Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Walk a Mile Every Day

Photo: Getty/Westend61
One common refrain from the last few years has been: "Do less and get more out of it." That's why, as much as we love HIIT workouts, sweaty yoga flows, and invigorating weight-lifting seshes, we're all for walking a mile a day as the basis of our regular movement. We're not alone, either. Restorative fitness modalities have grown in popularity over the last few years—and walking is among them. According to an Massachusetts Institute of Technology study conducted in 2020, more people went on leisurely strolls and power walks during the pandemic than ever had before.

One of the first things that Steve Stonehouse, running and walking coach and vice president of programming and education for STRIDE, tells me when we hop on the phone is that most people don't realize that walking is considered a weight-bearing exercise. Given that walking is usually grouped in the cardio category, this adds to the ever-growing list of serious benefits you get from it—yes, even from simply walking a mile a day.

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"Walking is a weight-bearing exercise—even if you're not holding weights or you've got ankle weights on, it's a weight-bearing exercise," Stonehouse says. "You're getting all of the cardio and respiratory benefits, but your muscles are getting benefits too because they're having to carry your weight around." Below, Stonehouse and BowFlex fitness advisor Amy Schemper, CPT share the health benefits of walking plus tips for how to up the challenge when you're ready.

The benefits of walking a mile a day

1. You help strengthen your muscles

While walking isn't the same as strength training, you still get some strength-building benefits from engaging muscles throughout your body as you walk. What muscles does walking work? “We think of walking as primarily cardiovascular training (which it is!), however, walking also works our entire lower body, including legs, calves, and hips,” Schemper says. And, depending on the terrain you’re walking on, you can tap into specific muscle zones. “Walking up hills or on an incline really targets our glutes and hamstrings,” she adds. “And walking [in general] requires significant core stabilization, so your abdominal muscles are also engaging with every step.” Best of all, since walking keeps the core engaged, the mile-a-day benefits might include improved posture, too.

TL;DR: Walking a mile a day will engage all of your lower body muscles, as well as your core and arms if your form is on point.

2. You help boost bone health

Your bones respond to the movement you do, especially if that movement is weight-bearing—like walking a mile a day. According to the National Institutes of Health, your bone tissue responds and grows stronger when you exercise. Prioritizing exercise, like walking a mile a day, can also help you prevent bone loss as you age.

3. You set a healthy routine

Walking can be a great way to get some me-time and fresh air. Aside from the physical effects of daily walks, this habit gives you time to think, listen to music, a podcast, or catch up with a friend. There's also value in setting a goal and sticking to walking a mile a day since it builds consistency and routine.

"I think there's value in routines and the discipline that [walking a mile a day] requires, even aside from the physical benefits," Stonehouse says.

4. You improve cardiorespiratory health

Walking for a mile or any distance gets your heart rate up, which is a major boost for your heart health. Any time you move, your body has to "push blood and fluids and everything through your system, more than it would if you weren't walking," notes Stonehouse. That push gives your heart a workout, and your bod a boost. Walking can even reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent.

Want more? Here are the benefits of walking 3 miles a day

What if you want to up the ante and log some extra miles on your walks? Good idea! A three-mile walk is an ideal workout because it gives you just enough time to throw in some variety (intervals, anyone?) while still keeping your workout attainable and doable, according to Stonehouse. You can make your workout simple and set the first mile as your warm-up, the second mile as your "working" mile, where you challenge yourself by taking a hill or maybe a different path, and the final mile can be your cool-down. It's that simple, but also that effective.

How to make walking a mile a day more challenging

Here are some ideas for making any walk—whether it's one, three, five, or more miles—into even more of a beneficial workout.

1. Take a route with hills

If you can find an area with more hills or something other than a flat road, take your walk there to mix it up.

2. Challenge yourself with intervals

Walk slowly for one minute, quickly for one minute, and repeat during your second "working" mile.

3. Try 5-minute blocks

Push for one minute, and then do four minutes at an easy pace. Repeat the 5-minute blocks until you hit 3 miles or your timed goal.

4. Change up the scenery

Take your three miles out to a trail or hike for a challenge and an extra dose of calm.

Tips for preventing walking injuries

One of the most common issues Stonehouse sees in the clients he coaches is pain and issues that result from overdoing exercise when you haven't been active. Keep in mind that even one mile is something you should do at your own pace, and work your way up to if you've been sidelined due to an injury, sickness, or, you know, life.

Finally, the shoes that you wear while walking (here are some that are podiatrist-approved, and here are the best shoes for walking and standing all day) are also key since your feet need the proper support to carry you through each step. Don't forget that you need to replace your sneakers about every six months, depending on how much you walk—if you're not sure, try this 10-second test to check. If you find that you need a new pair, consider checking out a pair of Hoka shoes for walking—a brand many podiatrists recommend.

Tips for good walking form

To reap all of the body-loving benefits of exercise and to make sure you're using the correct muscles, you have to have good form. When your form gets wonky, injuries can creep up. (You can explore the way you move with the iPhone gait analysis.)

1. Upper body form tips

Stonehouse and Schemper emphasize the importance of keeping your upper body in check when you walk, especially if you have a sedentary job or lifestyle, which can make us tight and hunched. "Walking helps improve our upper body and posture and helps combat general tension we get from sitting at our desks and in our cars," Schemper says.

In order to reap that reward, though, you have to walk with your shoulders and hips stacked squarely over each other—and Stonehouse says to keep your arms moving. "Sometimes when people get tired, their arms move less," he says. To make sure they swing, he suggests keeping your arms a bit loose and letting them follow your leg motion. But also be mindful of not crossing them too much. "Make sure that the arms are swinging, but I never want the arms crossing the midline of the body," says Stonehouse.

2. Heel strike

You've probably heard the term heel strike applied to runners more than walkers, but according to Stonehouse, it's important for both groups to pay attention to. For walkers, you want a "good heel strike on the outside of your heel. You're going to naturally roll over to your midfoot and then off on your big toe. So ideally you want to keep that heel strike, mid-foot, big toe," says Stonehouse.

Brush up on your walking form with this short tutorial: 


Frequently asked questions

Is walking a mile on a treadmill as beneficial as walking outside?

Treadmills are one of those things that you either love or hate. On one hand, they offer the ability to walk any time, any day. On the other, you don’t get the benefit of changing scenery as you walk. (Unless, of course, you have a high-tech treadmill, like the Bowflex 22, $2,799, which features Netflix and Prime Video, as well as over 200 “Roam the World” routes.)

No matter your stance on treadmills, the fact remains the same: Walking is walking. 

“However you can best fit exercise into your life is the best way for you,” Schemper says. “Walking on a treadmill may be more convenient, especially during bad weather, and can provide more safety and stability for many. For others, walking outside is more accessible (and free!) and provides changing scenery and fresh air. When it comes to physical benefits, walking outside may provide more benefits to your body and brain; your muscles and joints adapt to varied terrain and your balance and coordination are challenged. However, at the end of the day, finding a way to walk that works for you and is enjoyable is the most important factor.”

What are some fun ways to easily add walking a mile a day into your routine?

Walking a mile a day can be done many ways. “If you wear a fitness tracker, walking a mile takes approximately 2000 to 2500 steps,” Schemper says. “This could be broken up in increments: a quick walk around the block before work, going up and down stairs on your lunch break, and even parking further away from your destination.”

If you want to walk a mile a day in one fell swoop, Schemper suggests using the workout to catch up with a friend rather than meeting for coffee (or you could do both and turn it into a hot girl walk). Another idea is to take a family walk after dinner. If you prefer solo walks, consider using the time to tune into the latest episode of your favorite podcast or to listen to a book you’ve been dying to read. The Superhuman app also offers a bunch of different walking meditations that can invigorate your steps. Meanwhile, if you walk on a treadmill, you can zone out with your favorite show, which will surely pass the time (and likely make you track even more miles in the process). Suffice to say, walking a mile a day can be a real treat.

What's the best way to measure walking fitness progression?

Using a fitness tracker—like an Apple Watch or Fitbit—is the most accurate way to track your steps and distance. “A fitness tracker can be an excellent way to count steps and track mileage and see your heart rate improve, but there are many other ways to track your progression,” Schemper admits. “Time yourself walking the same distance or area, and see if you get slightly faster as you walk more often. Listen to your body and track the changes you feel. Rather than tracking mileage, track consistency: How many days per week you get a walk in, and for how many weeks during the month.”

Is walking enough exercise?

Considering how leisurely walking a mile a day can be, many people wonder if walking is enough exercise. According to Schemper, taking daily steps for exercise (whether you walk fast or walk far) is hugely beneficial. “Walking is one of the best and most accessible ways to get moving and get our hearts and lungs working, while also strengthening muscles and improving bone density,” she says, noting that a  2023 meta-analysis revealed that even as little as 2,500 steps per day (one mile) can result in numerous health benefits. “Walking also relieves anxiety and stress; a small 2018 study concluded even as little as 10 minutes of walking can improve our mood. Walking a mile a day also establishes a routine of activity, and can get many of us outside before or after long days of sitting inside at our jobs.” 

So what are you waiting for? Get stepping, and see those benefits roll in.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Hunter, Ruth F et al. “Effect of COVID-19 response policies on walking behavior in US cities.” Nature communications vol. 12,1 3652. 16 Jun. 2021, doi:10.1038/s41467-021-23937-9
  2. Omura, John D et al. “Walking as an Opportunity for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention.” Preventing chronic disease vol. 16 E66. 30 May. 2019, doi:10.5888/pcd16.180690
  3. Banach, Maciej et al. “The association between daily step count and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: a meta-analysis.” European journal of preventive cardiology, zwad229. 9 Aug. 2023, doi:10.1093/eurjpc/zwad229
  4. Edwards, Meghan K, and Paul D Loprinzi. “Experimental effects of brief, single bouts of walking and meditation on mood profile in young adults.” Health promotion perspectives vol. 8,3 171-178. 7 Jul. 2018, doi:10.15171/hpp.2018.23

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