Is It Better to Walk Fast or Far? A Sports Cardiologist Weighs In

Kells McPhillips
January 8, 2022

If you’re someone who’s dedicated to your daily walks, it’s very likely that your time on your feet looks different every day. Sometimes, you have an hour to spare strolling leisurely around your neighbourhood listening to podcasts; other times, it’s all you can do to squeeze in a 10-minute power walk between Zoom meetings. No matter how long you have to get up and shake out your legs, go ahead and pat yourself on the back because walking offers some serious benefits for both your mental and physical health. However, if you are wondering “Is it better to walk fast or walk longer?” consider your curiosity quelled. We asked a sports cardiologist whether speed or mileage matters more when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other.

According to John Higgins, MD, a sports cardiologist with McGovern Medical School at the UT Health Science Center at Houston, power walking and taking the scenic route both come with their fair share of benefits. Below, he walks you through why each type of exercise is great for your health, and how to balance both week after week so you can make the most of your precious free time.

The Benefits of Short, Fast Walks
Let’s say you’re juggling a lot. Maybe you’re carting your kids to various activities, chasing a deadline at work, or just trying to squeeze in a quick workout before enjoying some much-needed Netflix watching. If any of this is the case, Dr. Higgins says a walk in the express lane is for you. “Speed gets you more bang for the buck if you have limited time to exercise. About 15 minutes of high intensity [walking] a day equals about 30 minutes moderate intensity,” he says. This ticks off The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) daily exercise recommendation of 30 minutes of movement at a moderate intensity. This effort of exercise gives you all the benefits of aerobic activity. That is, it strengthens your heart and lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, improves cognitive function, activates your immune system, and even improves your mood.

Long story short: A lot can happen in 15 minutes. Just make sure you’re not going so fast that you wind up hurting yourself. Dr. Higgins says to keep in mind that this type of exercise comes with a higher risk of injury—so do all the necessary self-care (like stretching, mobility work, and strength training) to make sure you have many walks ahead of you in the future.

The Benefits of Longer, more Leisurely Walks

If you’ve got room on your calendar, feel free to take a long, slow walk instead. Dr. Higgins says that you’ll experience many of the same heart health benefits, but you’ll also lower your risk of injury and build your endurance. Over time, your body will adapt to covering longer distances and you’ll be able to press the gas pedal so you can combine both distance and speed.

Plus, you may find that these meandering miles are more of a mental time-out for you than something on the shorter side. Remember: Working out for your mental health is just (if not more) important than working out for your physical body.

The Verdict
Mix and match! “I recommend doing at least one high-intensity workout per week, or every other week,” says Dr. Higgins. “On the rest of the days, do your moderate workouts—like jogging, biking, or swimming,” he says. So if you’re wondering what kind of walk you should add to the docket today, do some introspection and decide if you want to stop and smell the roses or break a sweat. (You’ll be reaping the heart-healthy rewards no matter what.)


How Walking to Work Changed My Life

There are times when you deserve to feel pleased with yourself and last week was one of them. Science, you see, confirmed something that I had worked out a decade and a half ago, namely: is the best thing you can do to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. According to the study from the London School of Economics, brisk walking is a better deterrent against obesity than any other form of exercise. Forget the gym or five-aside, stuff running, spinning, zumba and squash… Walking officially beats them all, hands ( or trainer’d feet) down.

Men and women who walk briskly for more than 30 minutes a day were found to have lower BMIs and smaller waists than everyone else involved in the study. ‘Given the obesity epidemic, and the fact that a large proportion of people in the UK are inactive, recommending that people walk briskly more often is a cheap and easy policy option,’ said Dr Grace Lordon, who lead the research.

This leaves me feeling validated. I’ve been boring on about how brilliant walking is for ages, how wildly underestimated its benefits are, how everyone should do it. And I should know: for the last 15 years, I’ve walked between ten and 15 miles a day (25-30,000 steps). Every single day.

Has it made me thin? It’s certainly kept me thin. I was thin when I started (in my late twenties, single digit dress size, one of the lower ones) but now into my 40’s for as long as I’ve been walking, my weight hasn’t fluctuated by so much as a couple of pounds, even during my cake-iest periods.

Inevitably, this made me a little smug; equally inevitably, it made me tell anyone who’d listen that they, too, should do this amazing thing I was doing. Walking is the only thing I ever evangelise about, because, unlike everything else that makes me feel good (meditation, Jaffa cakes, the fantasy fiction genre, the TV show River and buying a good Flat White) walking is the one thing I truly believe will work for everyone. Anyone who can walk, should walk.

It’s free, it has purpose, you already know how to do it. It’ll do for you, what it does for me.

It’s fair to say, part of me thinks I invented walking.

That is not to say that I don’t take issue with this London School of Economics report. I do. Because I would argue that it doesn’t go far enough. In my considerable experience, walking doesn’t just keep you thin. It keeps you sane too.

Mental health
 got me walking in the first instance. I was in my late twenties, and beginning to understand that the love of my life (London) was also my chief tormentor. The stress of the city and the stress of my job as a journalist, got the better of me and I became claustrophobic, which meant I could no longer stand to travel around London’s endless sprawl by Underground. (I’ve since discovered this is incredibly common in Londoners, and God, how transparent we all are! The thing that ferries us to work, aka ground zero on much of our stress; the thing that speeds relentlessly round our city – its logistical arteries – is also the thing we’re likely to fall apart on, and ultimately: resist and refuse.) So I ditched the tube for the bus.

Walking to work allows you to avoid hoards of frustrated commuters. CREDIT: FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

Only one day – as is not entirely unusual – my bus simply did not come. I waited and I waited, and I waited some more, my blood pressure rising, spitting and swearing and huffing and puffing over the unimaginable injustice of a BUS THAT WOULD NOT COME, alongside gathering hoards of similarly frustrated non-passengers… Then, after 20 minutes, spurred onwards by a desire to demonstrate I simply would not stand for such abysmal service! – I walked.

No one wants to be enslaved to capricious transport systems.

I walked along my bus route, assuming that sooner or later, my arrival at another bus stop would coincide with the arrival of my bus. But it didn’t. So I walked some more, eventually making it to work, a mere 20 minutes later than I normally would have, calmer than I might have anticipated, and feeling like I’d accomplished something vaguely mammoth before 10am. I also felt liberated. Who wants to be enslaved to their public transport systems, beholden to the schedules, the whims and capriciousness. Suddenly, I had another option.

The next day, I walked again. And the day after; and the day after that.

After a month of walking to work, I couldn’t help but notice my thighs were changing shape. They were leaner and firmer and more defined. After two months, I realised my bottom was altering, too, becoming neater and more contained. It was at that point, that I decided to start walking home too.

The more I walked, the more thoroughly immersed I became in its how miraculous it was. It calmed me down. I could start my daily tramp in a foul mood: riled by my partner, anxious about a meeting or wrong-footed by a nightmare; sad or scared or emotionally a little lost. By the time I arrived at wherever I was supposed to be: I was fine. Something about walking gives you perspective.

It makes the world feel more fundamentally right. I think it’s because our species is supposed to walk. We are built to walk. We are not built to sit, or crouch, over computers or phones. We are not built to slump on sofas, binge-watching box sets. We are built to stand up, swing our legs, plant our feet, and just go. Of course doing one of the things our bodies are primarily designed to do, would make our heads feel really and truly good.

The third thing I noticed, was how walking reaffirmed my love for where I loved. When you wander daily around your locale, you start to look at it properly; when you do that, you notice how devastatingly beautiful it is. How weird, how sweet, how contrary, how chic. I saw hidden architectural loveliness and hilarious graffiti; outrageously stylish tiling on the exterior of ancient pubs, unutterably picturesque, Dickensian cut-throughs and alleyways. I saw more of the sky, more often, than I’d ever seen before.

The last thing I noticed, was how much walking helps with the writing process. There’s been research into this, too; into the synchronicity between walking and writing. Joyce walked, Wordsworth walked; so did Virginia Woolf. Dickens used to walk 20 miles a day, which makes me feel… competitive. Walking, researchers believe, helps with memory and promotes new connections in the brain. It definitely shifts whatever writer’s block I have ever experienced; if I ever get stuck: I just go for a walk. Walking always fixes it.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was a keen walker.

Walking also fixes: hangovers, heartbreak, low grade colds; boredom, loneliness, that nagging sensation that you haven’t really achieved anything much today. It has a smattering of downsides. You will get rained on (but not as often as you think, and that’s nothing a sturdy brolly can’t help with). You’ll need to carry posh shoes in a separate bag, and cyclists can be a nightmare, far more troublesome, in my experience, than cars: wayward, melodramatic and happy to mount pavements/ speed the wrong way down one-way streets.

But otherwise, walking really is as simple, blissful, effective and (in every sense) as good as I’ve always said it was. If you don’t believe me, just ask science.