The fitness industry is seriously innovative, but with that comes confusion. With so many new workouts, equipment, and supplements, trying to decipher what will work for you can be pretty mind-boggling. But, instead of chasing the latest fad, or shelling out a couple of hundred dollars a month for a fancy class, you might consider going back to the basics: walking.
Walking is free, easy, and doesn’t require any special equipment or expertise. You simply put one foot in front of the other. Walking is great for improving general health, and for increasing your physical activity level, but what about weight loss? Is walking a type of exercise that can help you lose weight and reach your weight loss goals? To get the lowdown on walking for weight loss, we called on several fitness experts.
Read on for their expert advice on the benefits of walking and how to use walking effectively for healthy weight loss.
Meet the Expert
- Alex Parren is a Certified Personal Trainer, triathlete, and writer for the eco-friendly activewear brand Sundried.
- De Bolton is a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, Weight Loss Specialist, and wellness educator.
- Briana Bain, DPT, PT, is a Virginia-based physical therapist based in Virginia Beach, VA.
- Lisa Olona is a fitness and life coach.
The Benefits of Walking
Besides being free and a way of traveling from point A to point B, walking has some pretty great health benefits, too.
- It improves your cardiovascular health: While walking is often credited with being excellent cardiovascular exercise, Bolton cautions against assuming any walking is sufficient to boost your fitness. She says you must walk at a brisk pace that challenges your heart and lungs—think heavy breathing. "Power walking briskly or uphill is a great way to improve your cardiovascular health and challenge all levels of fitness," she says.
- It is a low-impact form of exercise: "Walking is low impact, which means it is suitable for those who would perhaps be prone to injury when running or doing other high-impact activities," says Parren.
- It tones your legs: A brisk daily walk of two to four miles is an excellent way to increase the muscular strength, endurance, and definition of your legs. "As your leg extends forward, you are eccentrically (lengthening) contracting your hamstrings to control the forward momentum of your leg," Bain says. "The quadriceps are utilized concentrically (shortening) as you plant the foot and accelerate forward to stabilize the knee." Walking at a fast pace, particularly up an incline, can strengthen and tone your hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Downhill walking relies heavily on the quads.
- It improves markers of physical health: Research published in 2015 found that walking lowers blood pressure, resting heart rate, and total cholesterol and improves aerobic capacity.
- It can lower your blood sugar: Whether you're diabetic or just looking for better blood sugar control, a regular walking habit is an effective way to help utilize blood glucose to keep your levels optimal. "When you walk at a challenging pace, your muscles will utilize the glucose in your bloodstream, which over time, with consistency and a balanced diet, will reduce your blood sugar levels," notes Bolton.
- It can increase your bone density: "By challenging yourself by walking at a fast pace, it will help build muscles, increasing bone density," says Bolton, who explains that bone density is an increase in the mineral matrix caused by stress on the bone from muscle engagement. Essentially, as your muscles contract during exercise, they pull on the bones and signal the body to start laying down more minerals, increasing bone density, to support the muscles.
- It can strengthen your immune system: Research published in 2018 reported that brisk walking for 30 minutes can increase the activity of your body's white blood cells, boosting your immune system's defenses against pathogens—a benefit that will surely come in handy during cold and flu season.
- It can improve your mental health: But it's not just your body that benefits—walking is tonic for the mind too. Olona notes that walking "helps boost your mood and can even help with creative thinking." Like other forms of exercise, walking produces endorphins, which can elevate your mood and may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- It gets you outside: "Walking allows you to get out into the fresh air, which can boost your mental health, not to mention the added health benefits of sunshine and its glorious Vitamin D," says Parren. "Add a furry friend to your walk, and you've got the recipe for the perfect exercise!" Even if you don't have a dog to walk, research has found that exercising outdoors improves self-esteem and mood more than indoor social activities.
- It can be social and accessible: "Walking doesn't require any special equipment and can be done anywhere, and is the most accessible and affordable type of exercise," notes Bolton. Because the activity is relatively low intensity, you can easily carry on a conversation and walk with friends or family members. And, barring some injuries and physical impairments, most people can participate regardless of body size, age, and fitness level.
Walking for Weight Loss
Clearly, walking has a bounty of physical and mental benefits, but can it help with weight loss? Here’s what our experts and the research say.
Is It Really Possible to Lose Weight By Walking?
"Believe it or not, walking is one of the best exercises you can do for weight loss! Put simply, walking briskly will elevate your heart rate, which, in turn, will improve your fitness and help you to lose weight when combined with a healthy diet," says Parren. Research published in 2014 found that walking can reduce body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage.
While all of our experts agree that walking can help you lose weight, you need to keep your diet in check to see optimal results. "While walking helps you burn calories, which helps with weight loss, you must also incorporate a sensible diet. If you are reducing the number of calories you take in, and you incorporate walking, then yes, you can lose weight," says Olona.
" At its heart, weight loss occurs when we are in a calorie deficit, either through eating less, exercising more, or both," adds Parren. "Added factors such as stress, lack of quality sleep, and dehydration do also come into play, but you could still lose weight even if you are stressed—it is just less likely. [But] it's not possible to lose weight if you are walking but still eating in a calorie surplus."
How Much Should You Walk to Lose Weight?
The pace, distance, and technique that you adopt all play a part in walking for weight loss. "Walking briskly elevates your heart rate and burns calories, which will help you to get into a calorie deficit, which is what will make you lose weight," says Parren.
However, walking isn't necessarily the most time-saving way to burn calories. For instance, Parren tells us that "a 120-pound person could burn around 65 calories per mile of walking. This would mean a 30-minute brisk walk could burn around 130 calories, but for comparison, a 30-minute run would burn around 300 calories." With that said, walking will still help you burn calories, and there are some tweaks you can make to up the burn.
"If you spend 30 minutes walking briskly with a heart rate of 130bpm, you will burn more calories than if you were walking slowly for 45 minutes with a heart rate of only 90bpm," she says. "Walking up and down hills is a great way to increase your heart rate without having to increase your pace—you could get your heart rate as high as 170bpm walking up hills, which is what you could expect when running."
Walk briskly and with purpose, keeping your heart rate between 120-150 bpm.
"Do a solid power walk," agrees Olona. "The main thing is to get that heart rate up. Get your arms involved, with elbows at a 90-degree angle, and focus on a power walk, so you are getting and maintaining [that elevated heart rate]."
Should the Goal Be 10,000 Steps Per Day?
Roughly five miles, or 10,000 steps, is often considered the daily goal for walking ever since a 2016 research study found that a 12-week walking intervention at this volume resulted in weight loss, reduced BMI and waist circumference, and lowered blood pressure.
But this isn’t the only way to tackle walking, and more recent research indicates that less walking, as long as it’s brisk, results in similar improvements and greater adherence.
Whether you aim for 10,000 steps over the course of 24 hours, or you break up your day with three 10-minutes bursts of fast walking, picking up the pace and boosting your heart rate is key to walking for weight loss.
How Should You Monitor Your Diet When Walking for Weight Loss?
It's important that you take a holistic approach to your health when factoring in walking into your weight loss goals. Olona recommends a diet of "whole foods, such as lean proteins, fresh veggies and fruits, and good fats that are nutrient-dense."
Then, you need to look at calories in versus calories out. "If you want to lose weight, it is definitely advisable to monitor [this]. Most people either over or underestimate how many calories they consume in a day, and this can lead to frustration when trying to lose weight," warns Parren. "It's very easy to track your intake using apps like MyFitnessPal—just make sure that the foods you're inputting are labeled correctly, as many are created by users and are inaccurate. The best way to avoid this is by checking nutrition labels and inputting the data yourself."
Counting calories has earned a bad rap in recent years, and while it's never good to become obsessive about tracking calories, it helps to understand the caloric quantities of foods so you can fuel your body correctly.
How to Track Your Progress
It's well worth monitoring your progress. Parren recommends that if you are walking specifically for weight loss, "it is certainly advisable to monitor stats like pace, distance, and heart rate."
Surprisingly, a straightforward pedometer might not be the most useful gadget to invest in if you're serious about walking to lose weight. "One of the best stats to monitor is your heart rate," notes Paren. "The higher your heart rate, the more calories you will burn." So, if you want to keep an eye on your heart rate, it's worth getting a monitor designed for that purpose. Generally speaking, the heart rate monitors you strap to your chest tend to be more accurate, but the watches are more comfortable and convenient. And, for those of you who do want to count steps, your phone likely does that or any of the fitness trackers on the market these days.
Tips for Better Walking Workouts
While walking is perhaps the simplest form of exercise, there are things you can do to spice up your workouts and make them more successful.
Make Sure You Have the Right Shoes
“Your sneakers are like tires, and they have an expiration.300-400 miles depending on your activity and running/walking style,” notes Bolton. She says you might need to replace them sooner if you pronate (turn your feet in) or supinate (walk on the outside of your feet) to avoid knee or hip issues. When selecting the type of shoe, she says to either get a walking-specific shoe or a cross-training or running sneaker.
Properly-fitting shoes should have about 1/2 inch of extra length between your longest toe and the end of the shoe to accommodate the natural swelling of your feet during a walk.
Find Entertainment For Your Walk
Bolton recommends bringing some entertainment, such as podcasts or audiobooks, if you’re by yourself and struggling with motivation. “I try to ‘read’ a book a month through walking. It encourages me to walk, and I also learn new things,” shares Bolton. Plus, there’s another benefit of listening on the go. “Some studies show the retention of information for active people,” says Bolton.
Don’t Forget About Posture
"Your shoes and your posture are essential," says Bolton. "I also recommend glute activation before engaging in walking." To do so, try exercises like squats, lunges, or bridges before your walk, being mindful to really contrast and utilize your glutes on each rep.
"Keeping your chest open helps you to breathe better. Making sure you're breathing from your diaphragm instead of your chest is also important," notes Bolton, who says that posture plays a large role in proper breathing. "While walking, try to have your hips underneath your shoulder, look up, don't walk with your head down, and try not to overstride."
Change the Terrain
Mixing up the terrain you cover not only adds variety to your walking workouts to prevent boredom but also helps prevent overuse injuries. Grass, trails, cinder, wood chip paths, running tracks, and sand all provide greater shock absorption than concrete or asphalt, so they are better surfaces for joint health. Additionally, any time there are variations in the incline or footing, your body has to recruit additional muscles for stability, increasing the difficulty of your walk.
Add Hand Weights
Grabbing a pair of lightweight dumbbells will help tone your shoulders, arms, and chest while you work and may boost your heart rate. “Any time your hand is over your heart, it increases your heart rate, which helps with your workout intensity,” explains Bolton. “If you're going to use hand weights, keeping them over your heart will be more effective than holding them at your sides. Holding them at your side adds weight to your body, increasing intensity, but hands overhead are much more effective.”
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
Bolton also advises taking a water bottle on your walks and ensuring you're properly hydrated. “Hydration is important to building muscle, regulating temperature, lubricating your joints, and your heart health,” she says.
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