In the past few years, we’ve taken a good, hard look at the damaging effects of diet culture. For those of us who grew up in the Diet-Coke-and-100-calorie-snack-pack landscape of the ‘90s, then began navigating the “clean eating” movement as young adults, it feels almost impossible to dethrone those diet culture…but we’re finally getting somewhere. And now, it’s time we get equally clear about dismantling our long-held ideas about exercise.

Exercise used to be viewed as something you had to do, especially if you’d been “bad” with your eating habits. It was meant to be challenging (read: punishing), a way to push your body to its limits and “atone for your sins”. Sure, we talked about other positives associated with regular exercise as well: Long-term health benefits, improved mood, etc. But for many people — especially many women — exercise has come to be viewed as a thing they have to do for the sake of vanity, not a thing they get to do for their body’s long-term suction.

I’ll admit, I’ve been a victim of this mentality myself. I know some people really enjoy pushing their bodies. They love improving their strength and running speed, they enjoy competing with themselves to accomplish something physically that seemed impossible at one time. I’m just…not one of those people. 

For me, exercise has always felt like a chore, but recently, I’ve noticed people are talking less about “working out” and more about “moving their bodies”, and for me, that’s helped lead to a mental reframe. Now, I’m finally getting to a place where I can acknowledge that walking, something I actually really love doing, counts as exercise.

I hate running. I can tolerate a barre or dance class, but I truly never have felt that amazing rush of endorphins or mental clarity that most people claim they experience after a great workout class…but walking? Walking packs so many mental health benefits for me. There’s something about the combination of fresh air, time spent alone, and gentle movement that just feels good. When I’m anxious or stressed or fighting off a migraine, a walk is my go-to remedy — and it always makes me feel better, physically and mentally.

So why have I spent so many years trying to find some other form of exercise to force my body into when they don’t actually feel good? There is a form of movement that I actually really like, and instead of just accepting that walking is what works for me, I’ve spent so much time questioning if it’s “good enough” or “hard enough” or if it even qualifies as exercise. 

So, does walking count as exercise? Here's what the research says.

Clearly, I’ve internalized the idea that exercise is meant to be painful and punishing in order to be effective — but research has found that walking offers similar benefits to higher-intensity running. According to Harvard School of Public Health, it has been associated with improving high blood pressure and body mass index, and lowering the risk of diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, and early death. A 2022 study also linked more steps a day to lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

Be the expert in you.

Take the Quiz

Of course, walking doesn’t have to be the only exercise I (or anyone else) incorporates. For one thing, it’s not always the most efficient — I’d love to take a three-mile walk (or more!) every day, but I just don’t always have the time. But like most women, I have such limited capacity to do things for myself, especially with a career and two kids in the mix. That’s kind of the beauty of walking, too, though — I can use it as both exercise and my “me time” (because something like a barre class simply doesn’t feel like “me time” as I just don’t enjoy it). I can walk while taking a work call, or even invite a friend out for a walk date so I can knock both exercise and social time out in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, Walking outside requires decent weather, which we’re not always going to get. And yes, strengthening exercises are important, especially as we get older, so I will do my part to incorporate those as well. 

But right now, I’m doing my part to accept that taking a nice walk is “good enough” to qualify as exercise. For me, the benefits of this practice go beyond the research-backed upsides of walking, and that’s so important. It’s time to reconfigure our ideas about what is and isn’t “healthy” — and accept that sometimes, the hardest things aren’t necessarily the best from a holistic perspective. Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, there’s nothing wrong with choosing gentle movement if it works for you…and I’m finally accepting that this is what works for me.

Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, MarieClaire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.