We all know we need to exercise to stay fit and strong, stave off disease and maintain a healthy weight. Walking is the most popular physical activity undertaken by Australian adults. It’s free, easy, and can be done almost anywhere.
The health benefits of walking stem from the changes that occur in our body systems as a result of exercising. For some of these health conditions, fitness has been shown to be a particularly important factor for prevention.
The term fitness is quite often used to describe aerobic fitness, but having a high level of fitness actually refers to all components of health-related physical fitness which includes muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, body composition, and of course aerobic (or heart) fitness. So is walking enough in terms of the exercise we need?
An analysis of studies on walking showed it improves aerobic fitness – which is technically the ability of the heart to get oxygen to our muscles and how effectively our muscles use that oxygen. But to be effective, walking needs to be of at least moderate intensity, which means an intensity where you’re able to notice your breathing but can carry on a conversation without noticeable pauses between words. For many, this is a brisk walk.
Greater improvements in aerobic fitness can be achieved when walking at a vigorous intensity, where you can converse with a friend, but it will be interrupted with noticeable pauses between words to take a breath.
The good news is that you don’t need to walk at a vigorous intensity for health or aerobic fitness benefits. Walking at a moderate intensity will increase your aerobic fitness and, more importantly, your endurance (the ability to carry out activities for longer with less fatigue). This is because it allows your body to burn fat more efficiently, improves delivery and use of oxygen in the muscles, and improves mitochondria density and efficiency (these are producers of energy in our body), all leading to greater capacity to undertake tasks with less fatigue.
Walking briskly for 30 minutes five days per week can improve aerobic fitness. Each walking bout doesn’t need to be long though; walking for ten minutes three times per day is as beneficial as walking for 30 minutes in one go.