14 Ways to Make Your Daily Walk Feel More Like a Walking Workout
During the last couple of years, many of us have added a daily walk to our regular routine. But did you know you can turn it into a walking workout too?
Walking just for the sake of getting out of the house and getting in a bit of movement has become a go-to activity for lots of people. Walking can clear your mind, offer a change of scenery, and bring structure to often shapeless days.
Taking a walk is also a good way to get some exercise. And while it’s perfectly fine to keep them easy and ambling, especially if they’re primarily for fresh air or mental-health purposes, there are also plenty of ways to make them hard enough that it will feel like a moderate to intense workout.
Making the shift starts with intention. “Understand the difference between a leisure walk and a fitness walk,” Jayel Lewis, a certified international personal trainer and business coach in Philadelphia, tells SELF. “If you are going to walk for a workout, identify that before you go, and set yourself up for success prior to leaving.”
In other words, decide in advance that you’re walking with the goal of getting your heart rate up or building some strength and endurance. Block out a walking workout on your calendar just like you would a studio or Zoom class, she says. Then, make a plan for exactly how you’re going to execute it. Here are a few options to consider if you’re looking to turn a walk into a walking workout.
1. You don’t need to obsess about gear, but dressing the part helps.
Still, putting some thought into your preparation can shift your mind and body into fitness-building mode. “It’s like when actors put on their costume and wig and makeup and turn into a character—it's the same thing with fitness,” she says.
Start with the shoes; while she’ll wear just about anything, including Crocs, on a jaunt to the park with her family, Barrett picks appropriate footwear for more serious treks. You don’t have to buy expensive new walking-specific shoes, but comfortable and closed-toed options like running shoes, hiking shoes, or tennis shoes provide a bit more support. (If you’re walking for a workout, definitely leave the flip-flops at home.) A sports bra will reduce uncomfortable shifting and bouncing—which can be an issue, even if you’re doing a lower-impact activity like running—and moisture-wicking clothes keep you cooler on hot days and reduce chafing.
Getting everything ready the night before, especially if you’re a morning walker, can make it easier to get out the door in the time you’ve allotted, she says.
2. Kick things off with a dynamic warm-up.
Before you start striding, take some time to boost blood flow and activate the muscles you’ll use while walking, like hip flexors and quads, recommends Kristine Theodore, coach and co-owner of Runaway Fitness in Chicago. Spend a few minutes doing leg swings, lunge walks, calf raises, toe taps, or whatever combination makes you feel loose.
You can also use a foam roller for this purpose, says Krishna Curry, a Los Angeles-based certified strength-and-running coach (and a former pro track athlete). Spend 5 to 10 minutes releasing your hip flexors, inner thighs, calves, and quads. This can be especially beneficial if you’re incorporating faster paces or strength moves into your stroll.
3. Go a little bit longer than you have before.
One of the simplest ways to step up your walk is simply to add more steps, DJ Zmachinski, a certified personal trainer at Life Time in Chanhassen, Minnesota, tells SELF.
Exactly how long or how far depends on your starting point and existing fitness level. “For one person, 10 minutes might be a pretty intense walk,” Barrett says. “And other people need to go 90 minutes to feel like they did something extra.”
Begin where you are—a good goal might be 20 to 30 minutes three or four times per week. Progress slowly, adding two to five extra minutes to each walk per week, Zmachinski says. Once you build up to a duration that feels challenging but doable, you can stay there—or try dropping back down to a shorter distance at a faster pace.
4. Focus on your form.
You’ve probably heard runners debate the best movement patterns and foot placement; similarly, fixing up your walking form can make faster and longer walking easier and reduce your risk of injuries along the way, says Chris Mosier—a personal trainer and coach at Edge Athlete Lounge in Chicago, who competed in the 2020 Olympic trials in the 50K race walk.
If you had watched the race, you would see that athletes glide forward with a smooth and efficient stride rather than bounce up and down, Mosier tells SELF. To mimic them, think about pushing off with your big toe and firing up your glutes to drive your leg forward. Your core should be engaged but not tight, and your gaze should stay level. Keep your elbows bent at about 90 degrees and swing your arms from your shoulders. Try not to let your hands cross the center of your body or rise above chest level, and keep your wrists firm but your grip relaxed.
5. Pick up your pace with intervals.
Intervals—short periods of harder efforts—not only make your walk more challenging, but they can also make it more engaging and fun. And harder doesn’t have to mean “running” if you don’t want it to. After all, elites at the 50K race walking trials compete at a pace that would be pretty quick for a general runner—and they do so for longer than a marathon distance—just with one foot always on the ground. (In fact, that’s a rule of the sport; if you wind up airborne, a judge will disqualify you.)
Mosier’s favorite interval workout is a pyramid. He recommends starting with a 10- to 15-minute warm-up of easy walking. This isn’t a casual stroll, but a focused pace where you could still maintain a conversation.
Then walk fast—at a clip where your heart starts beating faster and you’d be able to speak only in short sentences—for one minute, followed by one minute easy. Follow that with two minutes fast and two minutes easy, then three minutes fast and three minutes easy. Work your way back down again with two minutes fast and two minutes easy, then one minute fast and one minute easy, before finishing with a five-minute recovery.
Don’t want to worry about timing yourself? Make it a less formal Fartlek—that’s a Swedish term for speed play. Simply pick a tree or mailbox ahead of you, walk fast until you reach it, then spend a few minutes walking at an easy recovery pace before selecting another destination.
6. Add some oomph with weights.
Walking already involves your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core. Integrating weights can further challenge those muscles and also recruit more of your upper body, Barrett says.
Toting light dumbbells or even household objects works, but she prefers 1- to 2-pound wrist weights (amazon.com, $12). That way, your hands stay free, your arms can swing naturally, and you minimize the strain on your hands and wrists that can come with gripping for long periods of time. Ankle weights, while great for mat workouts, can interfere with your knee alignment when worn walking and running, she says.
For an overall more intense workout, you can also wear a weighted vest (this one from Henkelion has reflective straps and a pocket for your keys; amazon.com, from $23), says Zmachinski. Or, DIY by stowing a medicine ball, dumbbell, or other objects from home, like books, in a securely-fitting backpack. Just make sure to keep the weight balanced—and that you’re comfortable with the (unweighted) moves before adding that extra resistance.
7. Tote along some resistance bands.
Prefer to travel lighter? You can still work in some strength moves by wrapping a stretchy resistance band around your wrist to have at the ready for some strength moves, says Curry. Better yet, take two—a small mini-band and a longer, looped elastic resistance band (you can always tuck them into a small fanny pack).
After a walking warm-up, pause at a park, parking lot, or playground (or even your backyard, if you are doing loops) for a quick band circuit. For instance: Place a mini-band around your ankles and do side-to-side monster walks. Lie down with it above your knees for glute-burning bridges. Sit down and loop the longer resistance band around your feet, hold it in your hands, and pull your elbows back for rows. Longer bands can be stretched over a playground pull-up bar or other sturdy anchor point for moves like pull-downs and tricep extensions.
8. Use elevation to your advantage.
Heading up hills naturally increases the intensity of your walk even if you’re moving at the same pace or slower. “A walking incline can be even harder than running,” Barrett says. Declines also serve their purpose, activating your core and strengthening your mind-muscle connection as you focus on each step.
Those lucky enough to live near undulating trails or roads can simply plan their route accordingly. If you’re largely on flat land, find any suitable slope—even a sledding hill or a parking-lot ramp—and do four to five hill repeats, walking up purposefully and down intentionally.
9. Do an out-and-back where you can do some stair climbs at the halfway point.
One simple way to add extra intensity into your workout is to incorporate some stairs into your routine. A common way to do this is to map your route to include regular walking as a warm-up, then hitting a flight of stairs for some higher-intensity work, and then walking back home as a cooldown.
For instance, Lewis lives in Philadelphia—home to the art museum with the steps featured famously in the movie Rocky. Someone who lives a mile or so away could plot a route to their base, then climb up and down a couple of times before briskly walking home again, she suggests. (You can also try this stair workout for some inspiration.)
10. Mix in some bodyweight moves.
Even if there aren’t stairs in your vicinity, you can still break up a walk with a burst of calisthenics. If you have access to a track or a park with a looped path, try walking the curves and doing dynamic or bodyweight moves on the straightaways, Curry says—for instance, walking lunges, walking planks, or single-leg hopping. No track? Try it by time—for instance, two minutes of walking, then one minute of strength moves.
If you’re near an open playground and don’t mind toting along hand sanitizer, you can do pull-ups or monkey bars. Prefer not to touch? Try toe taps on a curb, step-ups on park benches, or a split squat with one foot elevated on a ledge, Lewis suggests.
11. Walk to music with a quicker tempo
There’s a reason group fitness classes blast power pop—music not only boosts your mood, research shows it can actually make hard efforts feel easier. What’s more, it can also work as a kind of metronome guiding your pace.
Spotify has playlists for songs of various beats per minute that Lewis loves for keeping the tempo up. Choose one that’s comfortably challenging—say, 130 to 140 BPM—and will last for the duration of time that you want to walk, and aim to keep up with it. (You can also try our SELF playlist of the best workout songs for some motivation, too.)
Or use music as a cue for more intense segments. Walk easy for verses and fast during the chorus, suggests Erin Schirack, a Chicago-based personal trainer and cofounder of MV Fitness. Theodore recommends this bodyweight circuit at the start of every other tune: 10 squats, 10 split squats on each leg, 10 lateral lunges per leg, and 10 push-ups, either on the ground or with your hands on a bench to make it easier.
12. Or even twirl, prance, or twerk.
Professional dancer Bobby O'Brien is the other mind behind MV Fitness in Chicago, which offers dance workouts inspired by music video choreography. Sprinkling a few moves into your walk elevates your heart rate and gives you an opportunity to move in different directions—critical for those of us hunched at desks and over our devices all day, he says. Some of his favorite moves are air punches, grapevines, lateral shuffles, and strutting on the balls of your feet, which works your calves and quads.
Don’t let self-consciousness or a lack of dance training hold you back. “After this whole COVID thing and the movement that's been happening with our country—we've all gone through this together,” O'Brien says. “Let go of everything that's in your head and don’t worry about what people think.”
13. Use technology to your advantage (or leave it behind).
This is another time when it’s important to consider the purpose of your walk. If it’s a mind-clearing, meditative stroll, it might be best to leave your GPS watch at home and your phone in do-not-disturb mode, Lewis says. But if you’re aiming for fitness benefits, you can use digital tools as motivators.
If you have a watch or fitness tracker with a step count, try to take a few more steps during each 30- or 60-minute walk. Or you can race others using the app Strava, whether it’s against friends or strangers.
If you go this route, just be careful not to let your competitive nature get the best of you. Stress and anxiety can affect what’s known as your rate of perceived exertion, or how hard it feels like you’re working to power through each step, Lewis says.
“You need to listen to your body,” she says, even if the message is to slow down or back off. “If you're used to hitting a certain number or certain metric, don’t be disappointed by what your Garmin says. You should be more excited and proud that you did something as opposed to nothing.”
14. Close it out with a stretch session.
Taking a few minutes to further loosen warm, limber muscles after a walk can ease some of the strain and fatigue you’ve built up and also give your session a sense of closure. “Often we walk and get to our car or back to our house and that's it,” Barrett says. “Stretching makes it complete.”
Your body may guide you to what’s tight and achy, Barrett says. If your form is correct, your shins, calves, and hamstrings may feel sore, Mosier points out. Loosen your calves by standing with the ball of your left foot on a curb or step and your right foot flat on the ground. Lean but don’t bounce until you feel a stretch in your left calf, and hold for 30 to 60 seconds before repeating on the opposite side.
For your hamstrings, step your left foot forward, straighten your left knee, bend the right slightly, then hinge forward at your hips with your back flat. Stretch your arms overhead, reach forward, then slowly stand back up. Repeat five times on each side.
That small act of self-care can go a long way in cementing your walk as an important accomplishment, another way you’re navigating the challenges everyone’s facing right now. “It’s this buffer between the workout and the rest of the world, a finishing touch,” Barrett says. “It just makes the rest of the day better. And then the next day, you’re prepared to go for a walk again.”