The Unexpected Workout Trend Gen Z Can’t Get Enough Of

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Ah, Gen Z: lover of crocs, loather of skinny jeans and side parts. There’s no doubt this cohort—consisting of people born between 1997 and 2012—walks to the beat of its own drum, taking a generational stance on, well, pretty much everything (including condiments).

When it comes to personal wellness, Gen Z is all about mental health, valuing their emotional and psychological well-being above all other health concerns including COVID, cancer and heart disease (according to this study conducted by MDVIP). Though we love a win for the brain, this got us thinking…what about the body? How are the 20-somethings around us choosing to stay physically fit these days? In a recent study conducted by wearable sports tech brand Polar, we got the unexpected answer: walking.

Turns out Gen Z loves a good stroll as much as your boomer mother.

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It comes as no surprise that walking workouts began to grow from 2019 to 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak and gyms remained shuttered. What else was there to do besides venture outside for a daily afternoon walk? What we didn’t see coming though was just how on board Gen Z would be.

Rather than the high energy bootcamps and HIIT workouts you might expect a younger generation to gravitate toward, Polar users aged 16 to 29 reported taking more than three walks a week, a 25 percent increase in 2021 as compared to 2020 (and the largest of any age group). According to Polar, the data seems to suggest “a shift in perception as Gen Z further embrace the low-impact, high benefit activity.” Maybe it’s the more holistic approach Gen Z takes to health and wellness, or maybe they just didn’t have any other option (thanks a lot, COVID). According to Nathalie Lennon, a nutritional coach, personal trainer and Polar ambassador, it’s a little bit of both.

“I think Gen Z is choosing low impact activity over more intense exercises because the pandemic ‘forced’ them to see walking as an alternative to HIIT,” she says. “With gyms closed, there was nowhere else to turn.” Pre-pandemic, walking wasn’t exactly considered a trendy way to work out (and we know Gen Z is all about a trend). And though the benefits of getting your steps in are widely understood, it simply wasn't held to the same standard as other forms of exercise—that is, until now.

Lennon also notes that, prior to COVID, most people didn’t give their mental health the care and attention it deserved. “Throughout the pandemic, we finally had the time available to check in on how we were really feeling and improve [our mental health] through the one form of exercise we could do without needing the motivation of our usual gym environments.” Gen Z, in particular, embraced walking like it was the latest TikTok coffee craze. “Being a trend hopping generation, this allowed [them] to finally embrace the benefits of walking,” both mentally and physically. According to Lennon, “Walking ticks three boxes for Gen Z; It aids physical goals, it benefits mental health and it allows [them] to strengthen [their] relationships with friends and family.”

And it’s clear these youngsters are onto something. Multiple studies have shown the physical and mental benefits of walking, including improvements in mood, sleep, depression and anxiety as well as overall mortality. “Walking is one of the most simple and effective ways in which we can remain healthy day to day,” Dr. Raija Laukkanen from the Polar Research Center explains. “This versatile exercise allows for deviations in intensity, making it extremely accessible,” no matter your age, income, race or ethnicity.

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5 Tips to Make the Most of Your Walking Workout

If Gen Z has inspired you to dust off your trainers, here are five expert-recommended ways to get the most out of your next walking workout, courtesy of Dr. Laukkanen:

1. Go low and slow

“To get results, it doesn’t always need to be about having a high-intensity workout,” she explains. “Slow, low-intensity walks can help people to maintain their cardiovascular health.” In fact, studies show that low-impact steady-state cardio exercise like walking can result in a lower risk of heart disease as well as improved blood flow and brain function (not to mention fat loss and metabolism).

2. Grab the poles

If you do want to kick things up a notch, try incorporating walking poles. “High-intensity walking exercises, such as Nordic walking, can be a good way to amplify the positive results of walking around the body, by utilizing more muscles,” Dr. Laukkanen explains. Never heard of Nordic walking? It’s a form of exercise that originated in Finland and utilizes handheld poles for a full-body walking experience. Often used by athletes as an off-season cross-country ski training activity, it’s also a great way for non-athletes to up their cardio-respiratory fitness by working the upper body and core in addition to the lower body leg muscles.

3. Change the terrain

“Changing the terrain of your walks can also help in providing variety to the intensity of the workout,” she says. “For example, going uphill or downhill can have a large impact on the intensity of a walking workout and can lead to even greater results.” So switch up your scenery, hit the trails or conquer that neighborhood hill you typically avoid. And remember, it’s OK to change up your speed depending on the terrain (no shame in a slow game).

4. Join a group

We get by with a little help from our friends, right? Turns out, exercise is no exception. “Consider walking with a group of people to make it more of a social experience,” Dr. Laukkanen explains. “While this may not improve your physiological health, it can have a positive impact on your mental health and stress levels.” Not only does buddying up help you build positive associations with exercise, studies show it can also help increase your overall physical activity by creating a sense of community and accountability

5. Track your (HR) zone

During exercise, your muscles typically need more oxygen than usual. To provide that O2, your heart rate will increase in order to pump more blood to the rest of the body. This variation in cardiac output can be quantified using heart rate zone tracking, a training method that involves paying attention to the frequency, duration and intensity of exercise in relation to your minimum heart rate (or resting rate) and maximum heart rate.

“Tracking heart rate during your next walk can help you optimize your exercise and learn more about your heart rate zones in different contexts, ensuring you get the most out of your walks,” Dr. Laukkanen says. Depending on your HR max, walking typically falls in zone 1 (the very low-intensity zone), but tracking your heart rate in relation to your perceived effort will help you better understand your unique aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.

In addition to zone 1, there are five heart rate zones that vary with exercise intensity, and each one comes with a particular set of health benefits, including endurance, efficiency and recovery. To learn more about heart rate zone training, check out this article, and if you’re interested in giving it a try, look into investing in a fitness tracker that includes a heart rate monitor from brands like Oura, Fitbit, Apple or Polar.

3 Fitness Apps with Guided Walking Workouts

If you’re new to working out or prefer a little more structure, try one of these exercise apps that feature guided walking workouts led by certified fitness trainers (and even some celebrities).

  1. Apple Fitness+
  2. Openfit
  3. Peloton

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Executive Managing Editor

Catrina oversees content production across all PureWow verticals. When she's not managing editorial schedules, digital issues or newsletter production, you can find her...