I Replaced Cardio With Walking. Here’s What I Learned
Because too much SoulCycle can be soul-sucking
I pitched a story in early February about making walking my exercise for a month, and immediately regretted it. It was a subconscious challenge to myself, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time but didn’t have the guts to execute without the motivation of a commitment and a deadline. I say “had the guts” because this particular experiment would inevitably force me to climb out of one of my deepest ruts: my exercise routine.
I have a complicated relationship with exercise, especially cardio. I know it’s good for me and I feel better when I’m consistent with it, but I also hate it with a fiery passion rivaled only by my violent distaste for Manchester by the Sea or rogue kale stems in my salad. Just the thought of waking up for a 7 a.m. sweat session fills me with existential dread. I count down the minutes until the end of every SoulCycle class.
I’m ripping on cardio specifically because it’s the kind of exercise I hate the most and simultaneously the kind of exercise I feel the most pressure to perform. I coach myself into thinking I enjoy running or dance sculpting, but this is an endless lie I tell myself to cope with the fact that fitness is something I must keep doing and doing for the rest of my life or else my muscles will deteriorate and my clothes won’t fit and…ah. There’s the tender, rotten center of my seriously busted-up apple of a human brain. While I do care about what cardio does for my health, the driving force behind my motivation is ultimately vanity. And that makes it entirely devoid of joy.
I asked several people whom I perceive to have a healthy relationship with exercise about how they feel before and after a tough workout.
My younger sister said, “It depends on the day. But mostly, thank goodness this is happening I need this.” I pressed her to elaborate–why “need”?
“It’s like therapy or a relaxer,” she said. “It lets me unwind and feel good. Like I’m zoning out. It’s meditation in a way.” So basically, the way I feel before taking a bath is the same way my sister feels before cardiovascular exercise. Neat!
I asked my boyfriend the same question. “I get excited I guess, especially as I first start,” he said. “It’s the expectation of the endorphins. And during running I can kind of clear my mind and focus on one thing.”
“Like how many minutes are left until it’s over?” I asked, only half-kidding.
“No, like an article I read, or an idea for work, or going out that night if that’s the mood I’m in,” he said. What a weirdo.
I went back to square one and reframed the question: Have I ever felt this way about any form of activity or movement (a.k.a. not necessarily of the strenuous variety)? The answer slid right into my mental petri dish: walking.
When given the choice between subway, bus, cab or walking, bad weather withstanding, I frequently choose the latter — choose being the operative word. It’s something I actually seek out. I genuinely enjoy walking from point A to point B in New York with a good podcast or audiobook. Sometimes I call my mom to chat. Sometimes I just walk silently and let my thoughts play out in a calm loop.
I established the following ground rules for myself:
- Aim to walk four times a week for around 45 minutes. If you end up walking less, that’s okay! (OKAY?!)
- You can attend a pilates/gentle strength training/yoga class on occasion, but only if it’s a fun social thing (like going with friends after work, or going to Sky Ting Yoga in the morning at MR Bazaar).
- No SoulCycle! No running! Give it a rest. See how you feel.
At first, I found myself maniacally counting steps on my iPhone, so I laid a fourth ground rule: no counting steps, sir. Barring that initial hiccup, it’s been pretty overwhelmingly lovely. On the days I do my walking before work, I’ve found that I’m less drowsy later in the morning, even before having coffee. I’ve come to appreciate my postprandial strolls as a way to decompress, noticing how they help the spool of inevitable end-of-day anxieties unwind and fall (somewhat) neatly into piles of “important” or “not important.”
Even though I was enjoying myself, I couldn’t get rid of the voice in the back of my head that kept insisting I should be doing more, the ubiquitous narrative that true cardio is an absolutely vital part of any “good” exercise routine. I had a lot of questions. Is walking actually sufficient exercise? Is intense cardio really necessary? Why do croutons come in airtight packages if they’re supposed to be stale?? Etcetera, etcetera.
I reached out to Garner Pilat, Head Coach at Orangetheory Fitness in Brooklyn Heights, who kindly fielded my deluge of concerns. First and foremost, she assured me that, yes, walking is good exercise (praise!!!!!). “The American Heart Association recommends that you get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week,” she explained. “If you walk for an hour four times a week and do yoga, BEAUTIFUL. I would say you are part of the small percentage of people who partake in that amount of exercise a week.”
When I asked her to tell me exactly how important cardio is, she replied, “I won’t say that cardio isn’t important to your overall fitness regimen, but it’s certainly not the only piece of the puzzle. And cardio options are endless. If you hate running, try swimming! The more you push your body out of its comfort zone, the better overall health you will earn.”
I also asked her what she would change or add to my walking routine to make it more well-rounded. “Strength training,” she said. “Whether you are picking up two pounds or 20, I recommend at least two to three days of strength training a week in order to increase muscular fitness and bone strength”
Who knows — maybe I’ll invest in some leg warmers and incorporate a little Farrah Fawcett-style weight lifting. As of now, I’m planning to finish my month of walking and feel things out. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’m really trying to prioritize “listening” to my body right now. Don’t tell it I said that.
Feature photo by Patrick Demarchelier/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images; inserted photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.