I’m a fitness trainer, certified group fitness instructor, and health blogger — and of all the things I’ve learned about exercise and fitness, this is the thing I wish people knew the most.
Obviously, if you walk for 30 minutes, it’s not going to burn as many calories as 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). But here’s a crazy concept: Maybe, if we’re looking for optimal health benefits, we shouldn’t be focusing on calorie burn.
Walking won’t necessarily make you lose more weight than HIIT — we can’t promise that. But it is actually a way healthier option. I’m telling you this as someone who engages in high-intensity exercise on most days. I don’t do HIIT for the health of it; I don’t do it for the calorie burn or the weight loss. I do it because I love it — but here’s why it’s probably not the best thing for me.
The Drawbacks of HIIT Nobody Talks About
High-intensity interval training is exactly what it sounds like: High-intensity exercise performed over short intervals. High-intensity movements are movements that leave you gasping for air. Often, they involve jumping, sprinting, and performing full-body, compound movements that couldn’t be sustained over a long period of time.
These movements are stressful. And stress, inherently, is bad for the body. The pressure of these exercises can increase cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) and wear the body down over time. For many exercisers, the collective impact results in strain, pain, and even injury. As an instructor, I’ve seen it happen many times. Crutches, ACL tears, and stress fractures are all too common in frequent gym-goers.
By definition, being injured is not being healthy.
Even if you manage to evade an injury, high-intensity exercise has some significant health drawbacks. All that impact adds up, and often exercisers aren’t aware of how much high-intensity movement is too much. They read that HIIT is better (for the calorie burn, the metabolism boost, the efficiency, etc.) and they start to do it all the time.
Without realizing it, caught up in glimmering promises of calorie burn and fat loss, they fall into a seductive but dangerous trap: overtraining.
It’s not just something athletes do. More and more often, average people are falling victim to going too hard at the gym, and too often. The consequences of over-exercise range from fatigue and irritability to a lowered heart rate and a dragging metabolism. It could actually cause you to hold on to fat cells. There’s nothing about training intensely all the time that’s good for you — despite the calories it burns.
That’s not to discount the benefits of working out intensely sometimes. You get stronger, build endurance, speed up your metabolism, and feel more energized on the daily. Unless, of course, you overdo it.
Benefits of Walking
Regardless of the danger of overtraining, many people simply don’t enjoy high-intensity exercise in any capacity. It’s difficult — and if you don’t have a true passion for it, it can become miserable to drag yourself to the gym day after day to trudge through a grueling workout.
I happen to enjoy it. So I do it, and do it often.
If I were to try to weightlift consistently, I wouldn’t have much success. I don’t enjoy heavy weightlifting and would therefore have a really hard time dragging myself to the squat rack. The best exercise regimen — and the only kind that’s proven to actually work over time — is one you enjoy.
The science is pretty clear about exercise: Similar health benefits (measured by disease prevention and longevity) result from any amount of exercise that exceeds 150 minutes of low-intensity activity each week.
So if you enjoy going for an evening stroll — maybe alone, maybe with your pet, or maybe with some podcasts — you’re reaping the same health benefits you would if you engaged in high-intensity exercise. The difference is that you would avoid all those very real dangers of intense workouts.
This might sound confusing. After all, people have been in love with HIIT training for some time now, hailing it as a quick fix for weight loss. And that’s exactly where things got muddled.
The mix-up happened because of society’s focus on weight loss. A lower weight often gets equated with a healthier body — in actuality, weight has little to do with the actual health of the person in question. For many people, a higher weight results in better health outcomes. For others, the measures they need to take to maintain a lower weight can severely damage their health in the long term.
My takeaway for you? Walking is healthier because it’s less risky and, for many people, it’s more fun. If you’re exercising for the health of it, stick with the only principle that’s bound to hold up for the long term: Any kind of movement you look forward to doing is the kind you should do.