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How to Start Walking for Weight Loss

Oct 5 2020
8 min read
Man and woman with backpacks on hiking up hill.

You would be hard pressed to find a more convenient activity that encourages weight loss than walking.

You can do it anywhere, wearing almost anything. You can walk on a treadmill or outdoors, in the city or the country, at home or when traveling. No other weight loss activity fits so easily into everyday life. Your journey to a healthy weight truly can start with something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

How Walking Helps You Lose Weight (and More)

Walking at a moderate to brisk speed (about three to four miles per hour) burns roughly half of your body weight in calories per mile—so, about 100 calories for a 200-pound person. That may not seem like a lot (and activities like running may burn that many calories in a shorter amount of time), but it can have a profound impact on your weight loss efforts.

Take Katherine, for example. Katherine is 200 pounds and would like to reach her goal weight by losing one to two pounds per week—a healthy rate that studies say will also make her more likely to stick with her efforts. If she were to walk on a flat surface at a swift pace (about three to four miles per hour) for an hour a day, four days a week, she would burn a minimum of 1,200 calories per week by walking—that’s just over a third of the 3,500 total calories she needs to burn to lose one pound. With the calorie-burning advantage that her walks provide her, she only needs to cut about 330 calories a day through diet modifications to reach her weekly goal. (That’s the equivalent of swapping fries for a side salad at just one meal a day, or choosing brewed coffee with skim milk over a giant caramel blended coffee drink with whipped cream when you need an afternoon pick-me-up.)

Walking also strengthens and tones your buttocks, quads, hamstrings and calves. Because muscle takes more energy for your body to maintain than fat does, walking can even help you burn more calories while you’re at rest.

The weight loss and health benefits of a walking fitness program go hand-in-hand. Consider what happens when you walk faster: You not only increase the number of calories you burn, but your heart beats stronger and faster. A stronger heart can pump blood more efficiently, which improves blood circulation throughout your body, nourishing your muscles and organs. This may lower your blood pressure and decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke. Another big bonus? Because walking is a weight-bearing activity, it reduces the risk for osteoporosis. (You can wear a backpack or weighted vest to increase the bone-strengthening benefits of walking while also upping your calorie burn.) Plus, studies show that walking regularly helps relieve tension and improves sleep quality. Here's how to get started.

Walking Your Way to Success

Remember: Though a few extra steps every day may not sound like much, they add up. One study found that the Amish take about six times as many steps per day as most adults in American communities, and they have an 87 percent lower obesity rate. If you were to push yourself to walk a mile more than you currently do each day—that’s about 2,000 steps—you would lose 10 pounds in a year. Pretty amazing! But if you would like to lose weight more quickly, then beginning a targeted walking program can help.

Research has shown that a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous walking per day, five days per week, offers health benefits, but 30 minutes or more is optimal for weight loss and fitness. The key to reaping the slimming benefits is challenging yourself—either by increasing your pace, incline, workout duration or a combination of all three.

If you have any health issues or concerns, make sure to discuss your workout regimen with your doctor before attempting a more vigorous walking intensity. It’s also smart to talk to your trainer or exercise physiologist for help with developing a customized plan, but you can also use the tips below to create an effective routine. Be patient. Give your program the time it needs to work, and be sure to combine your efforts with a healthy diet and some strength training. You can do this—one step at a time.

Check Your Speed

Many walkers underestimate how fast they can walk, but learning how to push your pace can help you maximize calorie burn and muscle toning. For most of your workout, you should walk fast enough that you are on the verge of panting for breath. If you are able to talk to a friend in short bursts as you walk, but not easily carry on a conversation, you’re striding with the right intensity.

Try it: Consider the first and last 10 percent of your walk a warm-up and cool-down. Stride at an easy pace. In the middle of your workout, push your intensity so you are breathing heavily but not huffing and puffing. If it’s too hard to maintain that intensity, that’s OK. Try alternating a minute of fast-paced walking with several minutes of slow recovery walking. Give yourself credit for whatever you can do today and remember that, with practice, you will get stronger.

Tackle Some Hills

Whether you stride up mini-mountains outside or use the manual hill program on a treadmill, hills are your fitness friend. Think of how you have to push the gas pedal a little harder to power your car up an incline: In the same way, your body uses more energy to climb a hill. In fact, each extra degree of incline increases your calorie burn by about 10 percent.

Try it: In a 30-minute power walk, aim for about half of your workout to be uphill walking.

Change Things Up

If you stick to the same path at the same pace every time you set out for a walk, you are in good company. Many of us get into a comfortable fitness routine and are reluctant to change anything. But research shows that our bodies adapt to workouts in four to six weeks, finding them less challenging with time. In order to maximize calorie burn (and prevent boredom), it’s important to task your body with tackling new paths, hills and turns in the road.

Try it: You can mix up your workout—and simultaneously improve your agility and speed during your walks—with these strategies:

  • If you are on a track or another very smooth surface, try striding backwards for a minute. Or walk sideways for a bit; just remember to lead with one leg, then the other, before returning to forward walking.
  • Break into a quick jog after the walking warm-up, and try to run-walk for a minute or so, two to three times during every walking workout.
  • Walk your usual path, but in the opposite direction. It’s amazing how different the hills will feel and the scenery will look with this small change.

Tune Into Your Senses

Turn your attention to the scents, sights and sounds around you on a hike or outdoor walk. Notice the foliage, the birds chirping or perhaps the scent of flowers in the air. Even if you’re walking indoors, you can observe how your body feels and what’s happening around you.

Experts say that you’re likely to walk longer and harder if you are engaged and enjoy yourself.

Try it: Experiment with slowing your breath as you walk. Inhale for four strides, then exhale for four strides to deepen your breath, calm your mind and heighten your senses.

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The factors that influence weight are as diverse as they are personal. Our integrative pathways and weight loss retreats support the whole you, combining the right mix of services with individualized guidance, programming, and amenities for lasting change.