Walking is one of the most simple and accessible forms of exercise you can do regularly. Adding it to your routine can make a big difference in weight control. One study found the average person gains about 2.2 pounds a year during middle age. Yet, throughout 15 years of research, the study showed individuals who walked regularly gained significantly less weight than those who didn’t. To reap additional calorie-burning and health-boosting benefits, you’ll want to walk at a moderate pace.
While the pace differs from person to person, “moderate intensity usually looks like breaking a light sweat and heavier breathing while still being able to chat if needed,” says Pete Gaffney, a NASM-certified personal trainer.
Technically speaking, moderate intensity is when your heart rate is between 50–65% of your max, says Dr. Leada Malek, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist. A brisk pace would be slightly higher, around 70% of your max (around 100 steps per minute), and you would feel more out of breath.
To calculate what a moderate pace would look like for you, begin by calculating your maximum heart rate. The formula for this is subtracting your age from 220. So, for a 30-year-old, your maximum heart rate will be 190. For our purposes here, that means your moderate heart rate is roughly 124 beats per minute (bpm).
“Think of this intensity as a 5 out of 10 on the RPE — or rate of perceived exertion — scale,” says Malek, adding that the RPE scale is a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being very easy, hardly any exertion (i.e., sleeping, watching TV) and 10 being max effort, (you’re completely out of breath). At a moderate pace, “you’re able to talk, but you can’t sing, as opposed to vigorous intensity, where you may need to pause every few words.”
Over time, as you integrate more of these efforts into your routine, you become more efficient at doing them, adds Gaffney. For example, if you walked consistently at 4.5 mph on a treadmill and found it challenging with a heart rate of 124 bpm, in a few months your body adapts, and you may need to up the pace to 5 mph to get a similar effect. Again, this varies from person to person. Gaffney also notes that as you get more efficient and add more regular activity to your routine, you will notice a decrease in resting heart rate. This signals your cardiovascular endurance is improving.
Walking at a moderate-intensity pace is much more low-impact than running, meaning it’s a great option for people of all ages and ability levels. Also, regular walking can lower your mortality rate — especially if you up the pace.
Moderate-intensity walking shows a similarly visible reduction in risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, when compared to vigorous-intensity running, according to research in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular.
Gaffey cautions that moderate-intensity walking might not be the best option if you are already well trained and looking to get significantly leaner. “If you are already completing 10,000–15,000 steps per day through a physically active job or lifestyle, an additional element of challenge such as walking uphill or using a stairclimber might be helpful.”
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Aim to walk for at least 30–45 minutes total, suggests Sara Mikulsky, a physical therapist based in New York City. “This time period will allow for a proper warmup and cooldown, with enough time in between to work at a moderate-intensity pace.”
With time, you’ll be able to increase the duration of your walks, adds Parker Condit, a trainer at Modo Bio Health Systems in Arizona. “One way to challenge yourself is by doing an out-and-back walk, where you try to make it back to your starting place in less time than it took you on the ‘out’ trip,” he suggests. “This keeps your pace up and helps motivate you toward the end of the walk. Then each week, add an extra minute of walking both ways.”
Make progress every day while you work on fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.