You have probably seen earnest walkers pumping their way around a track, weighed down with ankle bands.
Or perhaps they were pumping their arms rhythmically as they power up a neighborhood hill with weighted bracelets strapped to their wrists.
Adding weight when you are walking seems to make sense. After all, isn’t adding extra counterweight a good thing when you are working out? Why shouldn’t you combine strength training with endurance training to get your heart rate up for a more efficient workout plan? Surely it makes sense to fold your resistance training into a low-impact cardio exercise?
Experts and casual exercises alike know that walking is good for you. It is good for preventing heart disease, supporting weight loss, and assisting with myriad other physiological conditions that can be exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle.
Diabetes, joint pain, high blood pressure, and general mobility can all be affected in a positive way by engaging in a consistent walking program.
In this article, we will explore the science behind the benefits of walking, and we will also address the factors behind the common misconception that adding weight to your walking routine will improve your fitness outcomes.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Scientifically Proven Benefits to Walking
- Cardiac Health
- Other Benefits
- What You Should Know About Walking With Weights
- Ankle Weights
- Wrist Weights
- Weighted Vests
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Scientifically Proven Benefits to Walking
In their article, “The Effect of Two Walking Programs on Aerobic Fitness, Body Composition, and Physical Activity in Sedentary Office Employees,” Auburn University researchers Mynor G. Rodriguez-Hernandez and Danielle Wadsworth found that walking produced positive impacts on overall body composition, including reducing body fat percentages in overweight individuals. Rodriguez-Hernandez and Wadsworth noted that both continuous (daily) and intermittent (intense bouts) walking produced similar benefits on body weight, fat mass and body fat percentage, but exercising through more intense bouts of intermittent walking also increased lean muscle mass while reducing fat mass.
These findings are consistent with other studies that show that the intensity and variation of workouts produced better results in terms of fat loss as well as lean muscle gains. In addition, more intense workouts and brisker walks produce more excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the afterburn that occurs in the recovery period following any intense workout. No one can deny that the health benefits of walking are of great significance to the average person, regardless of their fitness level, and walking is one of the easiest ways to practice self-care at any stage of your life. After all, you have been walking since you could, well, walk.
Related reading:Should You Actually Take 10,000 Steps A Day?
Cardiac Health Is One of the Most Significant Benefits of Walking
In another representative study on the effects of walking on health, Harvard researchers found that walking improves cardiac health, including reducing the risk of stroke or heart attack. They note that because walking is less intense than running, an individual must walk more often or walk for longer periods than they would if they were running, but the difference in exercise duration is actually less than you would imagine.
In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine notes that doing a moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking at 30 minutes 5 times per week is roughly the same as doing a more intense aerobic activity like running for 20 minutes 3 times per week.
Since walking can be incorporated fairly easily into a person’s day and results in fewer stress injuries than running, it can be a great way to experience your neighborhood or a park trail while also engaging in an activity to improve your physical health and stamina. Researchers also noted that multiple studies have found that walking reduces blood pressure, which in turn reduces the risk of severe cardiovascular traumas like strokes, TIAs, or myocardial infarction, by 31% in both men and women.
Other Benefits of Walking
In addition to all of the cardiovascular benefits of walking, Harvard Medical School researchers note that there are some unexpected benefits as well. While most Americans circle the parking lot looking for the closest spot, remember that our bodies were designed to walk, and walking carries with it correlative benefits that many other forms of physical activity do not. Some of the most surprising benefits are detailed below.
- Did you know we carry around genes that promote weight gain? We do! When Harvard researchers examined 32 genes known to promote weight gain, they found that the effects of those genes were reduced by 50% among the 12,000 study participants who engaged in brisk walking for about an hour a day. So walking not only helps you lose weight, it also helps your body to learn how to avoid putting on unnecessary weight.
- Do you crave chocolate or other sugary treats when stressed or hungry? If so, take a quick 15-minute walk. Studies show that even a 15-minute bout of walking reduces chocolate cravings and sugar intake.
- Any type of consistent physical activity reduces the risk of developing breast cancer, but the American Cancer Society has conducted studies that show that women who walked 7 or more hours per week are 14% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women who walked fewer than 3 hours per week. What is equally impressive is that this risk is reduced even when other cancer risk factors, like obesity or use of supplemental hormones, are present. So, ladies, let’s get to stepping!
- Unlike running, walking is good for preventing as well as reducing arthritis and joint pain caused by arthritis. Hip and knee joints alike are strengthened and lubricated by the simple act of walking, especially if one walks more than 5 miles over the course of a week. Note, however, that walking with weights can actually cause joint pain and increase the risk of joint-related injuries. More on the risks of walking with weights will be discussed later in this post.
- Another study showed that men and women who walk at least 20 minutes a day for at least 5 times a week are much less likely (in fact, 43% less likely) to call in sick. When steady walkers did call in sick, they were able to recover faster, and they also experienced less severe symptoms than their peers who did not regularly include walking in their day. This study was conducted during the cold and flu season, so you can imagine the benefit you bring not only to yourself but also to your employer and your family when you are prioritizing your physical health.
For more information about how physical activity and fitness can extend and improve your quality of life, check out this post on the effects of fitness on aging.
What You Should Know About Walking With Weights
You would be hard-pressed to find an exercise scientist who does not agree that walking is one of the easiest, most accessible forms of exercise. You do not need a physical therapist, personal trainer, or even fitness classes to achieve the health benefits of walking, it can be made more intense by increasing your walking speed or walking on more challenging terrains (like beaches or hills), and walking can be done with friends or completely alone. As Thomas Jefferson noted, “Walking the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.”
So we know that walking is great, and it can also be one of the best outdoor exercises to burn calories. It makes sense, then, that amping up the intensity of a walk through the use of extra weights will accelerate the physical benefits of walking. Not so fast! Before you strap on those ankle weights or slip into one of those weighted vests, consider some of the pros and cons of the most common types of weights used by walkers.
Walking With Ankle Weight
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of walking weights, ankle weights are usually built into a neoprene strap that is attached above the shoe and around the ankle with Velcro.
The problem with using these types of weights while walking or running or doing aerobics is that the additional weight on your leg, foot, and ankle forces you to use your quadriceps more than your hamstrings. When your body tries to compensate for this unnatural imbalance while performing an activity as natural as walking, you are at a greater risk for tendon and ligament injuries, especially in the knees, hips, legs, and back.
But if you bought a brand-new pair of ankle weights that you can’t wait to try, do not despair! Although sports medicine experts may not recommend ankle weights for walking and aerobics, ankle weights can be useful in targeted exercises focused on resistance or strength training for legs and hips, such as leg lifts.
If you are looking for a way to strengthen and improve the flexibility of your hamstrings, check out this post on the must-do hamstring exercises for women. Or, if you are interested in improving your lower body strength and working out those glutes, check out this post on some of the best dumbbell leg exercises.
And for an overall Fit Plan that will help you train smarter, check out Kyla Ritchie’s plan that focuses on toning, tightening, and muscle building.
Walking With Wrist Weights
Wrist weights are designed much like ankle weights, except that they are designed to be strapped to wrists rather than ankles. Like ankle weights, the unnatural weight on the wrist and forearms can strain muscles and increase the risk for joint and tendon injuries. This fact is true for wrist weight, as well as for walking while holding hand weights. It is not just the wrist that is susceptible to the injuries, but also the shoulders, elbows, and neck.
Before you toss your wrist weights out in the trash, consider how you might repurpose them to use for some of the more common upper body exercises like biceps curls or lateral side raises. For folks who have reduced grip strength, wrist weights must also serve as a suitable replacement for standard dumbbells.
For more tips on building strong arm muscles, check out this post on bicep exercises.
Walking With Weighted Vests
Weighted vests are exactly what they sound like, and they are usually pulled on over the head in order to hang from the shoulders. Most weighted vests have pockets that make the weight adjustable, so you can add or remove weight from the pockets as needed.
One of the key issues with a weighted vest is the disparate guidelines for how heavy the vest should be to produce optimal results.
Most exercise scientists will tell you that the vest should not weigh more than 10% of your total body weight. So, for a 200-pound person, the vest should not weigh more than 20 pounds, for a 120-pound person the vest should top out at 12 pounds, and so on. At this weight, the vest can increase the metabolic load (amount of energy consumed) while also contributing to strengthening the skeletal system and bone density. However, individuals with back or neck injuries should avoid weighted vests altogether due to the extra pressure it puts on the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, and everyone should be aware of the increased risks of injury to the back, shoulders, and neck at weights higher than 10% of your total body weight.
This is great information, but other studies show that the positive impacts of wearing a weighted vest do not really come into play until the vest is almost 20% of your total body weight. In their 2003 study, “Effects of a Weighted Vest During Steady-Rate Walking in Men and Women,” published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan concluded the following: “Men and women exhibit similar responses to steady-rate level walking with a weighted vest loaded up to 25% of their body weight. From a quantitative perspective, considerable loading is required to effectively augment the physiological demand of walking exercise using this specific approach.”
When you consider these findings in conjunction with safety guidelines, you might begin to wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze since the risk of injury goes up with each additional pound over 10% of body mass.
If you are looking for inspirational ways to get your workout routine in gear, check out Jen Selter’s 21 Day Workout Series!
Strength and resistance training are different types of exercise than endurance and aerobic training. Although of course, these types of training overlap, both in terms of muscle groups targeted as well as in desired outcomes, trying to combine strength training into your walking routine may do more harm than good. Likewise, trying to amp the metabolic impact of walking may prove less effective than simply working out with weights or using bodyweight exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and muscle tone. If you are interested in learning how exercising using your own body weight shreds fat and improves athletic performance, this Fit Plan by Brendan Brazier walks you through the essentials of bodyweight training.
Walking is one of the safest and most common ways to exercise, and it has the added benefit of getting you where you need to go. Walking is an exercise that can be completed at almost any stage of life, but adding weights to this otherwise low-risk, low-impact exercise can stall your potential physiological gains through injury or unnecessarily strained muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
In fact, walking or running with excess weight actually degrades your joints, so adding weight that you are not already carrying as part of your body composition puts additional stress on weight-bearing joints like the knees.
For example, if you take a walk on level ground, your knees are absorbing 1.5 times your body weight, so if you weigh 200 pounds you are putting 300 pounds of pressure on your knees with every step you take. This pressure is multiplied when walking on an incline or taking stairs, so reducing the weight you are carrying (whether in the form of bodyweight or added ankle or wrist weights) also reduces your risk of joint pain and osteoarthritis.
To get additional benefits from walking, consider other ways to mix up your walking options. Adding an incline to a treadmill or choosing places to walk that have hills and challenging terrain is a great way to challenge yourself, change up your routine, and still get all the physiological and psychological benefits that walking provides. In addition, a walk in the woods is a great way to rejuvenate your senses through exposure to the natural world and breathing in the fresh air.
Strength training, particularly intense sessions that include weights and resistance, will provide more immediate value to your metabolism and whole-body composition while also helping you to avoid long-term strain and injury than walking with weights. When you choose to work out with a Fit Plan training program led by the nation’s leading athletes and fitness coaches, you are also able to follow best practices to confirm that you are using good form. With the right training plan, you can explore myriad ways to get in a workout that is both efficient and effective, whether you prefer working out at the gym or at home.
Note: Want to get in great shape without leaving your house? Workout with elite personal trainers and get 75% off when you start your Fitplan free trial today. But hurry, because this once-a-year offer expires in just a few days. Learn more now!