Should you walk differently for weight loss vs exercise?

Walking is ideal for exercise and for weight loss, but the strategies you’d use for each are not always the same. Realistic weight loss from walking is slow and steady, and dietary changes can make a big impact. The more steps you take, the fitter you’ll get, though more intense walking can give you the same health benefits in less time. Getting more steps is great either way, but you’ll see more progress towards your goal if you design your walking routine specifically  for exercise or weight loss.

Find out how exercise and weight loss walking can be different (and similar) plus tips for each.

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Walking is great for you, period

Couple fitness walking outside with baby stroller
Brocreative / Shutterstock

Getting more active and taking more steps is the best first step you can take to lose weight, get healthier, or achieve any other fitness goal. Getting more steps is almost always the right thing, both for weight loss or exercise purposes. Every extra step you take contributes to additional calories burned, while helping to strengthen your muscles, joints and cardiovascular system.

To progress faster towards your specific goals, however, it does pay to tailor your walking program towards exercise or weight loss. Eating better won’t necessarily improve your fitness, but losing a bit of weight can often make it easier to get active or walk for longer periods of time. Likewise, doing intense fitness walking will burn more calories and contribute to weight loss, but if the increased intensity means you cut your walk short you may not actually be increasing your overall calorie burn.

Walking for exercise

Laughing men walking on bridge for fitness
Dollydoll29 / Shutterstock

Get more intense to get even fitter

Doing more intense fitness walking will elevate your heart rate and help you earn the fitness benefits of walking in a shorter time. Most health organizations recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (like brisk walking) per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Vigorous activity is usually defined as much more intense activity, like running or team sports. In reality, there’s no single dividing line and more intense walking can fall on the moderate-plus side.

Intense walking is perfect for people with limited time to exercise. If you can’t walk longer hours, getting more intense will get you fitter in your shorter time available. Even if your step count does not increase, if your step count stays the same but overall intensity increases, you’ll get more fit. Incline walking, walking stairs and adding in other exercises don’t mean more steps but do mean more calories burned and more intensity.

Do note that just because your calories per hour (or minute) increases, it doesn’t mean that the total number of calories you burn also increases. Intense walking is harder to maintain for long periods of time. Getting more intense but cutting your walking time might end up offsetting each other.

Work in additional exercises

Walking is great for cardio and endurance, but for full-body fitness you’ll want to add on other exercises for strength and flexibility. Many major health organizations recommend strength exercises at least twice a week, and boosting your flexibility will give you better range of motion and decrease your risk of injury during exercise. Depending on what activity you do and how intense you do it, you may actually burn fewer calories per minute than walking but that’s ok! You’ll make up for it in fitness benefits over time.

Adding basic strength training can be as simple as clearing out space in your living room for pushups or floor work. Resistance bands are a great cheap and easy option for more advanced moves. You can even take a band with you to work out during your walk. For flexibility, Yoga, Pilates, or basic stretching are great options you can do at home with a simple mat. Flexibility exercises often don’t burn a ton of calories, but they’ll benefit your daily life and make other forms of exercise easier.

Set realistic, long-term fitness goals

The health and fitness benefits of walking usually accrue over time. The more walking you do, the fitter you’ll get and you’ll notice that you can walk more and more. Fitness walking is not going to turn you into a bodybuilder or give you action star abs on its own, but every step does make a difference.

Many people start feeling more active and energetic relatively quickly after starting a walking routine, but depending on your health and starting fitness level it may take a bit more time. You’ll often see a rapid increase in your step count when you first start, but almost everyone will inevitably hit a plateau where it’s hard to increase your step count. This plateau could be due to physical limits (your body can’t yet handle more steps) or simply time constraints (it’s hard to find more time to walk).

If you do hit a plateau, take a look at your walking program (or create one if you don’t have one already) and see where you can mix things up and add something new. Add in different exercises and get more intense and over time you’ll see improvements in your fitness level.

Walking for weight loss

Seniors hi-fiving after a walking workout / Shutterstock

Eating better and walking more is key

To get the best results from weight loss walking, it’s important to eat healthier at the same time. Many people focus only on walking more, which does burn calories and can help you lose weight. Eating fewer calories, however, is usually actually effective than walking in terms of weight loss.

Many people tend to want to eat more when they increase their exercise level. The trap is that it’s simply easier to eat (or drink) calories than it is to burn them off walking. You might burn 300 calories on an hour-long walk, only to eat them back (or more) with a single energy bar or fruit smoothie. There are plenty of reasons to walk for fitness, even if you don’t change your diet at all. For weight loss, however, you’ll want to look into a dual approach.

Eating better and walking together is powerful because it saves you from having to dramatically increase your walking or dramatically change up your diet all at one time. More gradual changes are more likely to stick, and making changes to both eating and means that you can get a bigger result from smaller changes on each front.

Total calories burned vs calories per minute

Increasing your walking speed or getting more intense will increase your calories burned per minute – that’s just a fact. When you increase your intensity, however, you’ll naturally get tired faster so you may not be able to walk as long. Intense walking may also make you more sore the next day or require more rest, which can make it hard to keep up steps over time.

Most intense forms of walking increase your calories burned by anywhere between 15% (power walking) to 100% (walking stairs). Few people actually walk up and down stairs or hills for hours at a time, however. Even interval training, which is one of the most efficient ways to do intense walking, is usually promoted as allowing athletes to get their workout done in less time.

To avoid overestimating your calorie burn, a good plan for walking weight loss is to use total steps as your most important performance metric. You should still try to get more intense when you can, but you’re better off underestimating your intensity. That way you won’t assume you’re burning more calories than you actually are. That can lead to complacency, or being confused why you’re not losing the weight that you expect to. It pays to get moving whenever you can, even if you can’t do an intense fitness walk. If your alternative is burn a few calories or be sedentary, choose to get active!

Plan for realistic, long term weight loss

Setting realistic walking weight loss goals will keep you positive and motivated when walking for weight loss. Walking for weight loss is a long-term project, which means slow and steady weight loss over time. 1-2 pounds per week is generally the most you should target. Trying to lose weight more quickly than that will get you into unsustainable or fad diet territory.

While it can be frustrating to put in some hard hours of fitness walking only to see slow progress on the scale, keep at it! Every step counts, and once you do hit your target weight you’ll maintain it easier with your active lifestyle. If you do happen to hit a weight loss plateau, look at your eating habits as well as your walking and see what you can improve going forward.

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