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Deciding Between Multiple Brief Walks or a Single Extended One: Debunking Myths and Facing Reality!

Whether you opt for the “fashionable lady” variety, a sunrise meander for your mental well-being, striding on a treadmill, or breezing through a few moments on your lunch break, you are likely aware of the numerous advantages of walking: It’s beneficial for your heart and lungs, brain, mood, and longevity, among other things.

However, while the reasons why you should walk are evident, a significant question remains regarding the optimal approach: Are brief or extended walks more beneficial?

For instance, how does taking a brief stroll around the block every hour from your desk compare to allocating one block of time at the start or end of your day to walk several miles?

In general, all forms of walking are advantageous, so there is no definitive answer. “The crucial aspect here is to keep moving,” states Tamanna Singh, MD, FACC, co-director of the Sports Cardiology Center at Cleveland Clinic. “Movement—whether brief or prolonged—will naturally trigger a series of cardiovascular benefits: regulation of blood pressure, management of blood sugar, reduction in cholesterol, weight control, overall lower cardiovascular risk, and notably, enhanced mental well-being.”

However, brief and prolonged walks each provide distinct advantages. Before selecting one over the other, it is essential to consider your overall fitness level and objectives.

If your main goal is achieving your physical activity targets

For adults whose primary motive for walking is to meet their aerobic exercise quotas for the week—“The American Heart Association currently suggests 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise weekly, or a blend,” advises Dr. Singh—one of the easiest ways to determine whether brief or extended walks are more suitable for you is by utilizing what Dr. Singh describes as the exercise dose formula: exercise duration x frequency x intensity.

“Alteration of any of the factors might yield the same exercise dose, so short, more frequent walks can be equally beneficial as one extended walk,” she explains. “For example, three brief walks lasting 15 minutes each may offer the same advantages as a 45-minute walk [at the same intensity]. You could also walk at a higher intensity for 15 minutes, producing a benefit comparable to a slower 30-minute walk.”

If you aim to enhance your endurance

Endurance is crucial to your overall cardiorespiratory fitness—signifying the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Moreover, having robust endurance can help diminish your susceptibility to chronic ailments like heart disease and diabetes. The positive news is, if this is your target, you have choices at your disposal.

“If you aspire to enhance aerobic fitness (aka endurance), then lower intensity, lengthier endurance aerobic activities will assist by boosting mitochondrial density and consequently the energy for your active muscles,” Dr. Singh highlights. Mitochondria essentially serve as the cellular powerhouses. Research demonstrates that their density closely aligns with maximum oxygen uptake (Vo2 max), implying that the denser your mitochondria, the more energy you have to fuel your muscles for an extended period.

Nonetheless, long-distance walking is not the sole method to turbocharge your mitochondria. Recent studies reveal that brief bouts of high-intensity cardio can also achieve this by providing an immediate lift to your mitochondria, supporting their sustained charge in the long term, along with amplifying your Vo2 max. Additionally, you can enhance your cardiorespiratory fitness with merely 17 minutes of brisk walking per day, as per another recent study.

For those opting for the brief, more intense path, Noel Bairey Merz, MD, head of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, suggests interval training. “Short, two-minute, more intense walking segments interspersed with short, two-minute, less intense walking for five to ten rounds can provide aerobic fitness conditioning akin to lengthier jogging,” she mentions.

The intense intervals should elevate your heart rate sufficiently (you can monitor this using your smartwatch’s heart rate monitor or the talk test), while the slower recovery intervals should hover around your baseline heart rate. However, exercise caution as you intensify your pace. “If you engage in short bursts of high-intensity effort, there is a heightened risk of musculoskeletal injury, so ensure to incorporate dynamic warmups and cooldowns to minimize the risk,” Dr. Singh alerts. 

An added benefit: This technique can be gentler on your body than prolonged, consistent strolls. “Brief walks with breaks in between can be gentler on your joints,” notes Dr. Bairey Merz.

If you seek to establish a new exercise routine

Walking serves as an excellent introductory workout when attempting to kick off (or maintain consistency with) a fitness regimen because it is relatively accessible and demands minimal equipment—principally just a pair of walking shoes. While Dr. Singh advises consulting with a physician before commencing any new physical activity, once you receive the green signal, she suggests opting for brief, more frequent walks to reinforce the new behavior.

“Frequently, it is simpler to allocate shorter intervals more regularly throughout the week than a single prolonged exercise session,” she mentions. “In reality, you might discover that the more frequently you work out, the simpler it becomes to develop a habit—you might also notice that your muscles feel less rigid due to the increased frequency.”

This comprehensively sums it up, but the prime message is to engage your body in a manner that aligns with you and your timetable.

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