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Why “Just Walk” (and 10,000 steps) advice doesn’t serve you

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The health benefits of walking and of non-exercise activity time (NEAT) are many. Simply walking regularly at a self-selected pace can reduce mortality and disease risk by up to 50 percent. Blood pressure and blood sugar level improvements are two big benefits attributed to regular walking.1 However, walking alone doesn’t address the muscle and bone losses that occur with age; we must also add specific and adequate intensity exercise.

Don’t stop walking or otherwise spending NEAT gardening, cleaning house, golfing or playing with the dog. Just add activity that will support your muscles and bones, and your brain, more optimally. Go for a walk, but don’t stop there.

If time is an obstacle, exchanging a little of your walking time for some even more valuable physical activity that will meet all your health needs can lead to bigger benefits.

Current trends influencing physical activity

During the pandemic, gyms closed and there was literally a dumbbell shortage. The odd circumstances may have set the stage for muscle and bone losses among those at highest risk.

Those who wanted to exercise at home had to be highly motivated and know what to do on their own, at least until the fitness industry caught up with online programs. However, thanks in part to the freedom provided by remote working and social activity restrictions, pandemic surveys about physical activity suggest at least some of the population became more active.

But we also learned in self-reports the type of activity that increased wasn’t necessarily beneficial for bone density and maintenance of lean muscle mass, a critical component to reduce long-term risks of overweight and obesity.2 Many chose to walk. It was easily accessible, allowed for social distancing and still provided freedom many craved during isolation.

Yet, where walking is long on convenience and accessibility, it comes up short in other areas.

Begin walking

Walking is a convenient and excellent place to start. Daily walks offset our sedentary contemporary lives. The benefits of going from no or low activity to moderate activity are significant. For those with mobility issues, a “walk” can be any activity that can be sustained comfortably.

Once you’ve established a regular habit or reached 6,000 steps a day, you will gain bigger benefits by adding intensity and introducing other components to your routine than by adding more steps.

A major benefit of more intense exercise is the reduction of time needed to exercise. Yet, even with ample time, there are additional reasons to consider an upgrade to a walking program.

Walking is a form of weight-bearing exercise recommended for bone density. However, weight resistance exercise is also needed to provide adequate bone stimulus throughout the body.3 For some populations, including postmenopausal women, higher-intensity cardio exercise and resistance training also support more significant reductions of visceral (belly) fat.4

Though there’s no evidence that alone it is enough, walking is still the most recommended exercise by guidelines and physicians. Also problematic, it’s often suggested without any indication of how to progress or that other key components of exercise for optimal aging are missing.

Is running intense enough?

Even high-mileage runners (and perhaps especially high-mileage runners) are at risk for muscle loss and low bone density. Endurance runners tend to be slight, and the smaller your frame, the less skeletal muscle and bone you have.5 Both walking and running are simply repeating the same stimulus (your body weight) occurring only through ground forces over and over. You can’t out-walk, outrun or out-Zumba muscle and bone losses.

Instead of more steps, step up your strength game

Resistance training, also known as strength training or weight training, is beneficial for muscles and bones in a way that walking is not. Walking provides the greatest stress to bone at heel strike. Those bone benefits may carry up the skeleton but are likely to be minimal by the time they reach the hip. The upper body doesn’t receive any stimulus. Strength training for the upper and lower body adds optimal bone and muscle maintenance.6

Your strength training exercises should target major muscle groups and joints most at risk for fracture due to low bone density. Those include squats or wall sits, lunges, chest press, rowing/pulling exercises, biceps curls, triceps presses and heel raises. The greatest of these are a leg press, a push-like chest press and a pull, like a bent-over row, to target the hips, spine, wrists and muscles surrounding them.

Research suggests there is no significant benefit difference between a frequency of two or three times per week resistance training. However adequate volume (at least three sets) and adequate load (heaviest weight safely able to lift) do matter.7

Everyone needs to start light and progress safely over weeks, even months, to reach adequate stimulus to bone and muscle. Exercises and loads will vary depending on an individual’s specific status. Check with a physician and seek advice from a medical exercise specialist before you begin an exercise program.

Use these or lose these

Aging also accelerates the loss of a specific type of muscle: fast-twitch (FT) muscle fibers. These FT fibers are responsible for reaction, speed and ability to right yourself to prevent falls. They also play a role in metabolism. Compared to slow-twitch fibers, they’re lost twice as fast with age.8

While walking, try pausing on the curb or stairs to do some quick up and downs or try pickleball or tennis so that you have to react quickly. If it makes you move your feet quickly, it’s supporting your FT muscle fibers.


Mobility can’t be forgotten. Distinct from flexibility tests of the past, mobility allows ease of movement without the need to compensate. Whether or not you can touch your toes is not the question.

To walk or lift weights with good form and proper stability, the marriage of strength and mobility is important. Attaining mobility doesn’t require an hour for yoga, unless you love that. Simply stretching well after every walk or other exercise session will maintain or improve mobility if you do it most days of the week.


Last, balance is a key fitness component that requires attention with age. As many who thought they had good balance find, it requires practice. The law of specificity says to have good balance, you have to practice balance. However, this also takes just minutes or can be done while you’re doing something else: waiting in line at the store, brushing your teeth or doing bicep curls in your strength training session.

By improving your balance, you reduce your risk of falling. Falls are more likely with reduced muscle mass, balance and reaction skills. They are the number one cause of fractures in older adults.

Step into every age stronger

Walking and a simple twice-a-week total body strength training program significantly improve key indicators of a health span that lasts a lifespan. A multicomponent approach to fitness with muscle strength and bone density at the forefront doesn’t require much more time and provides a higher quality of life and health. If you’ve not begun, start small. If you’re exercising, a small shift in your existing exercise time may be all it takes to age optimally.

Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS, is CEO of Flipping 50 and creator of the Flipping 50 Menopause Fitness Specialist course for trainers and health coaches. She is a medical exercise specialist with nearly four decades of experience. Her career has included teaching kinesiology at ISU, giving international presentations to fitness professionals for major fitness associations, and serving as a subject matter expert for the American Council on Exercise. She’s a sought-after speaker for reframing aging and teaching how to do it, and her TEDx talk is “Everything Women in Menopause Learned about Exercise May Be a Lie.”

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  1. JAMA Netw Open, 2021; 4(9): e2124516.
  2. Paul Ronto, “Exercise is Up 88% during COVID-19 [12,913 Person Study],” Aug 6, 2021,
  3. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 2020; 17: 150
  4. Front Sports Act Living, 2020; doi: 10.3389/fspor.2020.00060
  5. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med, 2018; 4(1): e000449.
  6. Biomed Res Int, 2018; 2018: 4840531.
  7. Bone, 2021; 148: 115944; J Bone Miner Res, 2017; 33(2): 211–20
  8. Aging Cell, 2014; 13(1): 80–91.
Article Topics: aging, Aging health, exercise, NEAT, Walking
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