- Although many fitness folk turn up their noses at walking as a form of cardio, it has a number of advantages over high-intensity cardio.
- Not only does it burn more calories than many people realize, it’s also very easy on the body, has almost no negative impact on strength or muscle gain, and is easy to incorporate into your routine.
- Keep reading to learn what makes walking so effective for cardio, how many calories you burn walking, and the five best ways to use walking to burn fat.
What do you think of when you hear the word “cardio?”
If you’re like most people, your head probably swells with adverse adjectives like “sweaty,” “out-of-breath,” “uncomfortable,” “burning,” and “tired.”
The reason for this, of course, is that you’re thinking of intense, continuous endurance workouts: clomping on a treadmill, spinning on an exercise bike, or dragging your feet through circuit or HIIT workouts like P90X.
The kind of workouts you’ve always been told you need to do to lose weight.
After all, if you want to burn fat, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn, and the harder you train, the more calories you’ll burn, and the more fat you’ll lose, right?
Well, sort of.
While it’s true that you’ll burn more calories per minute the harder you train, you can only work out at a high intensity for brief bouts before you’re bushed.
What’s more, these kinds of workouts take a toll on your body, and you can only do so many per week before the wheels start to fall off.
So, what’s the alternative?
How can you get the “gain” without the pain?
Although it’s easy to dismiss this easy, tranquil, and approachable activity in favor of adrenaline-fueled sufferfests, research shows it’s one of the most beneficial and sustainable kinds of exercise you can do.
Not only is walking underrated when it comes to weight loss, it can significantly improve your health in myriad ways.
In this article, you’re going to learn why walking is the “unsung hero” of cardio workouts and how to use it to burn more fat and get healthier without burning yourself out.
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Walking doesn’t seem to qualify as a bonafide “cardio workout” because, well, it’s easy. And when it comes to exercise, easy is usually equated with worthless.
It shouldn’t be, though.
Yes, you’ll often notice substantial improvements in health, fitness, and body composition after a few months of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but walking is more effective than many people realize for getting fit.
Case in point:
A study conducted by scientists at California State University with college-aged men and women found that subjects that ran a 10-minute mile burned about 190 calories.
Subjects that walked a 19-minute mile burned fewer calories, of course, but not as few as you might think—about 111 calories. Thus, if they walked for an hour, they’d burn just under 350 calories. And if they did that three times per week, they’d burn over 1,000 additional calories per week.
Plus, I bet most of them would find walking three hours per week significantly more enjoyable and sustainable than running for 90 minutes per week.
To put these numbers in context, other research conducted by scientists at Colorado State University shows that a 20 min HIIT workout (4 x 30 s intervals w/ 4 min rest) burns an average of 226 extra calories over the course of the day (that’s both during the workout and from the “afterburn effect” over the following hours).
Other research bears this out, too.
A team of scientists at the University of Sydney published a meta-analysis on the effect of HIIT and steady-state cardio on fat loss. The researchers pooled the results of 28 trials, involving almost 1,000 people.
After crunching the numbers, they found “no evidence to support the superiority of either high-intensity interval training or steady-state cardio for body fat reduction.”
That is, both were equally effective over the long-term—it didn’t matter how people burned calories through exercise, only how many.
In the main, here’s what this means:
When it comes to fat loss, the only thing that matters is how many calories you burn (assuming you’re already following an effective fat loss diet). That is, 300 calories burned during a walk is just as effective for fat loss as 300 calories burned during a high-intensity workout.
There are other pros and cons you should keep in mind when choosing what kind of cardio to do, however.
On the one hand, low-intensity workouts like walking are very easy on the body, minimally impact muscle growth, and can be physically and mentally refreshing. It’s also easy to think, talk, or listen during a walk, which isn’t usually possible during intense workouts.
On the other hand, low-intensity workouts are more time-consuming and can become boring after a while, which is why many people opt for high-intensity workouts (or a combination of both). You’ll learn how to reap the benefits of both approaches later in this article.
Summary: Walking burns more calories than most people realize—about 200 to 400 per hour depending on your bodyweight and pace, which can significantly increase fat loss.
Managing your overall stress levels is an important part of minimizing muscle loss while restricting calories to lose fat.
You keep stress at bay primarily by managing how much you eat, exercise, and sleep. And this is where many people go astray.
Well, walking is great in this regard because, unlike more intense forms of exercise, it places very little stress on the body.
In fact, research shows that walking can counteract the effects of stress and reduce cortisol levels, which means an overall smoother dieting experience. It’s also easy to do (and sometimes even enjoyable) when you’re feeling tired or unmotivated.
Thus, if walking is your only form of exercise while you’re dieting, you probably couldn’t do enough to risk overtraining.
It also means that you can safely add several hours of walking per week on top of an already rigorous exercise schedule.
Summary: Walking places very little stress on the body, which means you can do more or less as much as you want without worrying about overtraining or interfering with your strength training workouts.
Research shows that cardio workouts can directly impair strength and muscle hypertrophy gains.
This is why strength athletes dramatically reduce or eliminate cardiovascular work altogether leading up to a competition, and why many bodybuilders generally keep cardio to a minimum while “bulking.”
If you look closer at the science, though, you notice that not all forms of cardio are equally detrimental to weightlifters.
There are two likely reasons for this:
1. Cardio that mimics the biomechanical movement of muscle-building exercises (the squat and row in the case of cycling and rowing) involves and trains the same muscles.
Even when you’re doing a highly anaerobic activity like sprinting or weightlifting, your body’s aerobic system is still producing a significant percentage of the necessary energy.
Thus, if you improve a muscle’s aerobic capabilities through certain aerobic exercises like cycling, you will see an improvement in your anaerobic capabilities as well (like squatting, for example).
2. Cardio that is low-impact doesn’t cause much muscle damage or require much recovery.
It causes very little muscle damage, adding little training stress for the body to cope with.
Now, walking doesn’t mimic a muscle-building movement and thus won’t likely improve your performance in the gym, but it’s as low-impact as you can get.
And that means you can use it to burn calories and without getting in the way of your progress in the weight room. You can think of it as a “penalty free” way to burn calories.
Walking is about as low impact as it gets, too, so it won’t impair your strength or muscle gains, and you don’t need to fuss over how you incorporate it into your workout routine. You can walk on days you train your upper body, lower body, or your whole body, and it won’t have any negative effect on your recovery or progress.
Summary: Walking has virtually no negative effect on muscle or strength gains, which makes it an excellent “penalty free” way to burn calories without interfering with your weightlifting workouts.
Walking may not burn many calories, but the calories it does burn come primarily from fat stores.
This is why a very low-intensity activity like walking taps mainly into fat stores for energy, whereas high-intensity exercise pulls much more heavily from glycogen stores. And this is also why some people think low-intensity steady-state cardio is best for losing weight.
It’s not (as you learned a moment ago, high-intensity training is just as effective and more time efficient), but burning more fat instead of carbs does have another benefit: it means you have more glycogen left over for your strength training workouts.
In other words, if your body “burns” less glycogen during your cardio workouts (like walking), your glycogen levels will be higher going into your weightlifting workouts, which should goose your performance at least a little.
Now, it’s worth noting that this is somewhat theoretical (your overall carbohydrate and calorie intake is a much bigger factor in performance than transient changes in glycogen levels), but it might help.
Summary: While walking, you primarily burn fat instead of carbohydrate. Although this doesn’t actually result in more fat loss over time, it may help you perform slightly better in your weightlifting workouts.
The biggest downside to walking as a cardio workout is it doesn’t burn all that much energy (about 200 to 400 calories per hour).
That means that even when your diet is right, you’d need to walk a lot (several hours per week) to really speed up fat loss.
Here’s the silver lining, though: walking is very, very easy to incorporate into your routine, and every additional calorie burned helps move the needle a little. Thus, it’s not that hard to sneak an hour or more or walking into your weekly routine, and the result will be faster weight loss with very little effort on your part.
Now, it’s worth noting that I never recommend walking alone for weight loss. Instead, it’s best used to amplify your results after you’re already following a proper weight loss diet and strength training program.
First and foremost, it doesn’t matter how much you exercise if you aren’t controlling your calorie intake—so that’s step one.
Step two in any effective weight loss program is weightlifting, which offers many health benefits you can’t get from cardio alone, and is the only effective way to significantly improve muscle definition and growth.
Moreover, weightlifting burns a lot of calories. For instance, just four heavy sets of deadlifts can burn over 100 calories, and that’s not taking into account the further energy expenditure resulting from the “afterburn effect.”
Research also shows that weightlifting is particularly effective for losing “stubborn” belly fat. This is why the people I’ve worked with who are able to lose fat the fastest usually use a combination of heavy weightlifting, high-intensity cardio, and low-intensity cardio (like walking).
So, circling back to the original question, how much walking do you need to do to move the needle? Every little bit helps, but I recommend you shoot for at least 2 to 3 hours per week to see a noticeable increase in fat loss.
Summary: Every minute spent walking will help you lose fat a little faster, but I recommend you walk at least 2 to 3 hours per week to see a noticeable increase in fat loss.
Follow these five steps if you want to maximize the fat loss benefits of walking:
- Sneak walking into your daily routine.
- Walk faster, longer, and in more interesting places.
- Wear the right shoes.
- Wear a weighted backpack or vest.
- Try fasted walking.
The killer app of walking compared to other forms of cardio is how easy it is to incorporate into your routine. You probably already walk in order to complete various errands, chores, and other tasks, so instead of introducing a new activity (like circuit training, cycling, or running), you just have to do more of what you’re already used to.
Here are some simple ways to sneak more walking into your daily routine:
- Walk everywhere it’s feasible to do so. You probably drive to many places that you could walk to instead—the gym, your office, or even your mailbox. Next time you need to go somewhere nearby, pull up a maps app on your phone and see how long it would take to walk. It’s probably not as far as you expect.
- Do all phone calls while walking. Five minutes before every call, put on your shoes, pop in your headphones, and start walking outside. If the conditions outside make it hard to have a conversation (it’s rainy, windy, etc.), walk on a treadmill. If that’s too noisy, pace around in your home.
- Walk and talk with your friends and family. Who said you have to have all of your conversations sitting down? Go on a walk when you want to talk something over.
- Start listening to podcasts or audiobooks. Not only will these help your walks go faster, they’ll help edumacate you, too. 🙂
- Walk in beautiful places. One of the reasons many people say they “don’t like” walking is they only walk in concrete jungles. Find a local park, a more fetching part of town, or drive a few minutes so you can stroll in nature. The few minutes lost in commuting are worth what you gain in enjoyment.
Walking at a leisurely pace doesn’t burn many calories, but walking at a fast clip can burn as many or more calories than a slow run.
I recommend you walk somewhere in between your normal “mindless” walking pace and the fastest pace you can walk without running, which works out to around 3 to 5 miles per hour for most people. This is fast enough that you can still easily enjoy your surroundings, think, and talk on the phone, but also burns significantly more calories than slowly plodding along.
And, of course, the farther you walk, the more calories you’ll burn.
This should go without saying, but one of the easiest ways to spoil your walks is to wear the wrong shoes.
While running shoe companies tout endless “scientific” benefits of this or that shoe, the most important thing is that it’s comfortable for you. Whether that means sneakers or leather dress shoes or Birkenstocks—go with what feels good.
A good rule of thumb is that your shoes should be comfortable enough that you forget you’re wearing them.
If you’re an old hand foot at walking and want to up the ante, try wearing a weighted backpack or vest.
This significantly increases the calorie burn and gives you a new, fun challenge.
Keep in mind, though, that this is a lot more stressful for your body than regular walking. If you add too much weight too fast, it’ll interfere with your weightlifting and you can develop a repetitive stress injury.
Start with very light weights (10 pounds for men and 5 pounds for women) for one walk per week, and work with that for one to two weeks until it feels easy. Then increase the weight in 5 pound increments every one to two weeks up to 30 pounds for men and 15 pounds for women. If you want to progress from there, start wearing the added weight on more than one walk per week.
And if you want to do even more than this, start reading up on rucking and backpacking, because apparently you’ve caught the bug. 🙂
Here are two good backpacks for weighted walks:
Topo Daypack (for 20 or fewer pounds)
GoRuck GR1 Pack (for 20 or more pounds)
And here’s a good weighted vest (with options from 15 to 90 pounds):
Research shows that by itself, fasted cardio doesn’t burn more fat than fed cardio.
When you combine fasted cardio with the right supplements, though, the effects are more pronounced.
Now, if you don’t like fasted training or stimulants, then don’t worry—you can still lose fat effectively with fed walking. If you tend to struggle with getting rid of “stubborn” body fat, though, doing a few fasted walks per week may help.
Check out these articles to learn more about how to lose fat with fasted training:
Many people hate cardio workouts because they think anything but all-out, “run for your life” intensity is basically a waste of time.
Well, they’re wrong.
When you know what you’re doing with your diet, even the easiest form of cardio—walking—can improve your health and help you lose weight faster.
This is even true for people that already have a rigorous exercise routine of intense weightlifting and cardio workouts.
So, if you want to start doing cardio and want to start slow, start with walking. And if you want to get the most out of your walking, follow these five steps:
- Sneak walking into your daily routine.
- Walk faster or further.
- Wear the right shoes.
- Wear a weighted backpack or vest.
- Try fasted walking.
Do that, and you will lose weight faster and get healthier.
What’s your take on walking as cardio? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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