How Walking Became The Coolest Workout

Behind the rise of the most accessible form of fitness.

by Leah Groth
How walking workouts became the biggest fitness trend of the industry.
Getty Images/ Cavan Images

In 2021, Mia Lind, 22, was inspired to create the Hot Girl Walk, a social media movement that encouraged girls to show off how good their walk — either on a treadmill or outdoors — makes them feel. She introduced the concept in early January and it quickly went viral on TikTok, transforming her into an influencer almost overnight, going from 10,000 to over 90,000 followers in a few days.

Mia tells Bustle she wanted to make the exercise community more accessible and to prove walking was a valid form of fitness. “Additionally, the mindfulness aspects are known practices that help mental health and self-esteem,” she says of the modality. The hashtag #hotgirlwalk has amassed over 65.8 million views, with thousands of users sharing videos of their own hot girl walk — and the trend is still picking up mileage. “People have been adding different variations to it, using different products they like — ankle weights, a new coffee recipe to drink on the walk, new shoes, new leggings, the list goes on,” she says.

According to Mindbody’s annual Wellness Index, in 2021 60% of consumers said that walking was part of their exercise routine. And 38% started spending time outside over the past year to support their mental well-being. It was clear: Walking was the new “it” workout.

How Walking Become Cool Again

Once upon a time, walking was sort of cool. Back in the 1980s, when indoor shopping malls were the mecca of society, organized walks looping around the food court, merry-go-round, and Contempo Casuals were a major thing. And, when the Sony Walkman exploded around the same time, power walks fueled by tunes were definitely on-trend. But, like many of the exercise fads of the era — Jazzercise and step aerobics included — the allure of walking faded over the years. From the ‘90s to the 2000s, people began to favor more intense cardio-based and sculpting workouts. There was the rise of spinning. Crossfit was born and gained a cult-like following. And by the late 20-teens, the buzziest workouts had shifted to Frankenstein-like hybrids that aimed to challenge people’s physical capabilities. Think: Pilates and HIIT fusion classes, yoga sculpt sessions in heated studios, and Tabata-style strength training. Walking as a form of exercise became mostly reserved for those unable to partake in more grueling types of fitness for whatever reason.

In March 2020, when the brick-and-mortar fitness industry shut its doors during the lockdown, the workout world was instantly rocked. During the strict stay-at-home period, aside from going to the grocery store, walking, hiking, and running were some of the only ways for some people to simply get out of the house. By the spring, the CDC endorsed walking with others (socially distanced, of course) as an acceptable and somewhat safe activity. So, after months of isolation and Zoom workouts, walks with friends became the new happy hour.

Prior to the lockdown, Colleen Logan, vice president of public relations and corporate communications at digital fitness platform iFIT, says the brand recognized an increase of interest in interactive walking, hiking, and running workouts, which she believes had to do with their accessibility. “We want iFIT to reach the broadest number of consumers and walking is an excellent way to connect with the most people,” she explains. In hopes of feeding the piqued interest, the brand opted to invest resources in filming guided walks and runs in beautiful places around the world, like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa, or up steep trails in Switzerland. The timing couldn’t have been better. iFIT’s popularity soared — in November 2020, they had 330,000 paid iFIT subscribers, and now they have almost 1.5 million — and Logan thinks it primarily had to do with its unique walks, which fuse fitness and adventure with people’s need for a mental escape.

Jillian Michaels, health and wellness expert and creator of The Fitness App by Jillian Michaels, has always considered walking an underappreciated workout. “I have always known that walking is the most affordable, accessible fitness solution. For that reason, I have many programs that are either walking only or incorporate walking.”

Celebrity fitness trainer Harley Pasternak has been encouraging his clients — including Jessica Simpson and Eva Mendes — to get their steps in for decades, and he’s noticed walking’s recent surge in popularity. “Social distancing during the pandemic has reminded us how to enjoy simple, outside-centric activities like good old walking, which will always be my favorite cardio exercise,” he tells Bustle. Not only is it a great low-impact workout, but it can be easily fit into a range of lifestyles — and it doesn’t require much. “Moving for even a few minutes every hour can help you keep your metabolism up and reduce the negative impacts of sitting for extended periods,” he notes.

By the end of the year, others in the fitness industry noticed that walking wasn’t just a workout — it had gotten chic. In January 2021, Apple launched its Time to Walk feature for Apple Watch and Apple Fitness+ subscribers, which the brand described as “an inspiring new audio walking experience.” Each episode featured a different celebrity taking the user on a guided walk, with early guests including Dolly Parton, Shawn Mendes, and NBA star Draymond Green.

Another viral TikTok trend of 2021? The 12/3/30 workout (current hashtag count: 102.5 million views) was created by fitness influencer Lauren Giraldo, and involves setting your treadmill to an incline of 12% and walking for 30 minutes at 3 miles per hour. ClassPass even believes this trend helped boost time at the gym to become the seventh most popular workout of the year, according to the company’s 2021 Fitness & Beauty Trends Report.

Is The Walking Trend Here To Stay?

Logan doesn’t see the demand for walking workouts — and the popularity of it in general — slowing down anytime soon. “Walking is here to stay because so many consumers — at a range of fitness levels — can participate, and walking becomes a gateway to a life of more activity and movement,” she says.

Michaels agrees, especially now with how the post-pandemic work environment has evolved. “In 2022 when everything feels like a chore or a challenge — not in a good way — walking is the most accessible, affordable way to get more activity into your day,” Michaels says, adding that you don’t have to rely on a gym to do it. “Plus, with more of us working from home and not getting out nearly as much as we used to, walking is a great way to get outside and ground yourself in nature, get some fresh air, and grab a little vitamin D on a sunny day.”