As it turns out, you can get too much of a good thing. Or, more accurately, too much of a good thing has the potential to become a bad — or at least, less good — thing. And walking, like all types of exercise, is one of those good things that can become a struggle.
At first glance, this headline sounds counterintuitive: Can you walk too much? It’s a strange question to ask when every other article and headline seems to be encouraging you to walk more. But if you clicked on this article, it could be that you’re starting to feel like you’ve hit a point where you simply can’t walk any more, you’re not seeing results you want, or you’re feeling stressed you can’t do more. Unfortunately, those are signs that could mean it’s time to make a change. While you shouldn’t stop walking completely, you may want to re-evaluate your approach.
While researcher and former elite triathlete Alexandra Coates doesn’t think there’s a specific time cap on how long people can walk before it becomes a problem, she does believe there’s a point where our will to walk becomes unhealthy.
“In general, if you’re just walking for basic fitness, it would be hard to overtrain yourself off of just walking, provided you were eating enough. I think you would probably injure yourself before you would actually overreach physically,” she says. “But, let’s say you’re walking for weight loss, and it’s becoming a bit more obsessive. Then you’re entering into the territory where you’re stressing your system and starting to create this dependency on walking as a way to burn calories. If you find yourself walking after every meal to ‘burn it off,’ that could lead to some negative consequences, like heightened cortisol or an altered metabolic rate.”
Coates remembers the feeling of ‘needing’ to exercise from her elite triathlete days. “We would have time at the end of our season where we weren’t allowed to swim, bike or run,” she recalls. “And what a lot of us did, because we were so reliant on exercise to keep us happy, was we would start going on these massive walks. That may not sound bad, but it was a negative thing because we had this dependency on exercise where we couldn’t be happy without it.”
Coming right back to the “too much of a good thing” cliche, Coates is right: While exercise is great for boosting your mood, if you become dependent on it, you’re entering risky territory.
If you are into long walks for general health and wellness, that’s fine, Coates says. But make sure you’re fueling and hydrating if you’re out for more than a couple of hours.
If you want to lose weight in a healthy way, walking long might not be the most efficient way to do it. Adding some speed rather than increasing time on your feet is the better solution. “We know that walking will primarily burn fat as fuel,” she says. “So often, people want to stay at this slow pace and not get into a higher aerobic zone where they’re burning both fat and muscle glycogen — carbohydrate stores — as fuel.”
But as Coates explains, that’s actually bad math: Walking slowly might burn only fat as fuel, but it burns calories at a much slower rate than if you were to pick up the pace and get your heart rate up. You’ll burn some glycogen as you start to breathe a bit harder, yes, but your overall caloric burn (including fat burned) will be higher than it would if you stick to your slow pace.
You don’t have to burst into a run, either. Just speeding up to around 17–20-minute miles pace is brisk enough. And try the talk test: You should be able to hold a conversation in short sentences, otherwise, you might be pushing your pace a bit too much.
Speeding up is also better for your overall longevity: “Especially in situations when walking more isn’t possible due to time pressures or a less walking-friendly environment, walking faster may be a good option to get the heart rate up — one that most people can easily incorporate into their lives,” said lead author Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, of the University of Sydney, in reference to his 2018 study looking at 50,000 walkers. The results found a faster walking pace was associated with a 20 percent risk reduction in all-cause mortality. That’s right, faster walking can help you live longer.
And, of course, remember, if you’re going from a sedentary, inactive lifestyle to one that includes a lot of walking, it’s important to build up your duration and intensity gradually to avoid injury and other potential risks. “It is possible to underdose and overdose on exercise — more is not always better and can lead to cardiac events, particularly when performed by inactive, unfit individuals with known or undiagnosed heart disease,” Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D., said in a research review from the American Heart Association.
Ready to hit the road? Just remember to build slowly, don’t go too far or become dependent on walking, and speed up when you’re ready. Now, get out there and walk!
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.