Back to Fitness: Get the Most Out of Walking

Actress Jennifer Hudson credits walking for jump-starting her 80-pound weight loss success, but walking for weight-loss is still more likely to conjure images of seniors in sweat-suits or the dreaded Mall Walkers than svelte Hollywood actresses. That’s a shame, because walking is one of the easiest, cheapest and most pleasant ways to burn calories, fight fat and get in shape. It works the body’s major muscle groups in tandem, raises your heart rate and can help lower your blood pressure (with a fraction of the impact running has on your joints).

Want to make the most of your walking time? Here are a few tips.

How Many Calories Does Walking Burn?
It depends on how fast you’re walking, and (like any activity) how much you weigh. Here’s a good estimate of what you burn when you stroll or speed walk:
Source: ”Compendium of Physical Activities: An update of activity codes and MET intensities.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32 (Suppl):S498-S516.

Distance or Speed?
Speed. Short, brisk walks are better for burning fat than walking long-distances but taking your time about it. Researchers from the University of Virginia tested this by having one group of women take three shorter, fast-paced walks per week (in addition to two longer, moderate-paced ones) and another group take five moderate speed strolls. The walks were designed so both groups of women burned the same number of calories (400) per session. The speed walkers, however, lost 5 times more belly fat than the control group, 3 times more fat from their thighs and 4 times more total body fat.More vigorous walking can also increase afterburn (the number of calories your body uses post-exercise), so while both groups may have burned 400 calories each during their walks, the more vigorous walkers were more likely to keep burning calories faster throughout the day. “Aim to walk 3 to 4 miles per hour,” Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky recommends. 

What About Weights?
Should you add hand or ankle weights during walks to intensify your workout or increasing calorie-burning potential? Don’t do it, says Therese Iknoian, author of Fitness Walking and Mind-Body Fitness for Dummies. “In most cases, carrying weights burns only a fraction more calories, while setting you up for potential injury because your natural walking movement gets thrown askew, ligaments and tendons are weakened and stretched, or blood pressure increases from gripping the hand weights.”

Instead of using weights to intensify your walk, simply step up your pace, Iknoian recommends. Going form a 3-mph pace to a 4-mph pace, for instance, will increase calories used per minute by about 50%.

What About Toning?
You can walk your way to sleek shoulders, a sculpted back and toned arms without any added equipment, says outdoor fitness expert Tina Vindum, who demonstrates various techniques for Fitness magazine. Basically, the more you move your arms while walking, the better—this is no time for trying to look cool. So for starters, go ahead and swing your arms as you walk, holding them about 45 to 90 degrees from your body, with your elbows bent, and pushing one arm forward while pulling the other arm back in a steady rhythm. A proper arm swing will keep your upper body engaged, provide some toning, loosen your shoulders and neck, and help you move forward faster. You can always finish off your workout with a few minutes of weights or resistance training to provide extra upper-body sculpting.

How Often Should You Walk?
If you’re just walking for general health benefits, try 30 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week, at a moderate pace (fast enough that you have elevated breathing, but not so fast you couldn’t carry on a conversation). For cardio health, try 20-30 minutes of very fast walking, 3-4 days per week. To lose weight, try walking a minimum of 5 days per week for 45-60 minutes at a brisk pace.

Aim for a total of 2.5 to 3 hours walking per week says Courtenay Schurman, author of The Outdoor Athlete.
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