If you’re devoted to walking but feel like your exercise regimen hasn’t been challenging lately, it may be time to incorporate interval walking into your routine.
A growing body of research has found interval walking — short bursts of walking at a faster-than-normal pace, alternating with short periods of normal-pace walking — can positively impact your health in several ways.
“Getting some vigorous activity, like a very brisk walk with intervals, improves fitness and endurance and has a greater protective effect on overall health,” says Jonathon Fowles, PhD, professor of kinesiology and director of the Centre of Lifestyle Studies at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.
Here, five health benefits to interval walking:
If you walk at a constant speed and have hit a weight-loss plateau, switching to an interval-walking routine may help you shed those last few pounds.“Intervals have a higher caloric burn during activity, and this also tends to stimulate higher metabolism in the period after exercise,” says Fowles.
A Danish study found people with Type 2 diabetes who regularly did interval walking were able to improve their blood-sugar levels, lower their cholesterol, lose weight (including more dangerous belly body fat) and improve their physical fitness levels. (Those who walked at a normal pace within the study didn’t see these improvements.)
“What we have shown in a range of studies is that interval walking is superior to continuous walking for improving various cardiovascular risk factors,” says Dr. Kristian Karstoft, study author and researcher with the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism in Copenhagen.
Japanese researchers have shown middle-aged and older adults who regularly do interval walking may lower their blood-pressure levels, improve range of motion and boost their maximal aerobic capacity, which may help to reduce age-related physical decline over time.
Exercise has been shown to improve mood and ease depression, and interval walking is no exception. “Vigorous exercise stimulates brain neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine and GABA that help to balance out mood, support motivation and overall feelings of well-being,” says Fowles. “A recent study showed that 15 minutes a day of vigorous exercise reduces risk of depression by 26%.”
Walking, in and of itself, is a heart-healthy form of exercise. Interval walking, however, may provide greater benefits than walking at a normal speed. “Exercise that is in the vigorous zone — greater than 130 steps per minute — has a greater effect on heart contractility, which increases perfusion and improves arterial health,” explains Fowles.
“If you haven’t done vigorous exercise before and/or have some health conditions, it’s best to start with moderate-intensity walking first, and do that for a few weeks to develop some fitness and endurance,” says Fowles. “In cardiac and diabetes patients, we often start with 15 seconds on, 15 seconds recovery. [Then], as you get more fit, you extend the intervals to 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes and so on.”
Once you feel comfortable at that pace, you can graduate to faster intervals that are twice as long as your slower intervals. “Think of intervals as a 2-work to 1-rest ratio,” says Danielle Wadsworth, PhD, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology at Auburn University in Alabama. “For example, if you walk fast for two light poles, then walk slow for one light pole, or walk fast for 1 minute and slow for 30 seconds.”
During higher-intensity intervals, walk fast enough so it’s hard to carry on a conversation, or about 130–140 steps per minute. During lower-intensity intervals, you should still walk at a good clip or about 100–110 steps per minute.
“I sometimes say that 130 steps per minute is walking like you are late for an important meeting, or walk like you are late for the bus,” says Wadsworth. “The 140 steps per minute is a little faster than that. During the slow intervals, going back to 110 steps per minute is fine, or at least 100 steps per minute, which is the same rate as the song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees.”