Walking can be a great way to improve your health and lose weight. Unfortunately, for many weight-loss warriors, walking doesn’t always move the needle on the scale. At least not like they were hoping it would.
Case in point: In one meta-analysis, University of Michigan researchers found that, on average, participants enrolled in pedometer-based walking programs increased their step count by about 4,000 steps per day (about a mile or two). But, after 16 weeks spent hoofing it, they only lost on average of 3.13 pounds.
WHY WALKING ISN’T LEADING TO WEIGHT LOSS
First of all, most walkers drastically overestimate the caloric burn they get from their walks, explains Michael Jonesco, an assistant clinical professor of internal and sports medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. That’s because, first of all, people are just wired to overestimate their caloric expenditure and underestimate their caloric intake.
Second of all, this overestimation is generally reinforced through all of the gadgets exercisers use to keep their calorie tracking on point. For instance, in one University of California, San Francisco experiment, treadmills overestimated caloric burn by 13%. And, in one 2016 Ball State University study of four fitness trackers, they were particularly bad at accurately judging calories expended during walking.
HOW MANY CALORIES DOES WALKING ACTUALLY BURN?
According to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, at an 18:36-minute-mile pace (3.2 miles per hour; a pretty brisk walk), calories burned per minute can be calculated by multiplying 0.03 X your weight in pounds. So, if you weigh 160 pounds, that works out to 4.8 calories per minute, or 144 calories during a 30-minute workout. However, increasing your walking speed drastically increases the number of calories you burn per minute — which is why running a 10:00-minute-mile pace burns roughly 2.3 times more calories per minute.
And that brings us to the most important matter of business: how to get the most out of your walking-to-lose-weight plan. Here are three ways to lose more weight walking:
1. MAKE IT A WORKOUT
Those walks to the bathroom and water cooler count, but it’s when you string steps together for 30 minutes or more — and really pick up the pace — that you’re going to get the biggest minute-per-minute weight-loss benefit, Jonesco explains.
“Ask yourself, ‘does this feel like a workout?’ If your heart isn’t pumping, and you aren’t breaking a sweat, you need to push it,” says Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of “Lift to Get Lean.” Try tracking your speed with an app such as MapMyRun. Every week, try to increase your speed.
Another option: Get off of the treadmill and paved trails for trails less traveled. Walking on surfaces such as grass, sand and gravel can increase the number of calories you burn at a given pace by up to 50%, Jonesco says.
2. BUILD MUSCLE
To continue losing weight, you have to make sure your walks do more than burn calories. They have to build lean muscle, too. That’s because muscle is the key to keeping your metabolism as high as possible — and it can decline when you lose weight, especially if it’s through cardio alone, Perkins says.
Luckily, you can seamlessly incorporate strength training into your walks by heading uphill or taking on flights of stairs throughout your workouts, she says. You can also try interspersing bodyweight strength exercises, such as squats, lunges and incline push-ups on a park bench into your plan. Bonus: It can help you mix up your walk to prevent boredom.
3. REDUCE YOUR CALORIC INTAKE
“Whatever your body burns, it will want you to replace them and then some,” Jonesco says. “So be careful to pick a post-workout meal that doesn’t contain more than 70–75% of the calories you just burned.” (This is where knowing how many calories you actually burned comes in handy.)
Meanwhile, Perkins recommends establishing a caloric deficit — meaning you’re burning more calories per day than you’re eating — even before you factor in your workouts. “To effectively lose weight, try to create a mild caloric deficit by cutting calories and then use walking to create an even larger one,” she says. “Try to maintain caloric deficit of about 250 or so calories. Then, if your daily walking workouts burn an extra 200–250, you’re on track to lose roughly a pound per week.”