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Walking for Heart Health

Contributor: Hicham Skali, MD, MSc
6 minute read
Woman walking for heart health

Walking is a very simple way to maintain or improve your cardiovascular health. It’s free. You don’t need any special skills or equipment. It’s one of the safest ways to be active, and it comes with many additional mental and physical benefits.

“Walking has been essential to human health and survival, from the hunter-gatherer tradition to working on farms. But we’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle the past 100 years, and it’s led to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, heart attacks, high blood pressure or hypertension, and high cholesterol,” says Hicham Skali, MD, MSc, a Mass General Brigham cardiologist who treats patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Walking is one of the necessary functions of our bodies, and it can help prevent those conditions. It comes naturally, and it’s just as important to survival now as it was 100 years ago.”

How is walking good for your heart?

The cardiovascular benefits of regular walking include:

  • Lower cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower risk of premature death
  • Improvements in the health of your arteries
  • Prevention of weight gain

It also has many additional benefits. It can:

  • Boost energy and mood
  • Help you think more clearly
  • Improve your sleep
  • Prevent other diseases, such as diabetes, dementia, and some cancers and infectious diseases
  • Reduce inflammation throughout the body
  • Reduce stress
  • Strengthen bones

“All these health issues interact with each other. Patients who have obesity are more likely to have high blood pressure, and patients who have high blood pressure are more likely to have diabetes, sleep apnea, and depression. And they’re at higher risk of cancer and premature death,” Dr. Skali says. “Walking improves all of those issues, which eventually leads to better health.”

How much do I need to walk?

If you’re just starting a walking program, consider talking to your primary care provider (PCP), your cardiologist, an exercise physiologist, or a physical therapist. They can help you create a customized “walking prescription” that best meets your needs and abilities, Dr. Skali says. Your plan might answer questions such as: What intensity and pace? How long? How frequently?

In general, Dr. Skali recommends that you start with short, less intense walks. Then progressively increase the duration and pace over time. Ultimately, aim to build up to the American Heart Association’s recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has a 12-week Sample Walking Program to help people slowly build up to 175 minutes of walking per week. You start with simple 10-minute strolls four days a week, including a warmup and cool down. You increase your duration and intensity gradually to 35 minutes of brisk walking 5 days a week.

Although we hear a lot about walking 10,000 steps a day, Dr. Skali says you don’t have to hit that number to achieve benefits. “Any walking is better than not walking. If 10,000 steps is too overwhelming a goal, you might think it’s not even worth it to try. But studies show that even with 4,000 steps, people are deriving benefits,” he says.

“We spend so much time sitting at computers and in our cars. Now, with more people working from home, we are even less likely to actually walk. Every little bit helps.”

Hicham Skali, MD, MSc
Mass General Brigham

Tips to get more steps

It can be difficult to find time to be active, especially for people with busy schedules and sedentary jobs. Dr. Skali encourages looking for pockets of time where you can work in extra steps every day. Short walking sessions can add up to reach the overall goal.

“We spend so much time sitting at computers and in our cars. Now, with more people working from home, we are even less likely to actually walk. Every little bit helps,” Dr. Skali says. 

Park far away from stores and walk to the front door. Take frequent breaks from your desk to go to the bathroom. If you’re in an office building, go to the bathroom on the floor above or below you, and make sure you take the stairs. At the supermarket, try taking the long way around to get to the section you need.

Try these other tips to step up your walking for cardiovascular health:

  • Multitask during longer walks. You can talk to a friend on the phone or listen to a podcast to help pass time.
  • Recruit friends or coworkers for a daily walk or start a walking club.
  • Set a timer to remind you to get up and move several times throughout the day.
  • Walk your pet — or someone else’s.
  • Wear a pedometer or use a smartphone or smartwatch to keep track of steps and set goals.

Walking for people with a heart condition

Dr. Skali emphasizes that walking can even help people whose heart muscle is already damaged. And exercise will not make a cardiac condition worse, he emphasizes. Talk to your doctor about implementing a safe, effective, individualized walking plan.

“Many people think that if they already have a heart condition, the damage is done or it’s too late,” he says. But walking can help people with existing heart disease in many ways. “It can make heart muscle stronger, ease symptoms over time, and decrease the risk of death from cardiovascular events. It’s better than any pill out there,” Dr. Skali says.

Hicham Skali, MD, MSc