How realistic a strategy is replacing exercise with walking to lose weight?
There are a handful of weight loss programs out there these days that promote walking as their only form of exercise. Of course, these are designed to appeal to people who aren’t too keen on working out in any way.
While walking can have a place in a weight loss program, it’s important to understand that it does have limitations in what it can do for you.
The Role of Exercise For Weight Loss
Before deciding whether or not walking to lose weight is appropriate for you, it’s important to understand the exact role that exercising plays in a weight loss program. Once you’re clear about that, you can then figure out if walking is going to fit your particular needs.
Let’s break it down in simple terms then.
The only way in which your body can lose weight is by maintaining a calorie deficit. What that means is that you need to consume fewer calories than you burn on a daily basis. This is the first fundamental rule of weight loss.
Now, there are two main ways in which you can achieve a calorie deficit:
- By restricting your calorie intake.
- By increasing your calorie output, through exercise.
On a serious weight loss program, where your goal is to lose a significant amount of weight, you would use both of these strategies together. Using only one or the other would simply cause you to lose weight too slowly.
Whenever you maintain a calorie deficit for any period of time however, your body actually tries to conserve energy by becoming catabolic, meaning it starts to waste away your muscle tissue.
It does this as a self-protection mechanism, since it senses a shortage in energy coming in. Because muscle tissue burns energy constantly, by reducing it your body slows down your metabolism and saves valuable calories.
The problem is, you don’t want this to happen if you’re trying to lose weight. You want your body to have a fast metabolism and therefore burn lots of calories, because that means you’re losing lots of weight. The solution to this is to prevent your body from shedding muscle tissue, through the right type of exercise.
OK then, so from this condensed introduction, you can see that exercise fulfills 3 major roles in weight loss:
- It contributes toward creating a calorie deficit. In other words, it burns calories for you. This is generally the job of cardio exercise.
- It prevents the loss of muscle tissue in your body, which would lead to your metabolism slowing down. This is the job of resistance exercise.
- It improves your health and fitness. Cardio exercise improves your endurance and fitness level, and resistance exercise improves your strength and muscle tone.
The Role of Walking to Lose Weight
So then, where does walking to lose weight fit in with all of this? Let’s take a look at each of the 3 roles of exercise, one by one.
All physical activities burn some amount of calories, and walking is no exception. The only problem is, compared to other forms of cardio exercise, it burns very few for a given time period.
The table below shows how many calories the average woman would burn per hour by walking at a variety of different speeds, and by jogging at a variety of different speeds. From this you can get a feel for the amount of calories you can burn by walking to lose weight.
As you can see then, by jogging very lightly at a speed of 8.0km/hr, you would actually be burning more than two and a half times the number of calories that you would at a leisurely walking pace of 4.0km/hr. This would be a typical walking speed for something like walking a dog.
At a more brisk jogging pace of say 12.0km/hr, you would burn more than 4 times the calories of a leisurely walk. So to burn the same number of calories as a 45 minute jog, you would need to walk for over 3 hours!
Bear in mind also that jogging actually isn’t even the optimal cardio exercise for weight loss. High intensity interval training, or HIIT, is now widely recognized as being the leader in fat burning exercise. Through HIIT you could burn the same number of calories as a 12.0km/hr jog in less than half the time.
So does that mean that walking to lose weight is a total waste of time? Well, not necessarily.
First of all, you have the option of speeding up your walking pace to burn more calories, as you can see from the table above. Of course you would still be burning calories slower than you would be by jogging. But if you had the extra time available, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for you.
You could even make lifestyle changes like walking to work instead of using public transport, or at least walking part of the way. You could also take up bushwalking as a pastime.
Secondly, the calorie values shown in the table above assume you’re walking on level ground. But you can increase the intensity of your walks and therefore the amount of calories you burn by walking uphill if you choose.
In terms of burning calories then, walking to lose weight really comes down to trading off intensity for time spent. You’re basically sacrificing one for the other.
So as with everything else, at the end of the day walking to lose weight will suit some women but not others.
Preventing Muscle Loss
As I mentioned earlier, preventing muscle loss is the domain of resistance exercise, so walking simply isn’t going to help you here in any way whatsoever. This has major implications for your weight loss program.
If your goal is to lose a significant amount of weight and not take a year or more to do it, you’ll need to create a reasonable calorie deficit to make that happen. Once you do that though, you’ll need to take measures to prevent muscle loss – by including resistance exercise in your program.
This means that regardless of what calorie burning exercise you choose to do – whether it’s HIIT, or jogging, or walking – you MUST do resistance training as well. If you don’t, your metabolism will gradually slow down, which means your weight loss will gradually slow down, and finally, plateau altogether.
This is commonly known as Weight Loss Plateau, or Dieter’s Plateau – an all too familiar occurrence among women who don’t know how to lose weight the right way.
If your intention is to only be walking to lose weight, at the exclusion of all other exercise, then the only way around the Weight Loss Plateau problem is by creating only a very small calorie deficit. Naturally, this means that you’ll only be able to lose weight very, very slowly.
This is why those weight loss programs that claim the only exercise required is walking to lose weight aren’t exactly too honest about just how long that weight loss takes.
Improving Health and Fitness
Now, I hope you’re not one of these women who think “I’m not interested in health and fitness, I just want to lose weight!”
I hate it when women tell me that!!
You see, the two things really go hand in hand. The fact is, if you look after your health and fitness, your weight looks after itself.
But OK, enough of the sermon . . . here’s the deal. Yes, when you work out regularly you get fitter, stronger and healthier. And yes, it gives you more energy, makes you feel better, and prevents and even gets rid of many health issues – some quite serious, like diabetes and heart disease.
But even if that’s of no interest to you, working out regularly also causes your metabolism to speed up – and that does have a direct effect on your weight loss. It means your body will burn more calories each day. And of course it also makes it easier to exercise – so it’s like a self-supporting cycle.
Unfortunately, unless your fitness level is particularly low, walking is very limited in what it can do to improve it. The table below shows the 5 major training zones in terms of intensity for exercise:
|Training Zone||% MHR|
|Warm Up Zone||50-60%|
|Fat Burning Zone||60-70%|
|Maximum Effort Zone||90-100%|
The intensity levels of these zones are measured by what percentage of your maximum heart rate, or MHR, you’re working at.
Any benefits to your fitness really start to occur in the Cardio Zone, in other words, when your heart rate is elevated to 70% or more of your maximum heart rate.
If your fitness level is low, this may be achievable by walking moderately fast or walking uphill. But as your fitness improved over time, walking would very soon lose its ability to push your heart rate into the Cardio Zone. As you can appreciate then, walking to lose weight is really very limited indeed in how much it can improve your fitness level.
Relying on Walking to Lose Weight
OK, so now you know the facts behind what can and can’t be achieved by walking to lose weight. So where exactly can it fit successfully into your weight loss program?
If walking to lose weight is something you really want to do, here are the best ways in which I recommend you do so:
- If you only have a few kilograms to lose, it’s not really necessary for you to undertake a full-blown weight loss program. In this case, simply cleaning up your eating habits and increasing your level of activity by walking regularly may be a perfect solution. You’ll find yourself losing weight slowly and steadily, which is fine for small amounts of weight loss.
- If you’re considerably overweight and unfit, walking is often a good place to start your cardio exercise. You can continue walking until your fitness level is good enough to start on more effective cardio exercise such as jogging, exercise bike, swimming, cross trainer, and so on. You should try to progress to these as soon as possible though because they’ll burn considerably more calories for you in the same exercise time.
- Whether you’re doing cardio exercise or walking to lose weight, if you have any more than just a few kilograms to lose you also need to include resistance training in your program to prevent muscle loss.
- If you suffer an injury at any time that makes it difficult to continue doing cardio exercise, you can walk instead so that you keep active and at least keep burning some calories.
There are uses and benefits in walking to lose weight therefore, as long as you understand its limitations and don’t fall into the trap of believing you can achieve significant amounts of weight loss in little time. This simply isn’t realistic.