Is a short or long walk better for your health?

WWhether you prefer the “hot girl” variety, a morning walk for your mental health, a walk on the treadmill, or a few minutes of energy on your lunch break, you’re probably well aware of the many benefits of walking by now: it’s good for your heart and lungs, brain, mood, and longevity, among other things.

But it is very clear though why Should you walk, there’s still one big question about the best way to go about it: Is short or long walking better for you?

For example, how does getting up from your desk every hour for a brisk walk around the block compare to a chunk of time at the beginning or end of your day to walk a few miles?

In general, all walking is good for you, so there’s really no right or wrong answer. “The most important thing here is to move,” says Tamanna Singh, MD, FACC, co-director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Sports Cardiology Center. “Movement – whether short or long – will naturally induce a cascade effect of cardiovascular benefits: blood pressure control, blood sugar management, cholesterol reduction, weight management, overall cardiovascular risk reduction and, importantly, improved mental health.”

But short and long walks each offer different benefits. Before choosing one or the other, it helps to consider your general fitness level and goals.

If your primary focus is meeting your physical activity goals

For adults whose main reason for walking is to minimize their aerobic exercise for the week—“The American Heart Association currently recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise per week, or a combination,” says Dr. Singh—An easy way to figure out whether short or long walks are better for you is what Dr. Singh calls the exercise intensity equation: exercise duration x frequency x intensity.

“Changing any variable can result in the same exercise dose, so shorter, more frequent walks can be as beneficial as one long walk,” she says. “For example, three short walks of 15 minutes each may give you the same benefit as a 45-minute walk. [at the same intensity]. You can walk at a high intensity for 15 minutes and get benefits comparable to 30 minutes of slow walking.”

If you are trying to build endurance

Endurance is important for your overall cardiorespiratory fitness—that is, the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. What’s more, having good endurance can help reduce your risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. The good news is, if this is your goal, you have options.

“If you’re looking to improve aerobic fitness (aka endurance), low-intensity, long-duration aerobic effort will help by increasing mitochondrial density and, subsequently, power for your working muscles,” Dr. Singh said Mitochondria are essentially the battery pack of your cells. Science shows that their density almost perfectly reflects maximal oxygen uptake (Vo2 max), meaning the denser your mitochondria are, the longer you need to power your muscles.

But long-distance walking isn’t the only way to supercharge your mitochondria. Recent studies have shown that a quick dose of high-intensity cardio can accomplish this by instantly boosting your mitochondria, helping them stay fully charged long-term, as well as increasing your Vo2 max. Plus, you can increase your cardiorespiratory fitness by power walking for as little as 17 minutes a day, according to another recent study.

For those who want to take the shorter, more-intense route, Noel Berry Marge, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Schmidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, recommends interval training. “Short, two-minute, more intense walks and short, two-minute, less intense walks for five to 10 cycles can provide the same aerobic fitness conditioning as jogging for longer periods,” she says.

Intense intervals should be fast enough to get your heart rate up (you can measure this with a heart rate monitor on your smart watch or using the talk test), while slower, recovery rounds should be closer to your baseline heart rate. As you increase your speed, be extra careful with your movements. “I amIf you’re doing short bursts of high intensity, the risk of musculoskeletal injury is higher so be aware of ensuring a dynamic warm-up and cooldown to reduce the risk,” says Dr Singh.

A bonus: This technique can be easier on your body than long, sustained walks. “Short walks with breaks in between can be good for your joints,” says Dr. Barry Marz.

If you are trying to develop a new exercise habit

Walking is a great gateway workout when you’re trying to start (or stick to) a fitness routine because it’s relatively accessible and requires minimal equipment—just a pair of walking shoes, really. While Dr. Singh says you should consult a doctor before starting any new physical activity, once you’ve gotten the green light, she recommends choosing shorter, more frequent walks to help reinforce the new behavior.

“Often, it’s easier to exercise less in a short period of time than to exercise for a long time in a week,” she says. “In fact, you’ll find that the more frequently you exercise, the easier it is to form a habit—you’ll also find that your muscles feel less stiff as the frequency increases.”

It’s the long (and short) of it, but the main way is to move your body in a way that works for you and your schedule.

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