Walking to Lose Weight: Does Walking with Weights Burn More Calories?

Fitness experts explain how to make the most of your walking workouts

Exercise experts tout walking as a great workout not only because it’s low-impact and easily accessible, but also because it offers incredible health benefits.

Like other cardio workouts, a regular walking routine can help strengthen your heart and lungs. In fact, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California recently found that compared to running, brisk-paced walking may actually reduce your risk for heart disease more effectively.  

Still, some who enjoy the activity feel like it doesn’t provide enough of a challenge, so they carry hand weights or strap on ankle weights to increase the intensity. However, some research shows this approach may not be the most effective way to increase intensity or add to your calorie burn while you walk.

According to Teri Bladen, director of campus recreation at Weber State University, research has shown that walking with light dumbbells (one to three pounds) probably won’t make a significant difference in your energy expenditure.

Additionally, on an episode of  Radio MD’s “Train Your Body” with ACSM trainer and exercise physiologist Melanie Cole, M.S., Bladen also pointed out that walking with weights probably won’t engage your arm muscles enough to build any extra muscle mass.

Walking with heavier weights (in the five to 10 pound range) might create a larger energy expenditure, however Bladen said weights that heavy could increase your risk for injury (especially in the shoulder girdle), which outweighs any benefits it might provide.

She also mentioned that walking while performing bicep curls could impede your gait, which is something every exerciser definitely wants to avoid.

In the case of ankle weights, Bladen also recommends leaving them at home when you’re going out for a walk. They might also increase your risk for injury by altering your center of gravity, putting excess stress on your hips and knees, which again, can hinder your gait.

One method for increasing your calorie burn while walking that Bladen did recommend is wearing a weighted vest, which she said will increase the intensity of your workout while still allowing you to maintain a balanced center of gravity.

And if you’re looking for more new ways to spice up your walking workouts Bladen and Cole offered up some of the following suggestions:

  • Walk with a friend.
  • Listen to podcasts or audio books while you walk.
  • Every so often, perform bodyweight exercises using things that are available along your route, like a tree branch, stairs or benches. You can perform exercises like pull-ups, push-ups and step-ups.
  • Catch up with friends and family on the phone. But use a hands-free Bluetooth device so you can maintain good posture and your arm won’t cramp up from holding the phone near your ear.
  • Add in small bouts of running every now and then. Try alternating between running for 30 seconds and walking for one or two minutes. Or, every so often, choose objects that you see ahead, like a car, tree or lamppost, and challenge yourself to run until you reach it.

Bladen’s final—and most important —tip for walkers: walk with intention.

Make sure you’re standing up straight, your shoulder blades are retracted and your core is engaged. Swing your arms back and forth lightly with control and take long strides with purpose. She said concentrating on these aspects will help you expend more energy and engage more muscles, but in a more efficient and safer way.

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