I love walking but feel bad for not doing more intense workouts. Is low-impact exercise enough to improve my health?


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There are numerous health benefits to walking. Getty/Adeline Praud
  • If you’re conscious of hitting recommended activity targets, walking definitely counts towards this.

  • There are lots of health benefits to walking, such as improved immune function and reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

  • Keeping active over the course of the day and little bursts of movement can have huge benefits.

  • The most important thing to consider, however, is what you enjoy doing.

  • Read more Working It Out here.

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Dear Rachel,

Does walking (and other low intensity movement) count as exercise? I love walking as a hobby – I listen to music and podcasts – and I wonder if doing that (even if at a slow pace) can lead to significant health improvements. Also, does fidgeting and standing up in general have a positive impact on long-term health?

– Wandering Wonderer

Dear Wandering,

My initial reaction to your question is that you should stop thinking about what “counts” as exercise, and simply consider in what ways you enjoy moving. 

Our bodies are designed to move and we always feel better for it (even though sometimes it takes a lot of mental effort when the couch is so comfy), but exercise shouldn’t feel like a chore.

Different types of movement will bring about different benefits and changes, but ultimately, forcing yourself to do anything you hate is only going to make you miserable.

If you love walking, that is wonderful.

For me, listening to a podcast and going for a stroll is a great way to break up a sedentary work day and, when I put my phone on airplane mode, also boosts my mental wellbeing by allowing me to take a breather from everything going on.

There are endless benefits to walking

Experts recommend we take 10,000 steps a day, and for people in sedentary jobs – especially now many of us aren’t commuting further than our living rooms – getting anywhere close to this target requires actively going on a walk. 

Whether it “counts as exercise” or not, there are tons of proven health benefits to walking.

One study found that a half-hour walk five times a week reduces risk of heart disease by 19%, another suggested that a 15-minute walk after each meal of the day could lower blood sugar levels, and further research found links between walking and a stronger immune system.

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Gaby Noble in her classical pilates studio. Exhale Pilates

“We live in a highly stressed instant gratification society so finding balance is hard for many,” Gaby Noble, a classical pilates instructor and the owner of boutique London studio Exhale Pilates, told Insider.

“Low intensity movement like walking can often be more beneficial to someone’s overall health and wellness as it provides less pressure on the heart, lungs, and joints and won’t stimulate the adrenal gland as much which can lead to fatigue, anxiety, bad sleep and in some cases burn out,” she continued.

Walking can contribute to your activity targets

If you’re someone who likes to track their activity, you’ll be pleased to know that experts say walking does count as exercise.

“Walking definitely counts as movement and is great for you!” strength and conditioning coach and sports scientist Emma Kirk Odunubi told Insider. “Plus trying to stay active and moving every day in any way will be positive for you and your health. Exercise needs to be enjoyable and if that’s walking then do that.”

Emma Kirk Odunubi 1
Emma Kirk-Odunubi is a London-based sports scientist and coach. Emma Kirk-Odunubi

Ideally, you want to do some cardio and strength training too, because walking alone doesn’t provide all the benefits those workout styles would. However, you certainly don’t need to be out of breath and dripping with sweat for movement to be beneficial.

“Walking, even leisurely, does count as exercise, although at slow paces, it probably doesn’t boost cardiovascular conditioning and endurance much,” Dr. David Geier, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon, told Insider.

He continued: “But the act of moving and getting outdoors does have positive health benefits. Plus, the act of walking on a regular basis might stimulate the formation of an exercise habit which includes more strenuous activities like jogging and lifting weights.”

Short bursts of movement over the day are beneficial

When it comes to fidgeting, some people naturally do so more than others, which may contribute slightly to their NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).

NEAT essentially means all the movement you do that isn’t formal exercise, such as cleaning, unloading the dishwasher, or walking to the bus stop. And all this movement can really add up.

Dr. David Geier
Dr. David Geier is a specialist in sports medicine. Dr. David Geier

“I’m not aware of any benefits to fidgeting, but standing is certainly better for our health than sitting for many hours per day,” Dr. Geier said. “I encourage my patients to use a standing desk, or even a treadmill desk, at work. I promote taking the stairs instead of the elevator if possible. I encourage them to park at the far back of the parking lot to get some extra steps in. And I promote making and taking all phone calls while standing up or even walking around.”

These little bursts of movement throughout the day burn calories, prevent you from getting too stiff, and can boost your energy levels. 

Keeping active however suits you is what’s most important

“Focus should be placed towards increasing daily activity rather than how hard your next HIIT session is,” Noble told Insider. “Just because you are not sweating buckets during an activity, does not mean it is not a great form of activity or exercise.”

She continued: “Whether it’s walking, swimming, gardening, playing with your kids, anything that gets you working your muscles and joints, boosting circulation around your body is good for you.”

 

Movement of any kind – high or low intensity – expends energy and is good for our body and mind (provided we balance it with enough rest time too).

“It’s important to find a movement that you enjoy, that you can stick to, and is good for your body and most importantly mind,” Noble said. “By being kind to your body and mind, you will achieve far greater results, sooner.”

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at workingitout@insider.com or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

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