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Walking: Can It Help You Lose Weight?

Consider a walking program to drop pounds and take a step toward better fitness

Two people wander through the wilderness using hiking sticks.

So you’re feeling a bit out of shape and want to shed a few pounds? Your weight-loss journey can begin by taking a few thousand extra steps each day.

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A dedicated walking program can help improve your overall health and fitness while moving you toward a healthier number on the scale. It’s an easy way to burn additional calories, says exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd.

“A lot of people have a hard time getting motivated to start exercising,” says Lawton. “But walking is simple, right? We do it every day.”

Here’s why you might want to consider doing it more.

Feel the (calorie) burn

Hauling yourself around takes energy — and that’s reflected in the calories spent walking.

A 150-pound person walking a mile in 20 minutes will burn about 80 calories. If you’re heavier, you torch more calories because it takes more energy to move more mass. Likewise, the count is lower if you weigh less.

Other factors influence the calories burned on a walk, too, including:

  • Terrain. Hitting hills adds to your exertion level and calorie draw. Ditto for walking on sand or uneven trails.
  • Temperature. You burn more calories exercising at both temperature extremes. In the cold, your body works overtime trying to stay warm. Hotter temperatures bring a calorie burn trying to cool your system. (In either extreme, make sure to hydrate to stay safe.)
  • Age. Your calorie burn typically cool down bit by bit as you get older.
  • Sex. On average, men burn calories faster than women.

How much should you walk?

Any discussion about walking usually starts with a big target: 10,000 steps, which equates to about five miles. But that number doesn’t necessarily translate into truly beneficial cardiovascular exercise.

The reason why is simple: “Not all steps are created equal,” notes Lawton. Slowly shuffling around a store, for instance, boosts your step tally — but it’s not doing a whole lot from a weight loss or fitness point of view.

So Lawton suggests counting minutes instead of steps.

A fitness payoff from walking comes when the activity rises to the level of cardiovascular exercise. That means a minimum of 10 minutes of constant one-foot-in-front-of-the-other movement at a moderate level of intensity.

(NOTE: At moderate intensity, you should be able to carry on a regular conversation while moving, says Lawton. Your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, should fall between 3 and 5 on a 10-point scale.)

Ideally, you should look to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, says Lawton. That follows guidelines set by the American Heart Association. That target, however, is for heart health — not weight loss.

To drop pounds, the activity goal rises a bit. The American College of Sports Medicine, for instance, recommends 200 to 300 minutes of exercise per week for weight loss and long-term weight management.

“The key is to be active,” says Lawton. “The more you’re moving, the more you benefit.” (A wellness expert offers five reasons why you should take a walk today.)

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Can you lose weight just by walking?

Studies have shown that a regular walking program can help you melt away some extra pounds. Ideally, though, the increase in exercise should be paired with healthier eating habits for weight loss.

“You can’t out-exercise a bad diet,” says Lawton.

Also, enter your walking program with realistic expectations. Putting in daily miles can improve your overall fitness, but it’s not going to give you six-pack ab muscles and a shredded physique, says Lawton.

Other benefits of walking

Dropping pounds is only one perk of wearing out the tread on a pair of walking shoes. Other potential benefits include:

How to start a walking program

Success in any exercise program starts the same way: By setting aside the time to do it. “You need to make it part of your routine,” says Lawton. “This is about adjusting your lifestyle for your health.”

Start slow in your workouts to build strength and endurance, then gradually increase the intensity as your fitness grows.

The following tips can help to make walking part of your life:

  • Schedule your walks. Create an appointment on your calendar for your daily walk. “If you had a dinner date, you’d make sure to block off the time,” says Lawton. “Treat exercise the same way.”
  • Set goals. Challenge yourself to walk a certain length of time or distance and monitor your progress. Or maybe consider a virtual event where you log miles to “travel” across another country or state.
  • Find a buddy. “Accountability partners can be really helpful,” notes Lawton. “They’ll get you out the door on days when you might not feel like going.
  • Use the right gear. Wearing walking shoes that support and protect your feet is essential, says Lawton. Dress for the weather, too.

Lawton’s best advice, though? Stay positive and keep at it. “If you miss a day or two, that’s fine,” says Lawton. “Just get back on that horse. Walking to manage your weight or improve your health isn’t a one-day thing. It’s a long-term commitment.”

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