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Walking for Weight Loss


Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Now that the weather is warming in northern part of the United States, it’s much more common to see people walking and hiking through neighborhoods and on local trails. Walking might be one of the most convenient forms of exercise, as long as the weather permits, or you can hop on a treadmill at your local fitness center. Does walking really impact your ability to manage your weight?  

Why walk?

Walking by itself is not a major contributor to weight loss. However, for those who struggle with their weight, it can be beneficial. Over a 15-year period, women who were among the heaviest at the beginning of the study and walked four hours per week gained less weight — an average of 17 pounds less — than those who didn’t walk during that timeframe.[i] 

Other studies on walking with pedometers have shown dramatic results. People with goals of 2000 steps per day, or about a mile of walking, lost just 2.8 pounds over four months time.[ii] In these studies, diet was not incorporated into the program. Minimal weight loss from exercise alone is consistent with other studies on exercise and weight loss.

In fact, an additional study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed those who did see weight loss following walking programs did so by modifying their diet, not just relying on exercise. For the strict purpose of weight loss, walking may not create enough of a calorie expenditure to make a significant difference. There are other benefits to walking which may indirectly affect weight management more than the calories burned from the activity. 

Walking is a great first step toward a healthier lifestyle.  

Whether it’s outside or on a treadmill, walking is a low-intensity, convenient way to get started on an exercise program. Starting any exercise program, even if it is simply walking each day, is a conscious decision to improve one’s health. Committing to healthier activity is often motivation to make healthier dietary choices as well. Of course, the better one’s diet becomes, the faster weight can come off or the easier it is to keep the weight off. Some people assume they’re burning significant amounts of calories from their walking and may “treat” themselves with high-calorie foods. In that case, the health benefits of walking can be easily offset by poor dietary choices.

Walking is a great stress-reducer.

We’ve looked at the impact stress has on weight management. Stress can lead to adrenal fatigue which disrupts metabolism, negatively affect sleep quality and quantity, which can result in unwanted weight gain and is associated with increased risk of degenerative diseases. Walking can help play an important role in stress reduction. By committing to someone else to walk with them at a scheduled time, you’ll have to shut off the other stress-producing activities in your life. You may need to finish work earlier. You can focus on the life of another person who you’re walking with. If you like the idea of the support of others and some personal accountability, you may even benefit from a walking group. 

It’s quite possible part of our DNA, or “genetic instructions,” are wired to establish community through movement. After all, our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent significant amounts of time moving from place to place. However, if you don’t like the idea of walking with someone else, walking alone can provide some needed quiet time for meditation. The solitude of a private walk can help you clear your head and find some peace for a short period of time during the day.

Walking is a fat-burning exercise.  

Low-intensity exercise burns a high percentage of fat as fuel. It doesn’t burn a significant amount of calories, but exercise isn’t just about burning calories. Exercise is a stimulus to help your body change. Low-intensity activities like walking train the body to use fat as a preferred energy source over carbohydrate. This can be especially important for those with insulin resistance, where blood-sugar management and fat burning are disrupted. In addition, because walking is a lower-intensity activity, it can be used to help balance out an exercise program which also includes high-intensity strength or cardiovascular training. 

Getting started

The best part about using walking in your program is it only requires a pair of decent shoes to get started. That being the case, don’t be misled into the latest gadget-like walking shoe. Our feet are designed to help us walk with minimal cover on them. Thick-soled shoes with soft soles have little to no proven benefit. In fact, if you were to quickly walk down the street with a pair of walking shoes, and then took them off and walked barefoot, you’d notice a drastic difference in your stride. “Barefoot” shoes have become more and more common, with some brands providing nothing more than a little rubber sole to protect your feet, and others providing some support. Talk to a fitness professional about some of the brands out there.

How much time should you commit? As much as you can. High-intensity exercise can be easily done in excess. High-intensity training can increase stress and lead to overtraining. Walking, though, is a low-intensity activity that your body can handle doing more frequently each week. However, don’t tackle three miles of walking if you haven’t done it lately. You may find yourself more sore than you’d expect the next day. Start with a 20-minute walk and add five minutes each week. Invite someone to join you. Walking isn’t just for beginners. Experienced exercisers and athletes can benefit from introducing walking into their program as well. Add music, an audio book or take your walk outside and enjoy the sounds of nature — whatever you need to get started. Just start walking.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

Do you want to share your experience or thoughts? Post in the comments section below.

[i] Gordon-Larsen P, Hou N, Sidney S, et al. Fifteen-year longitudinal trends in walking patterns and their impact on weight change. AJCN. 2009;89(1):19-26

[ii] Richardson CR, Lewton TL, Abraham JJ, et al. A Meta-Analysis of Pedometer-Based Walking Interventions and Weight Loss. Annals of Family Medicine. 2008;6:69-77

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Reader Comments (5)

What walking shoes do you recommend?

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerrie

Wear shoes that are well fitted to your feet and that are comfortable. You need about a half inch of space between the end of the shoe and your longest toe.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

I'm also one that has been an avide walker and would like to be able to walk more,however with the unpopularity as it may seam with my community's for whatever it may well have it don;t have paved walkway's.I am forced to use adjoining community walkway's that lead AWAY from MY own city park's and playground's,so I'll drive the 1 mile so as to than have to walk the park path.I walk 1 mile to the other park,when you don't have to drive it is one more option I use to vary my walk's.One important thing, don't shortchange yourself, either,invest in an high quallity walking shoe and guality sock's too.I have walked in the poorest of made walking shoe and by buying an good shoe that support's your arch will comfort, not burden it, something I want or would expect anyone who is just starting a program to be without, believe me their's a way bigger difference in result's.I have been walking in Sketcher's Brand and can say MORE IS MORE with confidence," as in the value for the dollar's spent".

Last April I weighed 245lb. I'm 5'9" and was the perfect example of a couch potato. I started by walking on a treadmill. Literally just 1/4 mile at 4mph. Now I weigh 174lb and last year participated in a 5k and a 10k timed event and yes a 'ran' them. The 5k in 27 minutes and the 10k in 60. Hardly world records but when I started the thought of participating in a 5k much less a 10k was not even on my mind. You have to start somewhere and you are not going to be running long distances after one week. Walking is a great way to begin the exercise portion of a lifestyle change!! Now I'm hoping to do a 1/2 marathon in May!

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Way to go Andrew! What a transformation!

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

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