Sedentary behavior as defined as sitting or laying down (either at a desk, computer, television, or video game console) has been on the rise and has continued to increase after the COVID pandemic with the increasing prevalence of virtual/remote work, school, and other activities.
Harvey et al. (2013) found that as many as 67 percent of older adults are sedentary for more than 8.5 of their waking hours. Additionally, as many as 50 percent of adolescents and younger adults in the United States share a similar practice (Owen et al., 2010). It is no surprise that many adults find themselves affected by obesity and in search of strategies to help achieve weight loss.
Walking is perhaps the most undervalued tool in our fitness toolbox as it can promote appetite regulation, cardiovascular health, and circulation, enhance exercise recovery, improve symptoms of depression, bone strength, and aid in weight loss.
Walking is typically the first line of defense so-to-speak when I am providing weight-loss counseling to a client in my practice as a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. It is also a very inexpensive, safe, and easy way to begin a fitness program. Let’s explore some of the frequently asked questions about walking for weight loss.
Learn more about weight loss specifically within the NASM Weight Loss Specialist course.
Can walking help me lose weight?
The answer short answer to this question is absolute. Walking habits can aid in weight loss via a few mechanisms.
Increased energy expenditure
Walking can help with weight loss in several ways. The first and most obvious of these ways is that walking creates more energy (calorie) expenditure. Moderate walking (3 miles per hour) will burn between 4 and 7 kcal per minute depending on the weight and conditioning of the individual. For instance, a 140 lb moderately conditioned person will expend approximately 4 kcal/minute or 120 kcal expended for a 30-minute stroll.
A 250-lb. less-conditioned individual, however, will expend approximately 7 kcal per minute for the same walk with a total active caloric expenditure of 210 kcal. Although these numbers may not seem high, a 30-minute walk every night after dinner for 7 days can create an additional weekly caloric expenditure of 840 to 1,470 kcal! These numbers can add up in the long run and result in significant weight loss for someone who is overweight/obese and was previously sedentary.
Increase in resting metabolic rate (calories burned at rest)
Likewise, a walking habit can also help increase resting metabolic rate by leading to increases in lean body mass. This effect is often more dramatic in untrained or more sedentary individuals who are new to any exercise program (Gim & Choi, 2016).
It can also be an excellent weight maintenance strategy for a person who has previously lost weight and become more conditioned (Summerfield, 2016).
Curious about calculating RMR? Check out the NASM calorie calculator.
Improved appetite and metabolic control
Walking, unlike other forms of exercise, does not appear to increase appetite. This means that a caloric deficit can be achieved without the subsequent increase in hunger signals that come with higher intensity exercise (King et al., 2010). Walking can therefore be an excellent strategy for inducing more weight loss for a person adhering to a calorie-restricted nutrition plan.
Interestingly, sedentary behavior in general (i.e., lack of walking) leads to metabolic changes which can increase hunger signals inappropriately causing us to consume more calories than our bodies need (Panahi & Tremblay, 2018).
See also: 5 Ways to SPEED up Metabolism
Does the research support this?
These notions are supported by many research studies. For example, in a small study conducted with the help of thirty-five obese adults, a walking program with limited dietary counseling was demonstrated to significantly reduce overall body weight, increase lean body mass, and improve overall physical functioning (Castres et al., 2017).
Similarly, another pilot study which was researching the effectiveness of a walking bus (or walking as transportation program) found that amongst the participants, the group that used walking as transportation to and from their workplace had a significant reduction in weight over the group that did not participate over 8 weeks (Baker et al., 2015).
This study tells us that small changes in daily habits such as walking to work or running errands can help with weight loss even without a dedicated walking plan.
What is the bottom line?
Walking can lead to weight loss by increasing energy expenditure, increasing our calories burned at rest, and helping us to regulate our appetites!
Do I need to hit a certain walking speed, or will any amount of walking help me achieve my goals?
Although exerting more effort walking (i.e., Walking faster or on harder terrain) may result in more energy (calorie) expenditure for that walking session, walking at more than a moderate pace or for very long durations may be counterproductive to weight loss goals as it may lead to decreased compliance and consistency.
Schutz et al. (2014) found that amongst study participants given an exercise prescription, the group that most consistently lost weight and followed the walking program were prescribed 30 minutes per day programs rather than 60 or 90 minutes a day.
The researchers also mentioned that higher intensity walking programs also tended to lead to poor compliance (less consistency) overall and less favorable results (Schutz et al., 2014).
What is the bottom line?
Consistency is more important than intensity (walking speed) when it comes to using walking as a weight-loss tool.
How much walking do I need to do?
Although we can estimate how much of a deficit if we can calculate the weight and height of the individual and intensity level (i.e., walking speed or terrain), it is often more important to focus on consistency when it comes to walking for weight loss.
Oftentimes, it is not the intensity of the walking behavior that aids most in long-term weight loss, it is how often you are walking and how long you continue the most important behavior. It may be more helpful to look at walking as a long-term habit that you are trying to build.
Gordon-Larsen et al. (2009) conducted a 15-year study looking at weight changes in adults over this period. The researchers found that the adults who consistently walked 30 minutes per day had significantly less weight gain than those who did not have a walking habit.
Additionally, in the meta-analysis (e.g., a big study looking at a bunch of other studies), researchers who looked at walking habits and weight loss by analyzing several studies found that the longer a walking habit was continued, the more likely it that it would result in substantial weight loss (Richardson et al., 2008).
What is the bottom line?
Consistency is key. If you are looking to use walking as a weight-loss tool, plan on making it a long-term habit! Focus on getting in your daily walking rather than focusing on increasing intensity. Do what you can do daily and gradually increase your step counts or distance as you tolerate it.
How many steps a day do I need?
Basic health in line with current recommendations can be achieved with a minimum daily step goal of 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day (Tudor-Locke et al., 2011). Many step counters or health apps default to a daily step count of 10,000 steps per day.
A step goal of 10,000 steps per day is a reasonable goal to achieve weight loss and is supported in research studies (Creasy et al., 2018). However, this number is somewhat arbitrary as consistency and compliance with a walking program are more important in achieving the health benefits of walking (including weight loss).
What is the bottom line?
Find your baseline daily steps using your app or smartwatch. Aim for a step count goal of 7,500 per day if you can tolerate it but achieving more steps over your baseline is most important if that is all you can maintain consistently. Increase that step goal to 10,000 steps per day as you become more conditioned. Just remember, consistency is the MOST important piece so make sure to set a step goal that you can maintain and eventually increase.
Do I need to take a dedicated walk or just hit a daily step goal?
The answer to this question simply rests on what works best for you. If you find that you need data to meet goals or for accountability purposes, a pedometer or step tracker may be very helpful. If it is easier for you to simply set a specific time of day you are going to take a dedicated walk for time or distance, that works just as well.
Some tips for achieving walking consistency
• Make your walk a habit. Perhaps you take a walk every night after dinner or first thing in the morning.
• Incorporate more walking into activities of daily living. Perhaps walk to the store, to work, or simply try to get some daily steps in doing some housework.
• Find a friend or spouse to walk with. This may make it an activity you look forward to everyday. This may also help you to strengthen your social relationships.
• Make your necessary phone calls (i.e., work, doctors’ appointments, calls to family members) while you are on your walk. You can also try pacing around your yard or home while making these calls.
• Use a daily step tracker such as a Fitbit, Apple Watch, or the health app on your phone to reach a daily step goal. You can even make a game of this by trying to beat your weekly or monthly average (on a side note, this worked wonders for my husband as he lost 40 pounds).
• Use proper outdoor clothing to help with inclement weather. You may want to look into snow pants and ski jackets for cold weather and rain jackets and waterproof shoes for rainy weather.
• Find a place to walk indoors if the weather is not cooperating. Malls or even local
hospitals may have a dedicated walking path for indoor walkers.
Sedentary behavior leads to metabolic dysregulation. Essentially, a lack of walking leads to fewer contractions of skeletal muscle which in turn can increase circulating triglyceride and glucose levels as they are not being cleared from the blood. Metabolic dysregulation eventually leads to metabolic syndrome (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol/triglycerides).
A daily walking habit can help combat and reverse the consequences
of long-term sedentary behavior (Owen et al., 2010). Developing a daily walking habit can most definitely assist with your weight loss goals. It is also an inexpensive, easy to start, fun and healthy lifestyle habit for anyone desiring better health.
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