Fitness Tips

Are You a Slow Walker or a Power Walker? A Cardiologist Explains What Happens to Your Body When You Do Each

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty/Westend61
The children's story The Tortoise and the Hare teaches us that "slow and steady wins the race." But in the world of walking, this parable is highly, highly contested. An ongoing and heated argument asks: in the battle of slow walking versus fast walking, which one wins? So we asked a pro (read: a cardiologist; not a tortoise) to give the final verdict.

The first thing to remember, says Michael Weinrauch, MD, a New Jersey-based cardiologist, is that there's no wrong way to walk. (Yes, it's kind of obvious, but it bears emphasizing this point.) "Any walking is better than none, although the minimum dose seems to be 10 uninterrupted minutes," he explains. Even the smallest walking intervals have been shown to improve your cardiovascular fitness, stave off arthritis in older adults, increase your energy and boost your mood—and the list goes on.

So before we take a deep dive into the major benefits of slow walking and power walking, just remember that you don't need to pit the two against one another. (In fact, some research shows that a walk that varies in pace from speedy to ambling comes with its own share of benefits). "Slow and fast walking definitely impact the body differently, but what’s most important to keep in mind is that it is all a matter of degree," says Dr. Weinrauch. Bear that in mind before you stress about the cadence of your steps, okay?

The benefits of walking at a normal pace

When Dr. Weinrauch works with patients with sedentary lives, he always suggests slow walking to start. "I tell patients who do not regularly exercise to make sure they're walking 30 minutes a day uninterrupted on most days of the week," he says. "If they are completely sedentary, they should build up to this level slowly. Once this level is achieved, they can then ramp up the intensity to gain even more benefit."

But if you're just getting started with walking, there's no need to worry about accelerating your pace. "Regular walking has plenty of health benefits. It improves cardiovascular fitness, cardiovascular risk, glycemic control, stress levels, and may help prevent dementia," says Dr. Weinrauch. The takeaway: If you're just getting started, a slow walk will give you the most benefits until you've raised your fitness and your body is ready for the next challenge.

The benefits of power walking

Dr. Weinrauch defines power walking as walking that requires moderate or vigorous effort. "Typically, with moderate-intensity activity, you would be able to talk, but not sing the words to a favorite song," he explains. "Similarly with vigorous-intensity activity, one would need to pause for a breath after uttering only a few words." So if it would take a Sisyphean effort to sing along to the Lil Nas X song on your walking playlist, congratulations, you've officially crossed over the threshold into power walking (or fast walking).

One great thing about moderate to vigorous walking is that it meets the criteria for the government's recommended moderate-intensity aerobic activity. "The U.S. government recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (or 30 minutes, five days a week), 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of the two," says Dr. Weinrauch. Meaning, you could power walk 30 minutes per day, five days a week and hit your aerobic quota—a total win for your health.

When you press the pedal on your pace, you experience all the aforementioned benefits (stress relief, cardiovascular fitness, and so on), but more so. As Dr. Weinrauch mentioned at the beginning, these benefits happen on a sliding scale. For example, a study of 13,535 nurses 70 years and older found that brisk walkers (or women who moved at a clip of about three miles per hour) were 2.68 times more likely to age healthily than those who walked at a moderate pace. (Although, it's worth mentioning that those moderate-pace walkers also benefited greatly from their regimens in the same study.)

You can also add even more of a challenge to your walking regimen by taking on the hills in your neighborhood. "Brisk walking, and more specifically, walking with incline, torches calories and builds and strengthens the muscles in your posterior chain, AKA the muscles from your calves up to your back," New York Road Runners coach, Roberto Mandje, previously told Well+Good. That way, your walk also doubles as a strength training session.

The verdict

Put simply: Walking is an excellent and easy way to look after both your physical and mental health. When you're first getting started, don't fret about the numbers on your fitness watch. Just start. And if you do have more than 150 minutes per week to dedicate to a fitness regimen, Dr. Weinrauch recommends incorporating strength training into your schedule, too. "Ideally, the U.S. government also recommends that older adults perform strength training exercises at least two days a week that involve all major muscle groups: back, hips, arms, abdomen, arms, and legs," he adds. The most important thing: Get those steps...then get those reps.

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