to be enough of a challenge, there are a few things you can do that will increase your intensity.
Add an Incline
“On the treadmill, you can add a minute or two at a higher incline before returning to your usual incline and speed,” Jerome said. “If you have a walking route, you can change your route to include some hills.”
Add Faster Intervals
Another way to increase intensity is to incorporate faster-paced intervals into your regular routine.
“On the treadmill that might look like a minute or two at a faster pace, then back to your usual pace,” Jerome said. “If you are walking in your neighborhood that might mean walking faster for a few blocks, then returning to your normal pace.”
Be careful about increasing your pace too quickly, as this could lead to fatigue or injury.
“Gradually increase your pace over time,” Mike Julom, an ACE-certified personal trainer, CrossFit and founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.com, told Verywell. “Remember that it’s not a race, it’s about improving your health. It’s far better to maintain a steady, comfortable pace that you can keep up for a set duration than to go super fast and tire out quickly.”
How Much Time Should You Spend Walking?
Adults need 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly, according to most recent guidelines. If you cannot find an uninterrupted 30-minute time to walk, experts say you can still benefit from walking shorter, more frequent intervals, like two 15-minute daily walks.
Small changes—such as parking further away from your destination or taking the stairs instead of the elevator—also add up and count toward your overall daily activity, Jerome said.
Exercise should feel good, not overtaxing or painful. But pushing yourself a bit can turn your stroll into a heart-healthy activity, says Cyra-Lea Drummond, BSN, RN.