One of the most accessible and affordable ways to stay healthy is simply moving your feet — walking as a form of regular exercise can improve fitness and cardiac health, alleviate depression and fatigue, support the immune system, play a key role in maintaining a healthy weight, and reduce the risk for some chronic diseases, among many other benefits.
But if you’re interested in burning more calories and improving fitness even more (and are able to do more-strenuous exercise), new research shows that a quicker pace can really amp up many of those benefits.
Researchers from the Boston University (BU) School of Medicine recently set out to answer some questions about exercise — for instance, “How preferable is moderate-to-vigorous exercise to low-intensity exercise like walking?” It turns out that the answer is “Very.” Upping your daily walk from a stroll to jog not only burns more calories, but also is more efficient at burning said calories. And moderate-to-vigorous exercise significantly improved fitness levels, compared with lower-intensity forms of exercise.(The researchers’ findings appear in the European Heart Journal and came from a study of approximately 2,000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study.)
In an interview with BU’s The Brink, the lead researcher of the study, Matthew Nayor, said, “If your goal is to improve your fitness level, or to slow down the inescapable decline in fitness that occurs with aging, performing at least a moderate level of exertion is over three times more efficient than just walking at a relatively low cadence.”
(Before drastically changing your exercise routine, it’s wise to talk to a healthcare provider about your plans and health goals.)
What surprised researchers wasn’t that moderate-to-vigorous exercise burns more calories. That much is self-evident.
What the researchers found was that these moderate-to-vigorous exercises actually help make exercise easier on the body and allow your muscles to work more efficiently.
For many people, muscles actually work best in more-intense workouts: peak performance will be more efficient, and the body will have an easier time adjusting to winding up and winding down the workout.
"We were surprised to see that higher-intensity activity was also more efficient than walking in improving the body’s ability to start and sustain lower levels of exertion," said Nayor.
So while a 10-minute jog may make you tired faster than a 30-minute walk, your body is not only burning more calories, but also burning those calories more efficiently and with less stress.
We should stress that if a casual walk is all you can (or want to) achieve, making walking part of your routine will do fantastic things for your health. But say you normally go for a 45-minute walk in a nearby park every other morning — you could consider adding a 10-minute period of jogging (and perhaps working up from there). It may take time for your body to adjust to this extra exertion of energy, but it can provide more health benefits than an additional half hour of walking would.
Higher-intensity exercises can also be useful for people with tight schedules. Turning that hour walk into a twenty-minute jog is good for your body and can save you precious time.
"One aspect of our results that I keep coming back to is the finding that higher levels of sedentary time can be offset by dedicated exercise. I find this reassuring — especially during the pandemic, when many of us are spending even more time seated in front of a computer ... that my daily run or Peloton class is serving to at least preserve my fitness level," said Nayor.
Keep in mind that consistency is important. Upping your pace is a wonderful step, but don't overdo it! If your body can tolerate moderate or vigorous exercise for only a short period of time, then it’s perfectly OK to perform the bulk of your exercise in low-intensity ways. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150–300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75–150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercise. Pushing yourself too hard can lead to injury or early exhaustion, and that doesn’t help you reach your health goals!
Before making major changes to your activity level or exercise routine, have a discussion with your healthcare provider about your health goals. Moderate-intensity activity is defined as activity that gets your heart rate up to 50 to 60 percent higher than its rate when you are at rest. Here are a few examples of moderate-to-vigorous forms of exercise:
• A brisk walk (3.5 to 4 miles per hour)
• Cycling, even at low speeds
• More active recreational sports like tennis, basketball, soccer, or badminton
• Swimming or diving
• Ice or roller skating
• Hiking through hilly terrain
There are plenty of fun and creative ways to get into an exercise routine that will fit your lifestyle. Indeed, working out shouldn't feel like a chore! Quite the opposite, a good exercise for you should fit into your schedule and be rewarding, both for your spirit and for your physical body.
Do you have questions about creating an exercise routine that will work well for you? Talk to a judgment-free Carbon Health healthcare provider today about your health goals.