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I Replaced Cardio With Walking. Here’s What I Learned

Because too much SoulCycle can be soul-sucking

03.17.17
The-Things-You-Learn-When-You-Make-Walking-Your-Exercise-for-a-Month

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.

harling walking man repeller 3

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:

  1. Aim to walk four times a week for around 45 minutes. If you end up walking less, that’s okay! (OKAY?!)
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

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  • Beasliee

    What pace are you walking at? I assume not a bum-wiggling power walk but is it a ‘rushed’ walk or a gentle mooch? Also – footwear?
    I am SO with you on the lack of enjoyment to be found in exercise.

    • Harling Ross

      It’s somewhere between purposeful walking and power walking I would say. Definitely not a “stroll,” but I’m also not killing myself. As for footwear, I couldn’t recommend Allbirds highly enough. They are basically socks in shoe form and they look cool too (IMO) http://rstyle.me/n/ch9mvibv2s7

    • Lyla

      I walk more than the author and I do it in almost all of my shoes except for shoes or sandals without a heel strap. I wear Nikes or Supergas a lot, but more often than not I wear ballet flats or ankle boots. Most shoes are comfy for walking once you break them in.

  • Abby

    I fucking hate running. Like I would do a number of pretty terrible things before I would willingly run. I’m not super into cardio as it is. I do yoga five days a week, though (great for my mind, not doing much for my abs tbh).

    I live to walk. I would walk to work every day if it didn’t take an hour. The subway strike this fall was one of the happiest months of my life in recent memory because of all the WALKING. But my enjoyment of walking is very weather dependent and it’s too cold and icy right now.

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    • Lyla

      I walk to (and from) work BECAUSE it takes 70 minutes. I get to enjoy my favorite parts of the city, stop for breakfast or a coffee if I want, and just start every day relaxed. I’ve had clients join me to do a walking meeting or walk with a friend part of the way to catch up. I don’t have to rush to the subway and think about delays or changing stations. I know exactly what time I need to leave. On the way home I often go different ways if I need some groceries or I want to pick up a prescription, but it is a great way to wind down. If I have plans after work I nearly always walk and if that is over 40 minutes I let myself take a taxi or the subway home, but if not 9/10 I will walk home, which is often longer than 70 minutes. I also walk on the weekends, but not nearly as far. I don’t do any other exercise, but I’m in pretty good shape. The only thing that ever stops me is if there is a reason for me to be super dressed up, I have a lot to carry, or the weather is truly dismal. I walk in rain and snow most of the time. I started when I was trying to pay off my credit card and realized that transportation was taking up an unnecessarily large part of my budget. I couldn’t go back.

  • mjá

    I walk at least 40 minutes a day in all weather at a brisk pace, usually carrying my heavy backpack, because I hate the transit system in my small city, but also out of habit. It was the easiest way to walk around my tiny rural town growing up. My friends think I’m ridiculous for wanting to walk everywhere, but it’s my primary form of exercise it makes my legs *strong*. It also helps me keep my fibromyalgia flares to a minimum!

    I’ve recently been wanting to add other forms of exercise (yoga or at home pilates), but I’m having trouble finding something I truly enjoy. Exercise can be so fickle.

    • laraerae

      Have you tried Yoga with Adriene? I love her and she made me really love and enjoy yoga!

      • Harling Ross

        LOVE Yoga with Adrienne

      • mjá

        No I haven’t! I’ve tried the healing/trauma yoga classes on doyogawithme before, but I think I need to switch it up a bit– I’ll give it a shot!

        • laraerae

          Yeah I like some of the stuff on do yoga with me, but Adriene is just always what I need!

      • yaaaas +1 for yoga with adriene!

  • Natty

    i had an existential crisis about exercise as well and cured it with a fitness challenge with a couple friends. we agreed that for one month, we would all work out (could be anything– cardio, yoga, lifting, walking) 5 times a week. if you didn’t make it 5x you had to donate to charity. there was also a “pic or it didn’t happen” rule, and it was hilarious to see everyone’s sweaty post-workout selfies. i lost five pounds without even thinking about it because my source of motivation shifted from a place of vanity to a little healthy peer pressure. something to consider!

  • Aliki F

    I also have adopted walking as my preferred training regimen, I hate running and really any other kind of closed-door activity, whereas I don’t mind walking at all. I try to walk for 30 minutes to work every day (again, weather permitting) and usually take long strolls during the weekends. As this is the only form of exercise I’m doing (the ONLY form), I blame it totally for the balanced relationship I have with my body – yes, I’d like to lose these 5 kgs, yes, I’d like a flatter stomach, but everything else seems to be working for me (legs, bum, arms etc) – so yes, walking does help!

    worthlivinit.com

  • Adrianna

    I LOVE walking. I feel a significant difference when I don’t walk for at least 30 minutes a day. (On my lunch break)

    I’ve seen the majority of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens on foot. My boyfriend and I average 25,000 steps per day on the weekends and whenever we travel to a new city. My record is 47,000 steps. I don’t understand why able-bodied people insist on taking a cab or subway when we can walk! I would totally have a treadmill desk if I wasn’t a photo retoucher.

    I’ll add that I used to feel the urge to walk long distances when I was a teenager – before I heard of hiking the PCT trail.

    • Harling Ross

      47,000 is bananas!!! my record is 33,000

    • maiadeccan

      if you love walking in new york, i cannot recommend the great saunter enough

      https://shorewalkers.org/the-great-saunter-event

      you walk the entire edge of manhattan! truly one of the best and weirdest and hardest days i have ever had in this city

      • Adrianna

        I meant to do something like this several years ago but kind of forgot. I had no idea it was an organized event. I’m registered for the 2017 NYC marathon, so I’ll (hopefully) run a similar distance…… I’ll look into this, “The Great Saunter” is an amazing name

  • Anne Dyer

    OMG – croutons. Please call Larry David. This is definitely his brand of humor and needs to be used on Curb immediately.

    • Harling Ross

      hahah i genuinely love that the croutons shade was your main takeaway

  • LEG WARMERS: HARLING you should be able to get a pair of super cheap leg warmers from an American Apparel store, cuz they going out of biz and EVERYTHING in store is half off.

    • Harling Ross

      i need.

  • Molly D

    omgaaad please write more Harling. Hilar. I recently started taking up walking too. It makes me feel very mature though it’s hard to operate my phone due to the extreme hand swelling

    • Harling Ross

      wait why are your hands swollen!!!

      • Molly D

        Oh dang am I the only person that happens to?! I don’t know! My arms hang by my sides for so long that my hands swell up. I think I should probably start being embarrassed about it.

        • Harling Ross

          ohhhh NOT EMBARRASSING. bodies are so cool.

        • sum

          Not at all! It happens to me too especially during hiking.

        • Cristina

          Heyyyy this happens to me too! Only in the early morning though. I can’t wear my wedding ring even if I’m walking early am.

        • Cynthia Pratt

          Hold your arms bent at a 45 degree angle and swing them as you go. Not only will it increase calorie burn but it will lessen the swelling.

  • Caitlin Yaffe

    I have never understood my friends who get up for a 5 am spin class every…single..day. Walking I love! Hiking even better! I once backpacked through the Rockies for four days and loved every minute of it. Now that I’m city bound, I’m trying to find that balance. Just bought a rowing machine for my apartment…will let you know how that goes.

  • Ci

    Walking is and has been my main form of exercise for ever. I started to do hot yoga a couple of times a week and I feel like i’m set for “fitness” for now. I love walking, I love the concept of walking, and I currently LOVE this book: Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin. It’s a book to re-re-re-read.

  • Grace B

    In college I asked my friends if they wanted to walk to Quiznos — it was probably 2 miles away from our college campus. We made it but they insisted we get picked up by friends instead of -gasp- walking back. I sure do love to walk. No interest in most cardio but I love my kundalini yoga!

  • My boyfriend and I started walking on our “down” days as a way to still do SOMETHING when we don’t feel like going to the gym. It’s great because we do 2 or 3 miles twice a week and then go to gym classes and lift other days of the week. Plus it’s a great time for us to reconnect after work, talk about friend drama, etc.

  • chouette

    Ugh I love walking, NYC needs to hurry up and thaw already. I work in Times Square area and BF is in Union Square and gets out about half an hour after me, so I walk there, scoop him up, and we walk to Chinatown together for dinner or just get on our train. It’s a great routine when it’s warm out!

  • Jennifer

    I will run until the sun goes down, but please don’t make me pick up a weight.

  • elpug

    Yes. I injured my knee running and also took on one of my boyfriend’s dogs. Usually it goes like this:
    – I have been inside all day, must walk!
    – I don’t like this
    – Dog stops every 10 feet to pee
    – Didn’t realize I’m almost home again
    – I feel good about that

    Now I walk him every day! And sometimes I listen to podcasts and sometimes I call loved ones. And it’s always relaxing by the end. Though it doesn’t replace my love of running, it is a great substitute and much calmer.

    The best part about it is that as long as I have comfy walking shoes, i’m good to go and don’t sweat as much!

  • Hellbetty666

    Walking is my religion. Bit of yoga once a week, and then binge-hiking at the weekend. It’s the best thing ever, despite being stared at like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick. Apparently, straights don’t like seeing a lone woman walking.

  • I love walking too! I feel so good now, because I walk A LOT during work (one of my coworkers counted 10km on an average day on a fitness app).
    But I think it’s about finding the right type of exercise, and there’s a lot more than just the gym and running. I thought sports/exercise wasn’t for me until I discovered rock climbing. I always have fun at the climbing gym. So maybe there’s another sport out there for you!

  • Lisa

    i walk two miles a day and take my dog. i quit the gym a few years ago when i became single and i decided i didn’t need to spend more time away from home, and more money, when i could walk for free. my grandmother lived until 99 and she walked almost every day of her life. i love my time walking–usually listening to music and having that small time to myself to de-stress.

    • Carson McCrullers

      Yes! My favorite neighbor is a man who has to be pushing 90. I see him out walking bright and early every morning and he always has something witty to say to me/the dog. I hope I’m half as fun at that age.

  • Allison Hatch

    This is one of the most comforting things I have read in the past month! Last year I went to school in New York and found myself walking an average of 7.5 miles a day. Had to pick something up two miles away? Ok, I will walk (partly due to being a student and too broke to pay for subway)! Now I live in Amsterdam and people can’t fathom that I would rather walk from point A (lecture) to point B *class) than bike, which is an additional 15 minutes. Living for even the tiniest bit of time in New York changes your perspective on walking, and I have issues with running, too! I once ran a marathon, but now I can barely bring myself to complete half a mile without constantly checking how far I have gone and when it will all be over.

  • I love walking too! Especially in big cities!
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    Jeanne
    Leather Dungarees, Ruffle Sweater and Princetown Mules

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  • kitmcc

    Love this article Harling (for the writing and the content)! Your future body will really appreciate what you are doing as well. If you can’t find joy in weight lifting just add planking (front and side) using good form and that will be great for your bone strength. Start small and focus on your breath (4 deep breaths), build from there. Also – Foot health is hugely important! Don’t ignore how much our feet do for you, be kind and mindful of those as much as the rest of your body!

  • Cristina

    This is my favorite. I feel like I’ve been in an exercise crisis since I turned 30. I lost 30lbs last year, just by giving myself the entire year, eating in moderation and running/jogging. I actually enjoyed it. But then you let society, or “them” tell you that what you are doing isn’t enough. You can always be fitter and faster and more toned and skinnier and on and on. Run, no don’t run, now Crossfit oh no don’t Crossfit, yoga… etc. I’m so over it. I’ve recently wanted to go back to jogging/walking, but just felt like “is this enough?” I love your perspective. Who care’s if it makes me happy and at least I’m walking and not sitting on the couch?! I’m just over the amount of energy and the super expensive military grade sports bra it takes to actually workout by societal standards. Long live walking!

  • Irina Rusu

    You should give TRX a whirl. It builds up muscle, it’s always fun and the best thing is you can adjust the intensity yourself depending on where you stand (close or farther from the anchor point).

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    Walking is my exercise. It takes no special equipment other than a pair of comfy shoes and it gives me a chance to explore my neighborhood.

  • Caitlin
  • Ana Balenovic

    🙂 I think walking is a great form of exercise. Exercise is good for you cause it works on getting blood flowing and oxygen to cells. So it makes you more healthy/vibrant, at least I think maybe…my best guess:)

  • When I was working from home two years ago, I got a dog. Not just because I love dogs and always wanted one and was ready to make the commitment, but because I knew she would get me off of my ass three times a day to WALK so I wouldn’t spend every waking hour indoors on the couch. Maybe we don’t stay at a very brisk pace for the full 15-minute walk, but we definitely have no choice but to walk for 15 minutes three times a day. Once I can afford it, I am desperate to get back to martial arts, but can I do with my three daily walks plus some yoga, strength training, and weights? Yes. Yes, this is fine, and it’s quality time with my beautiful, perfect animal child.

    • Carson McCrullers

      My dog also keeps me from accidentally becoming a total recluse! I used to think that dog people who said things like “who rescued whom?” were over the top; but there have been a few times, when my body was tired and depression reared its ugly head, that seeing him waiting by the door staring at his leash was the only thing that got me out of bed.

  • Marie-Eve

    I think Harling is my new favorite Man Repeller. <3

    I walk 40 minutes every morning and every evening to get to and from work, during winter (rest of the time I ride my bike). I love that it gives me a buffer between waking up and actually having to talk / interact with people. I don't listen to music or podcasts, I'm just really in my head.

    (although I love cardio as well…)

  • Isabella

    I started walking home from work last summer and It was AMAZING.
    I work by the flat iron building and live in bushwick. So its quite a long walk.
    But walking through East Vil, LES, the bridge, Williamsburg. all the while listening to music or my favorite podcasts.
    2 hours roll by and I’m almost home. I don’t realize how great the work out is until my legs are sore while I lay in bed.
    I HIGHLY recommend it.
    Maybe I will see some of you over the bridge one day 🙂

  • Kristin

    I used to be a cardio addict. Running high mileage, then my knees (or specifically my ITB) started getting pissed at me. After having my baby, I started lifting – thanks to my cubicle mate bugging me to do SOMETHING again. I’ve been lifting for almost a year now and I’m the strongest and fittest I’ve ever been and I don’t do cardio. I walk outdoors pretty frequently, mostly chasing my daughter, but really to just be outside, one with nature, blah blah, all that good stuff. Not as a structured form of exercise. I always stop to smell the roses and peruse my neighbors’ gardens (they probably think I’m spying or creeping on them). If you feel like you need a boost while walking, walk up a hill. Walking and strength training are a great combo. Not that I’m qualified to say that, but running isn’t the only way to be fit/healthy/that.