Walking Counts as Exercise… REALLY!

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On NPR this morning, I heard Renee Montagne utter this intriguing line, “About half of all Americans say they exercise regularly.” I literally laughed out loud as exercise is a big topic of conversation this week in my house, with my parents visiting from Florida. My dad had a second heart surgery last year and my mom has high cholesterol, and they really would benefit from regular exercise. I know this. They know this.  And yet…they are not among the apparently half of Americans exercising regularly.

Maybe peer pressure (as opposed to kid pressure) would help? So I listened keenly. In fact, after noting that half of Americans say they exercise regularly, Ms. Montagne continued with proof that it’s true:

“That’s the finding of a recent poll NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The most popular exercises are cardio/aerobic using treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationery bikes. But leading the pack: going for a walk!”

I looked up the poll: Sports And Health In America. Published in June 2015, this study interviewed 2,506 adults age 18 and older who were interviewed on the phone, in English and Spanish, between January 29 – March 8, 2015. While this study is 50+ pages of intriguing facts, one thing I did not see is a breakout of exercise among those age 70 and older, which I could have used as fodder for an exercise discussion with my parents. Sigh.

But no matter, as there was a key nugget I could use with my folks! Right after Ms. Montagne’s segment was a ‘Health News’ story entitled, “Take A Hike To Do Your Heart And Spirit Good.” In this piece, Patti Neighmond discussed a topic near and dear to my heart (apologies for bad pun): is walking REALLY exercise?

Frankly, I’m of two minds about walking. For my parents, I have tried to convince them that walking is vital — that to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and have a healthier heart, they need to walk, daily. I’ve posited that the lower energy my father feels one year post successful heart surgery is partially due to the fact that he’s not exercising enough. Even he admits his cardiologist has said the same thing. I’ve gifted both parents workout clothes and iPods (and conducted remote IT sessions to load music). I’ve asked. I’ve cajoled. To little effect. That said, big kudos to you, Dad, for you for getting on the treadmill at my house this morning; color me very impressed!

And yet, when I was injured this winter and could not play tennis for several months, I didn’t walk. Instead, I was a slug (a very sad slug) and did nothing. The result was unsurprising: I gained weight and my cardio conditioning lapsed. All because as much as I preached to my folks that walking is exercise, in the end I guess I didn’t believe it.

Turns out, I should have.

Back to Patti Neighmond, who wondered: “Is Walking Really Exercise?” (emphasis is mine). She even asked it the same way I would, with some degree of snark:

“But are they kidding themselves to think a moderate walk is really helping them much, exercise-wise? Should we all be power-walking or jogging if we want to count that activity as good for us?”

Ms. Neighmond went on to answer:

“Dr. Tim Church, who studies the effects of physical activity at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, is reassuring on that score.”

He says, “Too many people think you have to exercise really, really hard to get a benefit, and nothing could be further from the truth. You’re actually getting probably 95 percent or more of the benefits when you’re walking as compared to jogging.”

The entire NPR segment is about five minutes long. I found it pretty interesting; you can listen to it here.

Ms. Neighmond wraps up with this recommendation: “Federal Health Officials suggest 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. That’s about 30 minutes, five days a week. If you’re walking, it would be a moderate pace – so you can still carry on a conversation.”

The obvious next question: what’s a moderate pace? The answer is not straightforward as it depends on your overall fitness level. According to the Center for Disease Control’s very interesting Measuring Physical Activity Intensity page, a moderate pace is a ‘brisk walk’ of 3 miles per hour or faster. That translates to a pace of 20 minutes per mile.

That felt slow to me so I kept researching. Turns out, this pace would not qualify as a brisk walk for me, personally, since my cardiovascular fitness is pretty high (despite my high cholesterol). According to an article I found on about.com, How Fast Is Brisk Walking, “fitter people still will not be in a moderately intense exercise zone at that pace. A pace of 15 minutes per mile, or four miles per hour, is more likely to put fitter people into a moderately intense exercise zone.” So for many, a 20 minutes per mile walk will qualify as brisk, while others will want to shoot for 15 minutes per mile.

As I’m inspired by goals, I’m energized by attempting to hit 15 minutes per mile. Others might prefer to forget about targeting a pace and instead count (brisk) steps. I know many people using a FitBit to hit a daily step goal (have you read David Sedaris’ hilarious FitBit story, Stepping Out? And relatedly, I had no idea my iPhone 5 was counting my steps for the past year; check out the ‘health’ app to see if yours is too!)  For still others, tracking to a particular pace or counting steps would be (gasp!) the opposite of fun. For these folks getting out frequently for a brisk walk with a friend is what will motivate.

So find what inspires you…and just get out there and briskly walk!


One thought on “Walking Counts as Exercise… REALLY!

  1. I read somewhere that if walk 5 times a week for the amount suggested in your post, that you’d actually get more exercise than 95%+ of all Americans. Might have been higher than that. How crazy is that?

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