How to start walking for fitness

How to start walking for fitness

Walking is a simple, inexpensive exercise that is often overlooked as exercise. Walking can improve cardiovascular fitness with less strain on the knees and hips than running. And, walking requires very little equipment and can be done nearly anywhere. There are only a few medical conditions where walking is not an ideal exercise. Therefore, I cannot say that walking is for everyone, but I will venture that walking can be done by *most* people with two functioning legs. For those with balance challenges, walking can be adapted through the use of nordic walking or hiking poles or other assistive devices.

Step 1: Take an honest assessment of your current fitness level

How far can you comfortably walk currently with out feeling excessively fatigued, out of breath, or sore? This is your starting distance for your fitness plan. For instance, perhaps you can do one lap of your neighborhood without getting winded. Great! What pace were you walking it? Were you walking at a pace where you could comfortably talk to a neighbor or friend? Or, were you walking at a pace where you could speak maybe 2-3 words on a breath?

In the running world, we measure pace in minutes per mile or minutes per kilometer. The American College of Sports Medicine and the CDC recommend that individuals should participate in a minimum of 30 minutes, five times a week of moderate intensity exercise OR 20 minutes, three days a week of vigorous exercise. What is “moderate” or “vigorous” exercise though? Moderate is defined as 100 steps a minute, and vigorous is defined as greater than 100 steps a minute. Another way of defining moderate is by percentage of maximal heart rate–moderate is 65-75% of your maximal heart rate and vigorous is 76-96% of your maximal heart rate. If you don’t know your hear rate zones, you can use perceived effort on a scale of 0-10, where 10=maximal effort and 0=rest. On this scale, moderate is an effort of 3-4 and vigorous is 5-7. Or, you can use the talk test. If you can maintain a conversation, it is moderate exercise. If you can only say a few words, it is vigorous exercise.

Finally, how often are you currently walking per week? If you are just starting out, it’s okay if your answer is “not at all.” The key is to just get started by aiming for 3-5 days a week of exercise.

Step 2: Set a goal

What is the purpose of your walking? Is it to improve cardiovascular fitness? Is it for better blood glucose control by building muscles? Is it so that you can hike with your family? Do you have a 5km in mind that you’d like to walk with your community? My personal favorite training goal is a race goal because it is a tangible and concrete goal that I can look forward to achieving. For instance, I will write my walking plans around The Portland Marathon or another race that I’m planning on participating in. After I write the plan, a key step is to go ahead and register for the race–that way I hold myself accountable and ensure that I will meet my goal. This month, I’m participating in the North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District’s River Walk/Run Challenge. I’ve paid them $15 to walk 187 miles this month. While it isn’t a significant amount of money, it is enough to help to motivate myself to keep getting my daily walks in!

Step 3: Write Your Plan

This is the part where most people will either pay a coach or purchase an online training plan from a website or ap. You can easily write your own training plan if you understand and follow the principles of training, which are the same for both running and walking.

I typically write my training plans backwards. I look at the calendar and write my goal race event in the calendar. Then I count how many weeks I have until the event. For a 5km race, you’ll need about a month of preparation. A marathon can require 3-6 months of preparation depending on your fitness level. What I don’t recommend is what I did right before the National 50 km Race Walk after recovering from a broken ankle–I only had 8 weeks to prepare for my race. It was definitely not the most pleasant experience because I was undertrained.

One principle that I follow when writing my training plans is including an easier “rest” week (note that this is not a week off, rather it is a week with lower mileage) every 3-4 weeks and in the week before a race. So if you are writing your training plan, write the word “easy” on the week before your race.

Another principle that I try to follow to prevent injuries is to increase my mileage on my longer walks and total weekly mileage no more than 10% per week. For instance, if I am walking 20 miles on one week, then next week would be no more than 22 miles. Or, for long walks, you would increase by 1 mile per week. Often, I violate this rule when short on weeks before the race, but I monitor my body for pain and fatigue and will cut the workout short if needed.

The final and most important guideline for writing your own training plan is to focus more on the TYPES of workouts that are on the plan than the overall distance. The three main types of workouts are:

  1. Easy miles
  2. Intervals and Fartleks (Speed play)
  3. Long slow distance

If you are working out 5 days a week, speed work should be done 1-2 times, long slow distance should be done once, and the rest should be easy miles. These easy workouts are shorter than your distance workouts and done at that moderate pace where you can hold a conversation. Speed work is done at the vigorous intensity. If you’d like to exercise on the remaining two days of the week, weight lifting, yoga, hiking, swimming, and cycling are all excellent cross training activities.

Step 4: Follow the plan

Having the support of a walking group, coach, or friend who can check in with you on your goals will help you to stay accountable and achieve your goal. Following the plan can be harder than it seems, especially when sore, fatigue, or other issues arise. So when do you NOT follow the plan?

  1. Injuries–you will need to adapt your plan if you start to feel pain or strain a muscle. Take it easy! Don’t push through an injury. It’s better to be undertrained for an event that over trained and injured.
  2. Fatigue–sometimes you can push through the fatigue and actually feel better after the workout. But sometimes, like after a sleepless night, you need rest. In this case, I either re-arrange my “rest days” and workout schedule so that I can still get all my workouts in but take a rest day today, or I skip a workout. Try not to make skipping the workouts a habit, but feel free to just cross one off the schedule when necessary.
  3. Other problems like blisters, family matters, and work matters may arise. Each case is different, so just be flexible and keep in mind that any little bit of walking you do is better than no walking. So if you need to modify the schedule, do it!

Flexibility is one of the many keys to success when training. Too rigid adherence to training plans can lead to injury and illness. Listen to your body! On the other hand, don’t let a cognitive trap derail your workout plan. Ask yourself if this is something that you can or should train through, or if it is something that warrants a mileage reduction, modification of the plan, or complete rest. I’m constantly adjusting and moving days around on my training schedule. I’ve learned that the training schedule and the training log are two different things. And that’s okay.

Happy walking!

-Dr. Melissa

P.S. If you’d like me to help you with a training plan, just inquire about my coaching services! I’d love to help you achieve your health and wellness goals!



exercise-intensity-infographic.pdf (

Physical Activity Guidelines Resources (