Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for the equivalent of one death every 36 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Statistics (CDC). That’s a pretty sobering statistic—and one that should serve as an important reminder that having a healthier heart is in your own hands.
With millions of Americans affected by heart disease, every adult should take steps to safeguard against the risks and give their ticker the best fighting chance. One very effective way to do this? Exercise.
Counter to popular belief, you don’t actually have to run a marathon or join CrossFit to reap the benefits of exercise. In fact, a simple walking program is really all you need to start cutting your risk of heart disease while boosting your cardiovascular health.
The cardiovascular benefits of walking
First things first: Walking is an excellent choice when it comes to exercising for a healthier heart because it’s simple, most people can do it, it doesn’t take much prep time (you just have to throw on your shoes), and aside from the cost of the shoes themselves, it’s free. This makes it incredibly accessible to almost all demographics. And when it comes to exercise, it’s important to limit as many barriers to engagement as possible.
But it’s not just walking’s ease and accessibility that make it such an appealing activity. A 2018 study of older adults found that walking programs, even those that failed to meet the recommended levels of physical activity, were still effective at reducing all-cause mortality. And those who walked enough to meet physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or about 30 minutes, 5 days per week) reduced their risk even more.
As walking specifically relates to heart disease, recent studies have found that walking breaks can help mitigate the decline in cerebral blood flow associated with long periods of sitting, help lower blood pressure in those with hypertension, and reduce seven other cardiovascular risk factors, including body mass, body mass index, body fat, fasting glucose, and VO2 max (which is a marker of cardiovascular fitness). All-in-all, walking does your heart and lungs a world of good, and it doesn’t even take that much to make a difference.
Walking guidelines for a healthier Heart
The physical activity guidelines (PAG) for adults apply to any form of cardiovascular activity, whether you choose to walk, swim, cycle, or even dance. The most recent guidelines published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in 2018, recommend that “adults do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.”
Walking is typically considered a moderate-intensity activity, the test being that if you can talk, but not sing, while going on your walk, you’re likely exercising moderately.
How Much Should You Walk Per Week for a Healthier Heart?
Generally speaking, a walking program performed five days per week for 30 minutes a day will enable you to meet the physical activity guidelines that strongly support improvements in cardiovascular health. That said, if you’re currently not following a program, carving out 30 minutes a day may seem like a challenge. But consider this: Studies support the premise that something is better than nothing. So even if you can just squeeze in three walks a week, or you can only make time for 20 minutes per day, you’re going to experience benefits.
The guidelines published in Circulation specifically say, “Although meeting the PAG should be the goal, the threshold at which health benefits begin to accrue is less than 150 minutes a week for most outcomes. The biggest bang for your buck is moving from being inactive to doing some physical activity each week. There is no lower limit to the benefits of physical activity in reducing cardiovascular disease risk.”
In other words, if 150 minutes sounds totally out of reach, there’s no reason to take an “all or nothing” approach. It’s better to start with whatever you can make time for, rather than decide that there’s no point in starting a walking program if you can’t hit 150 minutes per week.
Start with a simple program
The most important part of your walking program is to…do it. Schedule a time in your day, put on your socks and shoes, and hit the pavement (or trail, or treadmill). Choose a pace that’s a comfortable but slightly challenging speed, and get moving. Really, that’s all there is to it. But if you want to follow a program put together by a personal trainer that’s designed to help you improve your cardiovascular fitness over time, here’s a simple and effective option from Laura Flynn Endres, CPT, and owner of Get Fit Done online training.
“My favorite walking cardio plan is what I call 1-2-3-4-5 cardio intervals,” Endres says. “In this walking workout, your challenging work intervals will get longer, but your rest and recovery intervals will stay the same. You can make your work intervals harder by walking at a brisk pace and pumping your arms with purpose. Or, if you’re on a treadmill, you can add an incline.”
how to follow the plan, minute-by-minute:
- 0:00-5:00, Walk at a moderate, comfortable pace for 5 minutes to warm up
- 5:01-6:00, Walk at a brisk pace, the fastest you can, for 1 minute
- 6:01-7:00, Walk at a leisurely pace, this is a “recovery” pace considered “active rest”
- 7:01-9:00, Walk at a brisk pace, the fastest you can, for 2 minutes
- 9:01-10:00, Walk at a leisurely, recovery pace
- 10:01-13:00, Walk at a brisk pace, the fastest you can, for 3 minutes
- 13:01-14:00, Walk at a leisurely, recovery pace
- 14:01-18:00, Walk at a brisk pace, the fastest you can, for 4 minutes
- 18:01-19:00, Walk at a leisurely, recovery pace
- 19:01-24:00, Walk at a brisk pace, the fastest you can, for 5 minutes
- 24:01-25:00, Walk at a leisurely, recovery pace
- 25:01-30:00, Continue walking at a leisurely pace, considering this your “cool down” to allow your heart rate to slowly return to normal
Remember that this workout is self-paced. That means walking at “the fastest you can” will likely get slower as your intervals get longer. That’s okay! Make adjustments as needed, and recognize that this workout combines moderate-intensity and more vigorous-intensity exercise. So even if you just do the first half of the workout, you’re still going to be accumulating enough exercise to support improved markers for cardiovascular fitness.