Is Walking A Sport? (& Why Not Always)

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An intense walking session may leave you out of breath and definitely offers health benefits but can you also consider this activity to be a sport?

The most relevant definition of a sport in the Oxford English Dictionary is (1):

“An activity involving physical exertion and skill, esp. (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.”

This means whether walking is a sport or not depends on how you do it.

In the context of a race walking competition with specific rules, walking is a sport.

Just going for your daily walk is still exercise that can offer health benefits but it is not a sport.

Why speed walking is a sport

To explain more clearly why and how speed walking can be a sport it can be helpful to take a closer look at the different parts of the Oxford English Dictionary definition.

First of all, there is the “activity involving physical exertion and skill”. There are numbers called MET values that are estimations of how intense different activities are.

An MET value for walking 4 miles per hour (6.4 kmh) is 5 which is similar to the estimation of the MET value for a recreational game of doubles tennis, 4.5 (2).

Next, there is the part about “one regulated by set rules or customs”.

You can find the specific rules later in the article but for now, it is enough to know that speed walking races do indeed have rules and disqualification conditions.

Lastly, as the name race walking implies, there are definitely competitions where walking meets the “in which an individual or team competes against another or others” requirement.

Is speed walking a sport in the Olympics?

If the Oxford English Dictionary is not enough to convince you, race walking has been a standalone sport in the Olympics since 1908 (3).

At the time of writing, the Olympics include speed walking competitions of 20 km (12.4 miles) for both women and men and a 50 km (31.1 miles) competition for men (3).

The participants in these competitions definitely do not use the average walking speed. Here are some of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic race walking results of the gold medal winners (4, 5, 6):

  • Antonella Palmisano (20 km women): 1:29:12 aka 13.5 km/h (8.4 mph)
  • Massimo Stano (20 km men): 1:21:05 aka 14.8 km/h (9.2 mph)
  • Dawid Tomala (50 km men): 3:50:08 aka 13 km/h (8.1 mph)

The speeds above over these distances will already be hard to achieve with running for most people.

These walking stats make it even clearer that race walking can meet the “physical exertion” part of the definition of a sport.

Olympic walking rules

Next, you may want to know exactly what the Olympic walking rules are. These include (3):

  • One foot must stay in contact with the ground at all times (checked by judges)
  • The knee of the front leg must not bend and the leg must straighten as the body passes over it

When the judges see an athlete breaking these rules, they show a pedal which represents a penalty. When a race walker gets 3 penalties, he/she is disqualified.

These rules are why race walkers have to implement a somewhat funny-looking walking technique to achieve their fast speeds.

It doesn’t have to be a sport to get health benefits

After reading the definition, it becomes clear that the way most people implement walking does not count as a sport.

However, something important to note is that an activity doesn’t have to fit this definition to be good for your physical health. Some of the positive effects of walking still include:

  • Burning extra calories
  • Improving mood
  • Potentially improving cardiovascular health
  • Improving sleep
  • Potentially improving muscle endurance
  • And much more

While walking is definitely not the only activity that offers these effects, it can be worth implementing more walks throughout your week.

Additionally, to get these benefits to a larger extent you can consider certain walking equipment options and/or focus on moving at a higher speed.

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Matt Claes founded Weight Loss Made Practical to help people get in shape and stay there after losing 37 pounds and learning the best of the best about weight loss, health, and longevity for over 4 years. Over these years he has become an expert in nutrition, exercise, and other physical health aspects.