Has the "no pain, no gain" theory of exercise chased you back to your easy chair? Are you wondering why something that's supposed to be so good for you has to be so uncomfortable and inconvenient? Take heart! There's an easier way: walking to lose weight.
Walking is a moderate exercise program that is easy to stick with for life.
So what do you choose? Why not pick the activity that you've been doing all your life? Walking, our natural means of getting from one place to another, provides health and fitness gains without the pain.
And because of its unbeatable convenience and safety, this low-impact activity has one of the lowest dropout rates of any form of exercise.
Indeed, when exercise physiologists first investigated the health and fitness benefits of exercise, it was walking, not running, that they studied.
Since then, walking has gained new respect as effective exercise. It is becoming more and more popular as a means to lose and control weight, tone muscles, build strength and endurance, and increase aerobic capacity. This article gives you the tools to get your walking fitness program started. We'll discuss walking and weight loss in more detail in the next section.
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Walking and Weight Loss
A series of crash diets that are devoid of exercise strip the body of needed water, muscle, and fat. The fat returns in a flash when the dieting stops, yet only physical activity can rebuild the muscle. The body is left with a lower metabolic rate (the rate at which it burns calories) and a higher risk of future weight gain.
How do you get off the weight-gain roller coaster? After years of studying what works -- and what doesn't work -- in weight loss and control, the experts seem to have come to some agreement. They now favor lifelong, consistent changes in eating and exercise habits, instead of short-term diets and exercise binges.
Although you won't lose weight overnight, the result of the lifelong plan is a sustained increase in the body's percentage of lean body mass (muscle and bone) and a decrease in the body's percentage of fat.
The body usually maintains a delicate balance between the calories taken in as food and those burned up as "fuel." For instance, consuming 2,400 calories of food in a day and burning up 2,400 calories by sleeping, eating, walking, and performing other activities results in neither weight loss nor weight gain.
However, if there are any calories left over -- if, for example, you take in 2,400 calories and burn only 2,300 -- they are stored as fat. Storing 3,500 of these extra calories gives you 1 pound of fat. To lose weight, you must use more calories than you consume -- by eating fewer calories, by exercising, or, as the experts advise, by combining the two.
When you diet without exercising, your body reacts as if it were being starved, by lowering its metabolic rate. In other words, your body burns fewer calories in order to maintain the weight that its metabolic controls consider healthy and normal. The body may also use protein pulled from lean muscle tissue to provide extra calories.
What's more, inactivity can help lead to obesity. People who are obese, in turn, tend to become less active. This compounds their weight problem, completing a vicious cycle in which stress, anxiety, and tension lead to compulsive eating, which results in additional excess body fat; that extra fat further contributes to inactivity, which begets more weight gain -- causing even greater stress, anxiety, and tension.
As mentioned earlier, dieting without exercising also tends to rob the body of lean muscle tissue and water. (Weakness and dark, strong-smelling urine are signs of this muscle wasting.) But the body needs a certain amount of water to avoid dehydration. So when you replenish the water, some of the weight that was lost at the start of the diet is gained back.
However, the lean muscle tissue, which contributes to a fit and trim appearance, can only be regained through physical activity. Regular exercise, especially when combined with modest changes in diet, can help you break the vicious cycle of weight gain.
Walking is especially well-suited to play the exercise role. As a sustained, rhythmic workout, walking conserves and may build muscle while it burns calories. And muscle has a higher metabolic rate than fat. So the more muscle and the less fat you have, the more calories you burn while resting.
What about the old myth that exercise defeats the purpose of weight loss because it increases your appetite and makes you eat more? Even the experts don't agree on the exact relationship between appetite and exercise. Several studies suggest, however, that appetite may actually decrease when very sedentary people begin moderate exercise programs.
The important point to remember, however, is that walking burns calories without lowering your resting metabolic rate the way dieting alone does. By burning calories through exercise, you won't need to make such severe changes in your diet. That doesn't mean that you can eat anything you want. But you will be able to enjoy a balanced diet that includes regular meals and enough nutrients to build and maintain a healthy body -- and you won't have to starve yourself.
In addition, people who become more active tend to spontaneously shift their food choices in a healthier direction, opting for a better-balanced diet with less saturated fat and total calories and more fiber and fresh foods, according to Rose E. Frisch, Ph.D., associate professor of population sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Wondering how many calories you can burn while walking? Read the next section for the answer.
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Walking and Burning Calories
You know that walking burns calories, but just how many calories does it burn? In general, a 150-pound person walking at average speed (from two to three-and-a-half miles per hour) can count on burning about 80 calories a mile. (This amount increases with your weight, your speed, and the shortness of your legs. A 200-pound person burns about one-third more calories than a 150-pound person.)
So a brisk walk, covering three-and-a-half miles in an hour, burns about 280 calories. When repeated each day, this excellent habit burns about 3,900 calories -- more than a pound of fat -- every 2 weeks.
This rate of weight loss is a far cry from the "pound-a-day" claims of the crash diets. But when combined with sensible eating habits -- a balanced diet with smaller portion sizes and fewer fats and sweets -- a walking program can soon translate into a better-looking and healthier body. Weight loss in this moderate range (one or two pounds of fat a week) is easier to maintain. In contrast, higher loss rates tend to involve losses of water and lean muscle, as well as body fat.
If you are out of shape or overweight, you should follow a "go-slow" approach when you begin your exercise program. Don't walk at an unrealistic pace; you'll just become exhausted and discouraged, and you may increase your risk of injury. Your goal in walking should be to walk as far as you can for as long as you can. Don't worry about speed. You'll be able to burn more calories by keeping to a moderate pace, exercising for a longer time, and covering more distance.
Walking's weight-loss potential is just as flexible as you are. So as your fitness level increases, you can raise the intensity of your regimen to increase the number of calories you burn. Walking at a brisk pace of four or five miles per hour and vigorously pumping your arms, for example, or hiking with a backpack are just two of the possible options for boosting the intensity of your walking routine.
Indeed, racewalking can actually burn more calories than can slow jogging. At high racewalking speeds (like six or seven miles an hour), your body yearns to break into a jog. Forcing yourself to continue walking by keeping at least one foot on the ground at all times takes more energy than jogging at the same speed.
There are also substantial slimming payoffs for tackling hilly terrain. Even at a slow pace, going uphill dramatically raises walking's calorie costs, compared with following the same pace on level ground. Surprisingly, even going downhill burns more calories than covering level ground, because it takes extra energy for the body to resist its natural tendency to travel down the hill too fast. Walking on sand or dirt, rather than rigid asphalt or concrete, can also boost the calorie cost.
The advantages of walking don't stop there, either. The warm glow you feel after exercising is a sign that your metabolism is still revved up. This slight increase in postexercise metabolic rate can help you burn a few extra calories even while you're resting.
Walking does more than burn calories, however -- it also burns fat. In the next section learn how walking can improve your body mass index.
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Walking and BMI
Don't rely solely on the bathroom scale to measure the success of your walking program -- also look at your body mass index (BMI). Remember, it's fat, not weight, that you really want to lose. Fat is less dense than muscle and it weighs less per unit volume, so it's actually possible to be overfat (with too high a proportion of body fat) without being overweight.
The body fat of a healthy male should range from 10 to 18 percent of the total body weight; for a woman, 18 to 25 percent body fat is considered healthy. Body fat percentages above these ranges typically indicate overweight and, beyond a certain point, obesity. Most experts agree that men with more than 25 percent body fat and women with more than 30 percent body fat are obese.
So how do you know what percentage of body fat you're carrying around and how much you should lose to get back to a healthier range? Some weight-loss centers, clinics, and fitness clubs now offer body-fat testing using underwater weighing that fat is more buoyant than lean tissue) or electrical impedance (based on the principle that fat contains much less water than lean tissue, and water conducts electricity).
But body-fat testing need not be expensive to be precise. An older but reliable method is using skinfold calipers (fat pinchers), a device your doctor may use.
There is also a somewhat less precise but very useful calculation that these days is most frequently used to assess body fat levels and the potential health risks associated with them. It's called the body mass index, or BMI, and it does a better job than the number on the scale alone because it accounts for your level of body fat in assessing whether your weight falls into a range that's optimal for health.
To calculate your BMI:
- First thing in the morning, weigh yourself naked.
- Measure your height in inches.
- Using a calculator, multiply your weight in pounds by 700.
- Divide the result from step 3 by your height in inches.
- Divide the result from step 4 by your height in inches again. The result is your BMI.
A BMI between 19 and 24.9 is considered to be in the healthy range (for both men and women), the range associated with the least risk of heart disease. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 indicates that you are overweight and should start making changes to prevent additional weight gain and lose some pounds. If your BMI is more than 30, you are obese and have a much higher risk of serious illness such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
If you plan to use a walking program to help lose excess body fat, you can simply recalculate your BMI as your weight changes to gauge your progress.
Of course, aside from these various scientific measures, you can also get a pretty good idea of your progress in the war against fat by merely looking in the mirror -- and trying on your clothes. This makes more sense than weighing yourself too often (once a week is plenty) or getting too obsessed with what the bathroom scale has to say.
In fact, you'll love to take a look at yourself in the mirror after adhering to a walking program. Walking tones your body by building muscle. Get the details in the next section.
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Walking and Building Muscles
In addition to burning fat and calories, walking builds muscles. You may have noticed that serious walkers have particularly shapely legs -- not "toothpick" legs or "thunder thighs." The reason is that walking builds, shapes, and tones muscles of the legs, hips, and buttocks.
Walking also boosts the strength and endurance of those muscles, which means you'll be able to do more with less fatigue. According to David Winter, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, these are the main muscle groups walking affects:
- Calf muscles: Walking is excellent for developing shapely calf muscles. The calf muscles provide the upward and forward momentum for the "pushoff" phase of walking, which lifts the heel off the ground.
- Tibialis anterior and ankle extensor muscles: These muscles, which run along the anterior side of each shin, raise the toes and foot during the leg's forward motion (or "swing") phase. The muscles then lower the toes and foot as the heel hits the ground.
- Hamstring muscles: Walking's pushoff phase (hip extension) works the hamstring muscles in the back of the thighs.
- Quadriceps muscles: These muscles at the front of the thighs are used as each leg is extended.
- Hip flexor muscles: The hip flexor muscles lift the thigh forward in the "swing" phase of the stride.
- Buttock muscles: Rocking the hips during brisk walking works the gluteal (butt) muscles.
- Abdominal muscles: Making a point of walking with natural, upright posture can strengthen the abdominal muscles.
- Arm and shoulder muscles: These muscles are used when you pump your arms vigorously, up to chest or shoulder level, while walking (the left arm swings forward naturally as the right leg strides ahead, and vice versa).
Methods abound for enhancing the muscle-toning action. You can increase the involvement of the leg-lifting quadriceps by walking uphill -- and even downhill. And by lengthening your stride and walking faster, you'll demand more of the hamstrings, hip flexors, and buttocks.
To substantially increase strength and muscle tone in the upper body, however, you'll probably need to do extra exercises, like push-ups and chin-ups. Weight training is also a good way to enhance the strength of the muscles of both the upper and lower body.
Throughout your walking program, it's very important to stretch your muscles both before and after your walks to maintain your flexibility and ward off injury.
Walking also works another muscle: the heart. Learn how walking improves aerobic capacity next.
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Walking and Aerobic Capacity
Like jogging, bicycling, swimming, skating, and cross-country skiing, walking builds aerobic capacity. Walking is an aerobic exercise -- a sustained, repeated, rhythmic workout for large muscle groups. This type of workout requires oxygen and depends on the cardiovascular system to supply this oxygen to the muscles while they work.
In contrast, in anaerobic exercises, such as weight lifting or sprinting, the muscles are involved in short bursts of highly intense activity, and they can obtain energy through a chemical process that does not involve oxygen.
Walking at a brisk enough pace offers aerobic benefits by "training" your heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles. Like all muscles, the heart becomes better conditioned the more it is used. By engaging in regular aerobic exercise, you improve your heart's ability to pump oxygen-rich blood to your muscles.
You also make your muscles more efficient at using oxygen, so they can do more work without putting as great a strain on your heart. By increasing your aerobic capacity, you make more oxygen available to your body. You'll be able to exercise longer and harder, enabling you to burn more calories during your workouts.
Michael Pollock, Ph.D., director of the University of Florida's Center for Exercise Science, pioneered research on walking's effects on aerobic capacity. He found that walking, jogging, and bicycling all boosted aerobic capacity to the same extent -- provided they were done at the same intensity. (The walking group sustained the fewest injuries and had the lowest dropout rate, however.)
It is possible to walk at such a high speed that you equal the aerobic conditioning benefits of jogging. But at usual walking speeds, walking is less intense than jogging, so you've got to walk longer -- or uphill -- to get the same training effect as you would get by jogging. Another alternative is to use weights -- hand-held weights or a backpack -- to increase walking's training effects.
For effective aerobic conditioning, you need to walk for a minimum of 30 minutes at least 3 times a week. And during each walk, you need to work hard enough to get your heart rate into your "target range."
There's a catch to increasing your aerobic capacity, though. The more fit you are, the faster you must walk to improve your fitness level. This means walking briskly -- at least three miles an hour, for most people, and four or more for those already in good shape.
It's long been assumed that people who have already worked themselves from low or average fitness into top condition can't get any fitness training benefits from walking. But Dr. Pollock found that when fit people walked briskly for 40 minutes, four days a week, they could reach a heart-rate range of 70 to 75 percent of their maximum heart rate reserve -- close to the results seen with jogging.
The difference: If you walk, you need to increase the frequency and duration of exercise to get the same aerobic conditioning results as jogging.
James Rippe, M.D., director of the Center for Health, Fitness and Human Performance at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, has made similar findings. Based on his studies of hundreds of walkers, he says even the fittest individuals can raise their heart rates to 70 to 85 percent of maximum, just by walking. But they have to walk fast -- as much as six miles per hour -- or uphill.
When aerobic conditioning is achieved, it can have important long-term health benefits, including protection against coronary heart disease and stroke. In a Duke University study of 3,000 men, the least fit men were about three-and-a-half times more likely than their healthy counterparts to suffer a fatal heart attack or stroke during an eight-and-a-half year follow-up period.
There is a limit to how much exercise can improve one's aerobic capacity, though, says Ronald LaPorte, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. An exercise program can increase a person's aerobic capacity by 30 percent at most.
The remaining 70 percent of the aerobic capacity is dictated not by your activity level but by your genes -- for such things as lung structure and heart and body size. Because of these variables, it is possible that the aerobic capacity of 2 different people may differ by as much as 200 percent.
Walking is a low-impact aerobic exercise that is often recommended for pregnant women, and to ward off the risk of injury. Learn more in the next section of this article.
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Walking Through Pregnancy and Injury
Doctors often recommend walking as the safest form of aerobic exercise for pregnant women. Women who are habitual walkers are usually urged to continue walking during their pregnancy. Those who have been sedentary are often advised to start a walking program.
And those who are accustomed to running may be advised to switch to walking during their pregnancy, to avoid excessive fatigue, breathlessness, and additional stress on the bones and joints. (Hormonal changes in pregnancy tend to loosen ligaments all over the body in preparation for childbirth. As a result, the joints become more susceptible to injury.)
While weight reduction should not be attempted during pregnancy, walking can help to prevent excessive weight gain. By increasing circulation, walking can also help guard against the development of varicose veins and edema (swelling in the legs and ankles). And walking may help alleviate the sway-backed posture (called lordosis) that pregnant women can sometimes develop.
With her doctor's okay, a new mother can resume her walking routine within a few days after delivery.
One of the biggest problems with strenuous, fitness-boosting exercise is the risk of injury. Although the injury itself may heal in a fairly short time, the damage it does to your motivation and enthusiasm can be longlasting. Fortunately, a walking program can help you increase your fitness with a relatively small risk of injury.
By definition, walking means keeping one foot on the ground at all times. Therefore, compared to jogging, which involves a free-flight phase, walking poses much less danger of falling. And according to Kevin Campbell, Ph.D., a staff scientist at the Cleveland Clinic
Foundation, during walking, each foot hits the ground with a force of only one-and-a-quarter times the weight of the body. In contrast, each running stride lands with a force of up to four times the body weight.
Such high forces on the feet carry stress up the body to the ankle, knee, and hip joints. One study used an artificial hip implant to measure the internal pressure placed on the hip joints during exercise. The stress associated with jogging was one-and-a-half times greater than that found with walking.
This explains why so many runners suffer injuries to these joints. In contrast, the lack of these injuries is considered one main reason why walkers are better able to stick with their exercise programs.
In the 1980s, Dr. Pollock discovered that 22 70-year-old people were able to gradually work up to a program of brisk walking with no adverse consequences to either their hearts or their joints. However, when 18 of the subjects then graduated to a program of jogging and jog/walking, 60 percent of them suffered significant injuries. "It was not a cardiovascular limitation, but an orthopedic problem," he stresses.
A regular walking program may even help older adults avoid injury -- by keeping them on their feet. For adults over 70 years old, the incidence of injury linked to falls is higher than for any other age group. The neuromuscular changes that occur in aging tend to disturb the sense of balance, which in turn raises the risk of falling and of injury. (Other factors, including medication and osteoporosis, also play a role in the high incidence of injury.)
However, participation in a walking program has been shown to improve balance, thereby reducing the risk of falling among older adults.
A well-designed walking program can help anyone achieve higher levels of fitness. Walking can help improve body composition by increasing your body's ratio of muscle to fat. It can help you boost your endurance and increase the strength of the muscles in your lower body. A walking program that includes plenty of stretching exercises can help you maintain flexibility.
And, perhaps most importantly, walking can help you increase your aerobic capacity and build a better heart.
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Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer