Is It Better To Walk Fast or Far? A Sports Cardiologist Weighs In

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If you're someone who has a solid walking routine, your time on your feet likely looks different every day. Sometimes, you have an hour to spare strolling around your neighborhood listening to podcasts; other times, you squeeze in a 10-minute power walk between Zoom meetings. No matter how long you have, go ahead and pat yourself on the back, because walking offers some serious benefits.

However, if you are wondering whether it’s better to walk fast or slow, or how walking speed vs. distance comes into play, consider your curiosity quelled. We got a sports cardiologist’s advice on whether walking speed or mileage matters more when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other.

Experts In This Article

4 walking benefits that will make you want to lace up your sneakers

Before getting into whether it’s better to walk fast or slow (or walk fast or far, if you’re curious about walking speed vs. distance), let’s first dive into some walking benefits. Every time you put on your sneakers and start moving, you’re impacting your cardiovascular health, mental health, and more.

1. It increases muscle strength

If you’re walking for fitness, you’re in luck: According to cardiologist Elizabeth Klodas, MD, founder and chief operating officer of Step One Foods, walking improves your muscle strength, which can lead to many other positive changes in your body as well. “Building muscle strength helps improve balance and protect your joints,” she says. “This helps maintain independence as we age.”

2. It reduces stress

Going on a walk doesn’t just benefit your physical health—it’s also great for your mental health. “Studies have shown that walking outdoors has a significant impact on our mood,” says Dr. Klodas. “Exposure to sun can also aid vitamin D production, which can help mitigate seasonal affective disorder (SAD).”

3. It improves cardiovascular health

It’s time to start walking for heart health. “Physical activity builds efficiency. Over time, that means for any activity—including sitting—your heart rate and blood pressure will be lower,” says Dr. Klodas. “That latter point is very important, as high blood pressure affects nearly half of all American adults.”

4. It helps you live longer

There are plenty of habits that help you live longer, whether that’s managing stress or filling your plate with plants. By no surprise, walking is also at the top of the list. “Physical activity is one of the cornerstones of healthy longevity,” says Dr. Klodas. The longest-living people tend to stay physically active throughout the day, and walking can be a huge part of that.

Is it better to walk faster or further?

Even with all the general walking benefits to get excited about, you may still have a question on your mind: Is it better to walk fast or far? According to John Higgins, MD, a sports cardiologist with McGovern Medical School at the UT Health Science Center at Houston, power walking and taking the scenic route both come with their fair share of benefits.

Below, he dives into walking speed vs. distance, walking (pun intended) you through why each type of exercise is great for your health and how to balance both so you can make the most of your precious free time.

Is it better to walk fast or slow?

Let's say you're juggling a lot. Maybe you're carting your kids to various activities, chasing a deadline at work, or just trying to squeeze in a quick workout before enjoying some much-needed Netflix watching. If any of this is the case and you’re wondering whether it’s better to walk fast or slow, here’s a sports cardiologist's recommendation on exercise intensity and duration: "Speed gets you more bang for the buck if you have limited time to exercise,” says Dr. Higgins. “About 15 minutes of high intensity [walking] a day equals about 30 minutes of moderate intensity.”

This ticks off the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's daily exercise recommendation of 30 minutes of movement at a moderate intensity. This effort of exercise gives you all the benefits of aerobic activity. That is, it strengthens your heart and lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, improves cognitive function, activates your immune system, and even improves your mood.

A lot can happen in such a short period of time. But there are some disadvantages of speed walking to be aware of, too: You need to make sure you're not going so fast that you wind up hurting yourself. Dr. Higgins advises that, due to the higher risk of injury associated with this type of exercise, you should take the time to learn how to walk faster and engage in all the necessary self-care before doing so (like stretching, mobility work, and strength training) to ensure a pain-free future.

The perks of longer, more leisurely walks

In the conundrum of whether it’s better to walk fast or slow, there are certainly perks of taking leisurely walks. So if you’ve got room on your calendar, the sports cardiologist recommendation is that you should feel free to take a long, relaxing stroll instead.

Dr. Higgins says you'll experience many of the same heart health benefits during leisurely walks—all without needing to worry about the aforementioned disadvantages of speed walking. You’ll have a lower risk of injury, all while still being able to build your endurance. Over time, your body will adapt to covering longer distances and you'll be able to press the gas pedal so you can combine both exercise intensity and duration.

Plus, you may find that these meandering miles are more of a mental time-out for you than something on the shorter side. Remember: Working out for your mental health is just (if not more) important than working out for your physical body.

The verdict

So you want to reap the most walking benefits you possibly can. According to Dr. Higgins, you don’t need to decide between walking fast or far for that to happen—you can (and should!) do both. So get ready to mix and match. "I recommend doing at least one high-intensity workout per week, or every other week," he says. "On the rest of the days, do your moderate workouts—like jogging, biking, or swimming.”

So if you're wondering what kind of walk you should add to the docket today, do some introspection and decide if you want to stop and smell the roses or break a sweat. (You'll be bettering your cardiovascular health no matter what.)

Tips to get the most out of your walks

Whether you’re walking for heart health or walking for fitness (or, better yet, both!), there are some simple ways to get the most out of that time spent moving. Maybe it’s finding your optimal walking pace, or maybe it’s finally buying that new pair of sneakers you know will keep your feet happy. Ahead, get some expert-approved advice.

1. Start slow and work your way up

Because there are some disadvantages of speed walking, never start at a pro-athlete-level walking speed before your body is ready to do so. “If you’re just starting out, don’t overdo it. That can lead to injury and set you back,” says Dr. Klodas. If you’re brand-new to walking, she recommends starting little by little—even if that’s starting with just a minute on the first day. “If you add one minute each day, in two months, you’ll be walking for an hour a day.”

2. Get comfortable, supportive shoes

Sure, some of the best walking shoes are an investment—but Dr. Klodas says that by getting a comfortable, supportive option, you could reap big rewards in terms of your enjoyment of the activity. “Going to a running store and having an expert fit you with the footwear that’s right for you can be a game-changer,” she says.

3. Combine your walks with other enjoyable activities

If you need a little motivation to get your steps in, Dr. Klodas recommends pairing your walks with other activities you look forward to. “Think of your walks as an opportunity to listen to books, podcasts, or your favorite music,” she says. “Or connect with others and walk with a friend, either in person or remotely.”

4. Look to your heart rate

If you're looking for a more intense walking workout, focus on your heart rate, which lets you know exactly how hard your heart is working to pump blood throughout your body. There are five heart rate zones to keep in mind, according to the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Zone 1: 50-60 percent of max heart rate
  • Zone 2: 60-70 percent of max heart rate
  • Zone 3: 70-80 percent of max heart rate
  • Zone 4: 80-90 percent of max heart rate
  • Zone 5: 90-100 percent of max heart rate

You can calculate your max heart rate by using a simple formula: 220 minus your age. For a 30-year-old woman, that would be 190 beats per minute (BPM). You can also find your ideal heart rate zone with a quick calculation: "220 minus your age, times 50 to 70 percent,” Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a New York City-based cardiologist, previously told Well+Good. For a 30-year-old, that range would be 95 BPM (190 times 0.5) to 133 BPM (190 times 0.7).

But you don’t need to focus on your heart rate to get a great walking workout. “Instead, simply focus on how you feel,” says Dr. Klodas. “Moderate exercise intensity is where we want to spend most of our time during our walks, as it’s this level of exertion that most helps improve muscle performance and endurance. You’ll know you’re exercising at a moderate intensity if you can still talk but not sing during the activity.”

According to Dr. Klodas, the “talk test” is a super-accurate method of determining if you’re in the right zone for optimizing the health benefits of walking. “As you become fitter, you’ll need to walk faster—and therefore further—to reach the moderate zone,” she says.

5. Find your optimal walking pace

An optimal walking pace can vary from person to person, so experiment with your walking speed and see what works best for you. “Your goal should be to spend most of your walking time in the moderate exertion zone,” says Dr. Klodas. “If moderate exertion is walking slowly for you, walk as far as you can. If moderate exertion is speed-walking, walk as fast as you can for the time you have.”

Frequently asked questions about walking

What happens if you walk every day for a month?

Have you ever asked yourself: Is walking enough exercise? According to Dr. Klodas, if you can stick to walking every day for a month, you’re bound to feel like a million bucks. “The cumulative effects of doing something daily can be eye-popping. Walk a mile a day, and in a month you’ll have walked 30 miles. In that time, you should experience some (and sometimes profound) improvements in exercise capacity, mood, and even self-esteem,” she says.

How soon will I see results from walking?

It doesn’t take long to start reaping the benefits of walking. “Some benefits are nearly instantaneous—like better mood and better sleep,” says Dr. Klodas. If you’re walking for fitness or walking for heart health, however, you’ll need to have a little more patience. “Some benefits take longer, like weight loss, improved fitness/strength, and better blood pressure readings.”

With that being said, every step you take truly makes a difference. And over time, you’ll be very happy that you made those daily walks a priority. “Physical activity is an essential component of health maintenance and disease prevention,” she says. “When it comes to getting and staying healthy, getting and staying fit—and walking is a great way to accomplish this—is one of your secret weapons.”

How many steps should I walk a day?

You’ve probably asked yourself: How many steps should I walk in a day? While 10,000 steps a day has been the go-to number for years, experts say there's no scientific basis for it. In fact, past research has shown people who got in less than 10,000 steps a day still saw some impressive benefits.

In one study, women who took at least 4,400 steps a day had a 41 percent lower mortality rate than those who took 2,700 steps a day. In another study, adults over 60 who walked between 6,000 and 9,000 steps a day decreased their risk of cardiovascular events by 40 to 50 percent, compared to those who only got 2,000 steps a day.

So, what should your actual goal be in terms of step count? Aiming for at least 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day is a good goal to have. "There's nothing wrong with 10,000 steps. If people are achieving that, you wouldn't suggest doing less," Elroy Aguiar, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science at the University of Alabama, previously told Well+Good. "But the important point is that the vast majority of the American population doesn't do 10,000 steps and they don't do 7,500 steps—on average in the United States, people get around 5,000 to 6,500 steps a day—so it's setting a more realistic goal."

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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