The main difference between walking as movement and walking as exercise is your walking heart rate. If your heart rate is below 50% of your maximum beats per minute, this is classed as movement and while it does have some health benefits, moving through your heart rate zones will really maximize your walk.
In this post, I am looking at the benefits of utilizing each of your heart rate “zones”. If you use a smartwatch, you may have an idea of what those zones are; they may be different from device to device. For example, I am aware Fit bit uses 3 zones whereas the Garmin Connect app uses 5 for greater flexibility.
It doesn’t matter a great deal how you separate the zones, as long as the concept is understood. I am going to use 3 zones to keep the information simple.
I would like to point out, that I am not a medical professional and if you have any concerns relating to your heart health, you should speak to a doctor. I am researching the guidance of medical experts and published studies in combination with my experience and answering questions I have been asked.
What Is Your Walking Heart Rate
Your walking heart rate is the number of beats per minute you reach while you are walking. As you increase your effort, your heart rate speeds up. The purpose is to get more oxygen into the body to unlock the energy needed to maintain your level of effort.
If you have a heart rate monitor, equipped on most smartwatches, you should see this number rise. However, your experience is heavier breathing, this is merely a side effect of your heart rate, which depending on your age will either be “resting” or it will fall into one of the following heart rate zones; Fat Burn, Cardio, and Peak.
Your heart rate zones will be dependent on your personal maximum heart rate which can be calculated by deducting your age from 220. For example, at 35, my max heart rate is 185 BPM.
Resting Heart Rate
According to the British Heart Foundation, your resting heart rate should be between 60 and 120 BPM. However, fitness professionals will all look at percentages.
If your heart rate is below 50% of your max BPM this is considered resting and if your heart rate stays in this range while you are walking, it is not considered exercise by most people.
What Are The Benefits of Walking With A Resting Heart Rate?
The NHS in the UK says that many of us are sitting for as many as 9 hours a day and this sedentary lifestyle can slow down our metabolism and increase our risk of type-2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer. This study even concluded that too much sedentariness can be detrimental even in people otherwise considered active.
With each movement, your body will still burn calories so in that respect, walking slowly can still have weight loss benefits and even help you stave off the risk of diabetes. However, progress is slow and your return on investment will be lower than walking with a higher BPM
Top Tip: Increasing your step count by casually strolling around throughout the day will give you a little boost on your walking for health goals without feeling challenging.
The good news is, it is easy for most of you to push up your heart rate into the fat burn zone.
Your Fat Burn Zone
Depending on who you speak to, maintaining a BPM of between 50 and 70% of your maximum heart rate places you in the fat burn zone. Based on my maximum heart rate, my fat burn zone is between about 93 and 130. To demonstrate this, I will use a chart available to me from my Garmin Connect App which separates the fat burn zone into 2.
My minimum step count target per day is 10000 and I will go out for one dedicated walk, even on rest days. The chart above depicts my heart rate while I was walking. The walk was completed on one of my rest days because the previous day I had done 25k steps on hills.
Even when my dedicated walk was supposed to be easy, I spent 46 minutes with a heart rate in the fat burn zone. I was only out for a total of 55 minutes including a trip around the supermarket.
What Are The Benefits Of Walking In The Fat Burn Heart Rate Zone?
If you are walking for weight loss, the increased movement will still help utilize the energy from the food you have eaten increasing the chance to maintain a calorie deficit. However, the increased oxygen your body is taking in by breathing heavily will be sent to your stored fat cells actively reducing body fat. On my walk, I burned 489 calories, with most of it being from stored fat. As long as I maintain a caloric deficit, that fat will not be replaced.
Because your heart is a muscle, when you increase your efforts, you are strengthening your heart. You can also reduce your resting blood pressure and reduce bad cholesterol.
The increased blood flow to your brain has the added benefit of causing Neuroplasticity. This is a process where your brain creates neurons and uses growth hormones to attach them to your existing neurons. That’s right, exercise creates brain cells so experts believe if you want to learn something, try learning while you are exercising. Listening to an audiobook while walking briskly could be a great way to do this.
Exercise has been proven to reduce Cortisol levels at night. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone so reducing it can have huge mental health benefits. While this decrease occurs after a short-term increase following vigorous activity, exercising at a moderate level such as walking in your fat burn heart rate zone will not see the short-term increase but cortisol levels will still decrease later.
In short, the cumulative effects of raising your heart rate can reduce your stress, make you smarter and reduce your risk of heart disease and strokes while helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Top Tip: Raising your efforts could be as simple as walking a little faster. Walking with purpose might make you speed up and raise your heart rate.
Your Cardio Zone
For a lot of you with walking for health goals, the fat burn heart rate is a brilliant low-impact option. However, utilizing the Cardio Heart Rate Zone is a great way to give you a massive boost.
The Cardio zone is between 70 and 85% of your maximum heart rate and happens when you raise your efforts beyond what your heart rate can sustain.
One of my walks every week will be designed to build stamina. I will be looking for at least 20k steps with some hills but I will not necessarily be trying to walk fast. However, during my stamina walk this week I managed to spend 12.5 minutes over 70%. This is will be on hills as hill walking is my go-to for raising my heart rate.
Despite the fact your heart cannot sustainably continue to get enough energy by increasing your oxygen intake alone, it will try. You will be breathing very heavily and will struggle to talk. While this is happening, your body is calling for reinforcements. Cue your anaerobic metabolism.
What Are The Benefits Of Walking In Your Cardio Zone?
For the most part, the benefits of your cardio heart rate zone are scalable improvements of raising your heart rate.
If raising your heart rate while walking promotes better mental health, better physical health, more brain cells, and a slimmer waist, then raising it higher increases the level of benefit. However, there are some differences.
While the oxygen from labored breathing will also target fat cells for energy, your anaerobic energy will utilize only the glucose in your blood from the food you have recently eaten and your glycogen reserves. This is great for regulating your blood sugar and reducing the risk of type-2 diabetes.
The increased weight loss benefits come from the fact that anaerobic metabolism burns up to thirteen times as many calories as aerobic metabolism during exercise and can increase your daily calorie burn rate for up to 48 hours during your recovery.
Even if you prefer lower intensity walking, bringing your heart rate into your cardio zone will increase your stamina and help you perform better while walking in your other zones.
My twelve and a half minutes in my cardio zone may not seem like much but could carry similar benefits to adding another few hours to my walk and then burn even more calories as I recover.
Top Tip: Hillwalking is a great way to increase your walking efforts to raise your heart rate into your cardio zone.
Your Peak Heart Rate Zone
Your Peak Heart Rate Zone is anything over 85% of your max heart rate. I am not going to cover it as explicitly as the rest as it is impractical to achieve it while walking for health and it involves pushing your body to its limit.
Professional athletes might utilize their peak zone to improve their performance but they will be supported by sports physicians.
If you are interested utilizing your peak heart rate zone, I recommend speaking to a professional.
Target Your Walking Heart Rate
The fantastic thing about using your walking heart rate as a performance metric is that it is relative. This means that it doesn’t matter what level you are at you can apply it to your performance.
So now you know the health benefits of raising your heart rate why not think about changing the way you target your walking workouts.
Setting a target to walk 10000 steps might be too low for some and too high for others. However, you can raise your heart rate while you are walking relative to you. As your performance improves, your body will get better at meeting previous targets and unless you revise them, your benefits will start to plateau. However, your heart rate is a dynamic target because it is relative to your efforts.
Did you find this article useful; do you utilize your heart rate as a performance metric? Join the discussion and leave a comment below.