By now you’re probably familiar with fitness trackers that count your steps, and the idea that you should aim to walk at least 10,000 steps a day. But where did that number come from?
As it turns out, it probably came from a marketing campaign by a Japanese pedometer company. Research, of course, says that people who walk more live longer, but correlation isn’t causation. Just how much does walking matter for your health? And how can you get the most out of it?
How many calories does walking burn?
Most people overestimate how many calories walking burns. This is due in part to overconfidence bias, but it’s also partly because almost every source of information on this question — from treadmills to fitness trackers to published studies — fails to subtract people’s basal metabolic rate from the answer. That is, the number they give includes the number of calories you would burn just lying down, and it differs from person to person. (A 125-lb female might have a basal metabolic rate of 1 calorie per minute, for example, while a 200-lb male might have a rate of 1.4 calories per minute.)
Okay, so if we’re taking that resting calorie burn out of the equation, what does that mean for calories burned walking? One study found that slow walking burns .014 calories per pound of body weight per hour for men, and .018 for women. Brisk walking burns .023 calories per minute per pound of body weight for men, and .027 for women. With that math in mind, if you then revisit our 125-lb female walker and our 200-lb male walker, your looking at about 45 calories and 85 calories burned per hour, respectively, if our subjects are walking at a slower pace. (If walking at a brisk pace, those numbers are closer to 140 and 190 calories per hour, respectively.)
Looking at that, it’s clear that slow walking doesn’t do much at all. Speeding up to a brisk or power-walking pace, though, more than doubles your energy expenditure. At that point it’s significant, but still not much. Also in general, women get a bit more out of walking than men do.
The commonly recommended 10,000 steps is around 5 miles, or two hours of walking. Most people are halfway there already though, so it equates to around an hour of additional walking a day.
What are the health benefits of walking?
So, is walking good for weight loss? And does walking have health benefits beyond the calories burned?
It does aid weight loss, but not much. Walking more is good for losing about a tenth of a pound per week. If you’re really looking for noticeable results, though, it usually takes more intense exercise — sprinting, weight lifting, etc. — to see and feel a noticeable difference. This is especially true when you factor in efficiency — i.e., walking is pretty time-consuming, while higher-intensity exercise can get you to the results you want in way less time.
That said, walking has plenty of benefits that go beyond supporting weight loss. For starters, while walking might not be great at boosting calorie burn, it can at least help maintain weight loss, even if it’s not much help losing weight in the first place. Plus, contrary to popular belief, walking doesn’t make you hungrier, so you don’t have to worry about counteracting the calorie burn you get from it with an intake of more calories from increased hunger. (Of course, high intensity exercise still takes the cake here, since research shows that going hard can actually suppress appetite.)
Walking can also get you outside and in the sun, which is healthy, and can act as a form of meditation for many people, which spells major benefits for mental health.
Finally, walking fast is important for reasons other than how many calories it burns: research shows that fast walkers actually live 10–20 years longer than slow walkers.
How can you make walking more effective?
There are two approaches: make your walking routine more intense, or make it last longer. We’ll start with intensity.
First, mix some bodyweight training in with your walking. Do some pushups, planks, chin-ups, squats, and so forth before you go walking, then again afterward. In fact, stop and do some in the middle of your walk if you can find a spot. You can also wear wrist and ankle weights while walking to increase the resistance and strength-building you’re doing while working out.
Next, walk as fast as you can. If you’re feeling up to it, you can even work in some interval training by breaking into a run or sprint occasionally and alternating between those bursts of fast motion and your brisk walking.
Finally, pick hilly terrain if possible. The incline will offer increased resistance to further push and challenge your body. (Note: if you’re incorporating running, make sure to only run or sprint uphill, as opposed to doing so downhill, to minimize impact forces on your legs.)
As far as making your walking routine longer, this is important because, again, slow walking is really only a decent form of exercise if you spend several hours at it. That isn’t practical if you’re walking just for the sake of walking, but it can be important if you find ways to work more walking into your day, such as by going to museums, the beach, or on hikes. Strategizing such that your day is built around a lot of walking helps make sure that you’re doing enough of it to warrant a good amount of exercise throughout the day, even if you’re not doing it intensely.
Lastly, be careful not to rely on walking as your sole or even primary form of exercise. Make an effort to lift weights or do yoga several days a week too; something to diversify your movement, build strength, and challenge your body in new ways. Treat walking as an adjunct; a relaxing way to get outside and burn a few more calories on top of what your usual routine does.