When it comes to different forms of exercise, walking is a highly effective way to lessen joint pain, lower your risk of disease and de-stress from a busy schedule. Best of all, walking can be done just about anywhere, at any time — making it easily accessible to people regardless of fitness level, geography or schedule.
However, if walking is your main form of exercise, it’s important to make the most of each workout to reap its many health benefits. Unless you understand how to properly measure your effort, it’s difficult to know whether your walks are continuing to increase your fitness.
We spoke with two medical professionals to learn four signs that could indicate your walking workout isn’t challenging enough.
1. You don’t get 150 minutes of fitness weekly.
One of the easiest ways to know whether you’re getting enough exercise — especially if you’re just starting out — is to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. Fortunately for those of us with jam-packed schedules, this time can be broken up into workouts as short as 10 minutes and still be just as beneficial as longer periods of exercise.
What’s even better? Walking doesn’t necessarily need to be a stepping stone to running. Dr. Robert Sallis, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California, and a spokesperson for the Every Body Walk program, views walking as the default exercise prescription.
“Jogging for 15 minutes is equivalent to walking for 30 minutes,” he says. “You burn about the same amount of calories if you walk or run a mile, it just takes you a little longer to walk it.”
2. Your heart rate is too low.
Heart rate is another factor in assessing how hard you’re working, as it’s a very personal data point. Two people exercising at the same intensity could have vastly different heart rates, so closely tracking this body statistic can keep your effort levels in check.
Dr. David Sabgir, a cardiologist at Mount Carmel Clinical Cardiovascular Specialists and founder of the nonprofit Walk with a Doc, recommends a simple equation for finding the heart rate you should target on your walks. “Your maximum heart rate can be found by subtracting your age from 220,” he says. “You should then aim to maintain at least 60% of that number (your max heart rate).”
This means that a 40 year old should maintain a heart rate of at least 108 throughout their workout. (220 – 40 = 180; 60% of 180 is 108.)
3. You can sing a song without difficulty.
While everyone’s pace and heart rate differs based on their experience and fitness level, the sing-talk test is a benchmark cited by both doctors to gauge your level of effort.
“As you’re walking, don’t go slow enough where you can sing a song,” Sabgir explains. “Walk just fast enough where you can complete a full sentence without having to stop and take a breath.”
Our bodies use much more air when singing than when speaking, so being able to belt out a tune while walking is a signal that there’s still air in your lungs that can be used to increase your effort.
4. You always do the same workout.
As with any type of exercise or health program, improvement should always be an objective — whether it’s in the form of a healthier heart or a faster pace. Repeatedly doing the same workout doesn’t do you any favors if you’re looking for health benefits.
You should aim to increase your workout time and/or distance by no more than 10% each week. For example, if you’re currently walking 10 miles per week, next week’s total mileage shouldn’t be more than 11 miles.
“Interval training can also help build fitness faster,” Sallis adds. “Vary your intensity, or add hills or stairs to your routine.”
Ultimately, you want to make your workout worth your time. While both doctors agree that walking — whether it’s a lot or a little — won’t have negative effects, these simple tips can help ensure your next walk will be one that improves your physical, mental and overall wellness.