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walking for weight loss: young woman walking dog

How To Make Walking A Legitimate Weight-Loss Workout

Do your knees ache the second you even consider taking a jog around the neighborhood? Does the simple thought of running on a treadmill fill you with dread? You know you’re not alone.

Though many of us have long believed our cardio sessions have to involve pounding feet or a pounding heart to be effective—especially for weight loss—that’s not necessarily true. In fact, walking might be enough to shed extra pounds. Here’s how to stroll your way to results. 

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Natalya Vasquez, C.P.T., B.C.S., is a certified personal trainer and health coach, and the founder of Bridal Bootcamp San Diego. Andrew Hayes, C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer and the founder of Alta Coaching. Ellen Thompson, C.P.T., is a personal trainer with Blink Fitness.

Running Isn’t Everything

Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to take up running because you thought you had to in order to lose weight. This one’s for you.

It’s a common concept that running burns a lot of calories and that burning as many calories as possible should be the primary focus of a weight-loss journey. There are a couple of issues here, though. First of all, people often overestimate how many calories they burn while running and underestimate how many calories they eat in attempts to refuel. (Enter the phrase, “You can’t outrun a bad diet” here.) 

“Running can burn a lot of calories, but the primary focus of weight loss should be sustainability and not simply burning as many calories as possible solely for the purpose of quickly losing weight,” says personal trainer Natalya Vasquez, C.P.T., B.C.S., founder and health coach at Bridal Bootcamp San Diego. 

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Yes, you do indeed need to be in a calorie deficit (which means you burn more calories than you consume) to shed pounds. However, overemphasizing the “burn” side of that and devaluing the “consume” side is a recipe for lackluster results, agrees personal trainer Andrew Hayes, C.P.T., founder of Alta Coaching. Burning all the calories with running also becomes less necessary when you keep the nutrition side of the weight-loss equation in balance. 

“Weight loss is about balancing activity and nutrition,” Vasquez explains. This means building sustainable healthy habits like moving more while eating nutrient-dense foods and less highly processed food. As long as you keep the full picture in mind, the specific type of physical activity you choose doesn’t matter so much.

Something else to consider: If you want to hold onto your results, you have to be able to—and want to—sustain your exercise and nutrition behaviors, adds Vasquez. If you love daily walks or just plain hate running or HIIT, then the most sustainable weight loss and maintenance plan for you is one that allows you to stroll instead of stride. So, go ahead and drop any preconceived notions you have about “needing” to run now…

In General, Walking Is Really Good For You

Weight loss aside, walking is generally a major component of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, research has linked walking with longer life expectancy and lower medical costs. “Humans weren’t designed to sit all day, however many of us have sedentary jobs,” says Vasquez. “Walking is a low-impact form of cardio that is easy on the joints and great for everyone.” 

Walking outside is extra beneficial. Opting to stroll outside instead of hopping on the treadmill can offer mental health payoffs like improved mood and reduced anxiety and depression, research suggests. 

Walking is also probably the most accessible form of exercise in the world. It’s gentle, requires no equipment besides comfortable shoes, and comes with a minimal risk of injury or burnout, suggests Ellen Thompson, C.P.T., a personal trainer with Blink Fitness. This is particularly noteworthy for beginners, those who haven’t exercised in a while, older people, people who are overweight, or those with joint issues, who may be more likely to get injured running.

Studies Show That Walking Is Good For Weight Loss

As for shedding unwanted pounds or staying healthy, walking is equally useful. In fact, Vasquez recommends walking to all of her clients who are embarking on a weight loss journey. 

Not sold? Let the science speak for itself. First off, research has shown that people burn an average of 90 calories per mile when walking at a brisk pace—pretty impressive! That’s just 23 fewer calories per mile than they burn running at a pace of six miles per hour. So, running doesn’t have as steep a calorie-burning advantage as you might have thought. 

Plus, older research found walking for just 30 minutes a day five days per week for a period of 12 weeks effectively helped overweight, premenopausal women lose significant weight and inches around their waist, proving that it is a legitimate mode of exercise for weight loss. (What’s more, it was just as beneficial as walking for a full hour.)

How To Walk For Weight Loss

To make the most of walking for weight loss, Hayes recommends increasing your usual speed or incline enough that you enter the fat-burning zone (about 60 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate), in which your body primarily uses fat to fuel your exercise. Though you may still burn slightly fewer calories overall than you would running, you’ll be mainly burning fat, which is a good thing if you’re interested in losing weight. Wear a fitness tracker or smartwatch during your walks to keep an eye on your heart rate and stick to that zone.

In general, a good rule of thumb is to walk at a brisk pace at which you feel that your heart rate is elevated but you can still hold a conversation, suggests Thompson. “If you can speak in full sentences but would find it difficult to sing, you are walking at a brisk pace,” she says. 

If you’re looking to up the ante, you might consider walking with hand or ankle weights (or even a weighted vest), suggests Thompson. These tweaks add an element of strength training to your routine and support muscle mass gains, which play an important role in weight loss. Reason being, the more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolism is, which means you automatically burn more calories every single day. 

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Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that your diet is as important as (if not more important than) your go-to mode of exercise on a weight-loss journey. “Nutrition is a vital part of weight loss and often the missing piece,” Hayes says. In addition to maintaining a regular walking routine, always be mindful of what’s on your plate. Emphasize whole foods and prioritize at least 25 grams of protein per meal to support satiety, healthy energy, and muscle building—all of which ladder up to easier weight management, he adds. (A protein powder can help if you struggle to pack enough onto your plate.)

Remember, at the end of the day, weight loss is a gradual journey, not something that happens overnight. If walking is your preferred mode of movement, lace up those sneakers! Consistency is key for dropping pounds—and keeping them off.

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