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Is walking the best all-purpose exercise?

couple walking
Written by Paul Taylor

QUESTION: My doctor says I should be exercising regularly. She has urged me to go for a brisk 30-minute walk, five times a week. I know she is right about my need to get moving. But is walking the best type of exercise?

ANSWER: The best exercise is the one that you will do and keep doing. You could likely achieve your fitness goals through a host of different activities, including jogging, cycling, swimming or even dancing. Many doctors recommend walking because it’s something that most people can carry out.

“It’s a simple and accessible all-purpose activity,” says Dr. Paul Oh, medical director of the cardiovascular disease prevention and rehabilitation program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

“You can walk inside or outside and easily fit it into your day.  All you need is a decent pair of shoes.”

Don’t underestimate the power of walking just because it’s not the latest fitness fad. Scientific evidence suggests that walking can have a profound influence on your overall health.

A brisk 30-minute walk, five times a week, can reduce a sedentary person’s risk of dying prematurely of any cause by 20 percent, according to a study by researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Other research shows this level of activity has a wide range of positive effects, including:

  • Improves mood and emotional wellbeing;
  • Boosts energy and stamina;
  • Evens out swings in blood-sugar levels, which is especially important for people with diabetes;
  • Improves circulation, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of developing heart disease;
  • Lowers the chances of getting various cancers;
  • Protects the brain from the effects of aging and helps guard against dementia;
  • Strengthens leg muscles, which in turn, helps protect knee and hip joints;
  • And it even reduces the odds of getting unsightly varicose veins.

“Walking really is a good thing to do,” says Dr. Murray Waldman, a hospitalist at St. John’s Rehab, a division of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

But to reap the potential benefits, you need to walk at a fairly fast clip. The resting heart rate for the average adult is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. “Basically, you want get over 100,” says Dr. Waldman.  This means walking at a pace that makes you feel a bit short of breath.

You can spread out your walking in a variety of ways.  The general exercise recommendations for healthy adults call for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity. Your doctor has suggested breaking it up into 30-minute periods, five times a week. You can do it in more frequent shorter periods, if that’s convenient for you.

Of course, you could walk more.  In fact, if you want to lose weight, you’re unlikely to meet your goal by just walking the basic recommended amount.  “Walking 30 minutes is associated with burning 250 calories,” which equates to 1,250 calories per week, explains Dr. Oh. “To really lose weight, you need to burn 3,500 calories per week per pound. So, you would have to walk a whole lot.”

You should also be aware that what you do when you’re not exercising also has a big impact on your health.

In particular, a growing body of research points to the dangers of prolonged periods of inactivity – essentially sitting. Many people now sit all day at work, then go home and sit in front of the television for much of the evening. Uninterrupted bouts of sitting can undermine your health – even if you are getting the recommended amount of weekly exercise.

Sitting for 30, 60 or 90 minutes at a time is associated with an elevated risk of early death from all causes in individuals who are sedentary for an average of 12 to 13 hours a day, according to a recent study by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, and other institutions.

However, the researchers found that taking “movement breaks” every 30 minutes throughout the day could help mitigate the negative effects of too much sitting.

Getting up and going for brief walk is one way to break that cycle of inactivity. “Walking at any pace is better than sitting around,” says Dr. Oh.

About the author

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor retired from his role as Sunnybrook's Patient Navigation Advisor in 2020. From 2013 to 2020, he wrote a regular column in which he provided advice and answered questions from patients and their families. Follow Paul on Twitter @epaultaylor