Why Walking Is a Totally Underrated Way to Exercise and Lose Weight
When it comes to weight loss workout strategies, walking is totally underrated. It’s time to change that. It has plenty going for it, including that you don’t have to wear Spandex, you don’t have to go to a special gym to do it, and you can even get medals for it (more on that below). And there’s no learning curve.
Not only can you lose weight by doing it, but the more you weigh, the easier it’s going to be drop pounds, points out walking coach Michele Stanten, founder of MyWalkingCoach.com and author of The Walking Solution.
How much weight you can lose by walking varies from person to person, but Stanten has seen women drop as many as 14 to 22 pounds within eight weeks of starting a walking routine. Men tend to lose weight faster. (So to do the math, if you start now, you could be down a size or two within a couple of months) Other people lose it more slowly, and anecdotally, sometimes those who lose it more slowly tend to keep it off longer.
It’s a little unsurprising, but still useful to keep in mind that research published in the Journal of Nutrition has found that when people were eating diets that contained fewer calories than usual, those who added walking to their programs saw additional loss in fat mass and had healthy drops in fasting insulin levels compared to people who just ate fewer calories.
To make walking really work for your weight loss efforts, keep a few things in mind.
Do more than you’re doing now.
There’s no magic formula for how many steps, miles, or hours you have to walk to lose the amount of weight that you want. Starting out, the key is to do more than you’re doing now. “If you have a job where you’re on your feet all day, you have to do more than that,” Stanten says. “But if you have a sedentary desk job, a walk every evening after dinner may show real results.”
A lot has been said about getting a baseline of about 10,000 steps a day for health reasons. If your goal is weight loss, you’ll likely want more than that once you get into a routine. But you don’t need to start there. Get your baseline first. “If you’re only getting 3,000 steps on a typical day, don’t try to get 10,000 steps the next day. That can be really discouraging. Aim for 5,000 every day for a week. Then go up to 7,000 the next week,” she says.
The best way to take off extra weight is to challenge yourself with intervals—periods of faster walking interwoven with periods of slower walking. Research has found that interval walkers lose more weight than people who just go the same speed all the time. One study of people with type 2 diabetes found that interval walkers who alternated three minutes of fast walking with three minutes of average-speed walking not only helped their boost their fitness and control their blood sugar better than steady-state walkers, but their body composition changed, leaving them with less belly fat and body fat.
Of course, if you really want to change your body composition, you’ll want to add strength training to your life. Bonus: It helps you walk faster, Stanten says. Also remember that healthy management of stress, sleep, and food all contribute to weight loss, too.
Make it your thing.
You don’t have to walk for hours every day to start losing weight, but it’s important to get in the habit of walking every day. Just make it part of your daily routine—something you do without even thinking about it—even if you’re only walking for 10 or 15 minutes on some days of the week.
Ideally, you’ll want two to three interval walks, or shorter, faster, higher-intensity walks a week, a couple hour-long ones, and the rest can be short, moderate-intensity ones. The shorter ones are great to do with your partner, your dog, a friend, or just head-clearing walks on your own.
Don’t just leave walking to your workout; do it wherever you can (the whole park the car farther away from the store thing). And taking the stairs is such familiar advice that it can fade to the background, but it burns more calories than walking on a flat surface and helps develop leg and glute muscles, too.
Find a hill.
Walking on an incline increases your heart rate, and helps activate your glutes, quadriceps and calves, according to Tyler Spraul, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the Head Trainer at Exercise.com. Depending on the incline, you can achieve similar benefits to running without adding stress on your joints, he explains to NBC News.
“Adding an incline is a great way to increase the challenge for your cardiovascular system and get the same kind of benefits that you can get from jogging or running without the same amount of wear and tear on your knees,” he says. “The extra effort burns more calories and depending on your weight and cardiovascular endurance can also burn more fat.”
Don’t let someone’s runner superiority complex get you down.
You burn as many calories if you walk at 5 MPH—“which is doable with training and practice,” Stanten says—than someone who’s jogging at that pace.
Sign up for an event.
“One of the things that keeps people motivated about walking is signing up for an event,” says Stanten. Plenty of 5K and 10K races are walker-friendly. “Most people don’t know you can walk a half-marathon,” Stanten says. Some races are better than others for that. If it’s an in-person event, check time cutoffs carefully. If you’re not the event type, consider moving the whole walking experience to nature and checking out trails in your area.
Increase your heart rate.
Although you don’t need to go into a full-on run, or even a jog, picking up your walking speed can burn more calories because it increases heart rate. But don’t worry, there’s no need to sprint—you can get a good workout in by walking at a moderately intense pace. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a moderately intense workout can be obtained by raising your heart rate to 50–70 percent of your maximum heart rate.
So how do you know whether you’ve nailed this sweet spot? The intensity of your heart rate can be obtained by using a heart rate monitor or activity tracker with built-in heart rate monitor.
Make walking easier by ignoring these myths.
- Hand weights help you burn more calories. What they really do is make you walk more slowly, which cancels out any benefit of carrying extra weight. “You’ll get more bang for your buck by increasing your walking pace,” Stanten says.
- To go faster, take longer steps. Exactly the opposite! To go faster, you need to shorten your stride and take more steps per minute. “When you reach your foot out in front of you too far, you get more impact on your knees and hips and your foot is acting as a brake,” Stanten says. To train yourself to shorten your steps, count how many steps you take per minute (or 30 seconds, if your mind drifts quickly) during a speed interval. Then try to take more steps than that for the next minute.
Marty Munson, currently the health director of Men’s Health, has been a health editor at properties including Marie Claire, Prevention, Shape and RealAge. She’s also certified as a swim and triathlon coach.
Melissa Matthews is the Health Writer at Men’s Health, covering the latest in food, nutrition, and health.