While fitness trends may come and go, one movement that people do every day, often without much thought, is walking — and it's often underrated.
According to an annual report from a fitness tracking company Strava, uploads of outdoor walks doubled year-over-year from 2020 to 2021. Another report found that the number of people who walked for fitness in the U.S. increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2021, reaching 115.8 million.
Walking is having a social media moment, too, including the viral 12-3-30 treadmill walk, the TikTok famous walking pad for folks who work from home, and hashtags like #hotgirlwalk with upwards of 678 million views on TikTok.
And the benefits fall right in step. Walking is easy to recover from, requires no training, and can be relatively easy to incorporate into your lifestyle, says Lifeforce Physician Renae Thomas, MD, MPH. "While walking may not come to mind when we think of the latest or most exciting trends in the health and fitness space, walking truly is a tried and true form of physical activity," says Dr. Thomas. Not only is it accessible, free, and lower-impact, but it's also linked to longevity. It's a form of movement that is easily adapted for your fitness level and goals, too.
Keep reading to learn exactly how and why walking can step up your healthspan, plus how to boost its benefits, according to Lifeforce experts.
Benefits of Walking for Longevity
It reduces risk for disease.
Walking regularly has been shown to reduce the risk of premature death by 50-70%, notes Dr. Thomas. It lowers your risk of developing the leading causes of death and disease, according to research published in JAMA. A daily walk can reduce the risk of stroke and the number of days spent in the hospital each year.
Despite these benefits, people often underestimate the power of less-intense physical activity. But just like other cardiovascular activity, walking increases your heart rate, improves blood flow and oxygen delivery, and adds to your daily caloric burn. "All of this can help manage, or reduce your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes to name a few," says Dr. Thomas. "Reducing the risk of these major chronic diseases can go a long way to supporting an extended healthspan."
A little bit goes a long way.
Research from the American Heart Association has found that you don't even need to walk a ton to reap these benefits. Specifically, researchers found that people who increased their step counts by 1,000 per day had a 22% lower chance of dying from all causes. Even those who only increased their count by 500 saw a 7% drop in cardiovascular-related deaths.
People who exercise more than the minimum recommended level are associated with living a longer life, studies have also found. Walking is an easy way to exceed minimum recommended movement guidelines, which are not met by 70-80% of Americans and potentially the global population, according to Lifeforce Clinical Advisor Ryan Greene, DO, MS, and Co-Founder and Medical Director at Monarch Athletic Club.
It’s an easy habit to stick to.
Studies have found that walking is one type of exercise people actually stick to over time, meaning it's more likely to become a habitual movement. One reason people enjoy walking and can stick with it, in particular, is because it can be lower-impact than something like running, but don't confuse that for being less impactful. In fact, a study found that moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
"Based on my work with patients in the longevity and preventive health space, I am finding many people assume exercise has to be high intensity or some sort of group fitness app based endeavor, when in actuality simply moving can be beneficial," Dr. Greene says.
It boosts immunity, mood, and more.
In addition to movement, some other benefits of walking might not be so obvious. "Walking can also help boost your immunity, improve your mood, and aid digestion, improving quality of life as well," Dr. Thomas says. Another benefit is getting outside to walk and move is beneficial with respect to getting vitamin D, according to Dr. Greene.
"Many Americans are sub-optimal in terms of levels and because vitamin D is such a critical vitamin, the multitude of potential benefits should not be understated," he says. Some researchers have found that supplemental vitamin D can positively influence longevity by preventing the accumulation of toxic proteins linked to many age-related diseases.
Another less-obvious benefit of walking is stress relief, according to a study that found endorphins from walking can lead to a better mood. Research has found that happy people tend to live longer and healthier lives.
How to Step Up Your Steps
1. Swap out your car, elevator, or anything that's walkable instead.
If you're already walking instead of driving, you're on the right track. "It's important not to underestimate any attempts to walk more, such as parking farther away, taking the stairs, or going for a quick walk around the block," says Dr. Thomas. "You don't have to spend hours on a treadmill to see benefits."
2. Prioritize what’s enjoyable and fun.
Anything that helps you walk more is worth doing. The best way to get the most out of walking for exercise is to do it in ways you find enjoyable, according to Dr. Thomas. This might include walking outside in nature, listening to a podcast on a treadmill, walking with a friend, or exploring a new neighborhood. "Walking can be a highly enjoyable way to get moving, and the exercise you enjoy is the one you're most likely to do," Dr. Thomas says.
3. Build walks into your work day.
One of the reasons why the walking pad is so popular is because it makes it easy to get some steps in during the work day, without leaving your computer. Even without this extra tech, you can add movement into your work day by taking walking breaks or meetings. Have a brainstorm call or catch-up with your co-worker? Suggest a walking meeting where you can convene together outside — or remotely with a good pair of headphones.
4. Level up for an added challenge.
If you're walking specifically for exercise, Dr. Greene recommends changing your walking speed or intensity for brief intervals. You could also try walking with a weighted vest, which is inexpensive and can add an extra challenge. Incorporating inclines, hills, or stairs to your walk can speed up calorie burn, if that's something you want to prioritize. The same goes if you're outside; try to choose routes with hills or varying slopes to add resistance.
5. Think in increments.
"Simply walking versus driving or taking another form of transportation that doesn't require physical movement, when compounded over time, can be quite beneficial," says Dr. Greene. In fact, a 2021 study found that just 11 extra minutes of movement per day can make a difference in your lifespan. So, if you're already going for a walk, tack on 11 more minutes for benefits that will go the extra mile.
So How Many Steps Is Enough?
Ready to step to it? If you’re setting a goal on your fitness tracker, you may have heard 10,000 steps is optimal, but that's not necessarily a magic number.
Before choosing a step count goal, remember that fewer than 4,000 steps a day is considered a low level of physical activity. And to meet the CDC's recommendations for physical activity of 150 to 300 minutes of activity each week, a study found that you would need to take 7,000 to 9,000 steps each day. Other studies have found that around 8,200 steps per day is linked to a lower chance of developing chronic diseases.
The most important thing to note is that more is more when it comes to walking for your health. One study found that women who took at least 4,400 steps per day had a lower mortality rate than those who took only 2,700. Any additional steps taken after 4,400 and up until 7,500 resulted in greater health benefits before women hit a plateau. Other research from the American Heart Association found that more steps are always better than less. Specifically, they saw that the more steps people took, the greater the health benefits.
Bottom line: More steps are always a good idea, and don't stress if you can't hit that 10,000 number.
Show us your steps! Whether taking your dog for an extra turn around the block or tying a new treadmill workout, share your walks with us @golifeforce.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Renae Thomas, MD, MPH; ABFM Board Certified in Family Medicine, ABPM Board Certified in Public Health, & General Preventive Medicine; ABLM Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine
Ryan Greene, DO, MS, Board Eligible Integrative and Preventive Medicine Specialist