How Small Steps Really Do Add Up When You Start Walking

Walking is an easy, convenient way to kick off you fitness journey. (Image: nortonrsx/iStock/GettyImages)

When it comes to easy ways to get in shape, walking is at the very top of the list. Though incredibly simple, brisk walking counts as a form of moderate exercise that can help you burn calories and improve your fitness, not to mention boost your mood and lower your risk for heart disease.

Best of all? "Almost anyone can take it up," says Ultimate Performance personal trainer Elliott Upton. Here's what you need to know in order to start a beginner walking program to improve your fitness or lose weight.

Can You Get in Shape Just by Walking?

Absolutely! Any amount of walking will help you get active, stay fit and burn more calories than you would simply by sitting. And over time, that can add up. "One of the best ways to increase your energy expenditure is to move more, and walking is a great place to start," Upton says.

And if you're looking to lose weight, walking can help with that too. But it's important to keep in mind that it's only part of the equation. "Losing weight comes down to energy expenditure. If you burn more calories than you consume through food, you'll lose weight," Upton says.

How Much Do You Need to Walk?

Walking boosts your heart rate and burns calories, so again, any amount is better than none at all. How long you should walk relies not only on your goals but also on your duration and intensity. In order to lose weight or improve your endurance, you need to walk long and fast enough to burn a significant number of calories most days of the week.

Walking briskly for 30 minutes, five times a week is a good place to start, according to the Mayo Clinic. What counts as brisk, exactly? Aim for at least 100 steps per minute up to 130 steps per minute (running typically starts about 140 steps per minute), according to a January 2019 study from International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. You'll know that you're keeping the right pace if you're breathing hard but are still able to carry on a conversation.

Keep in mind that you may need to walk more if you're aiming to lose weight. A brisk 30-minute walk will burn around 150 calories. So if you walk five days a week, you could lose close to a pound a month. But you'll see faster progress by doubling down and walking for a full 60 minutes instead, according to the National Institutes of Health.

How Do You Start a Walking Program?

It's easier than you might think. All you need to start walking is comfortable clothes and a pair of supportive shoes. Some people find it easier to walk outside (more to see!), but you'll reap similar benefits from walking on a treadmill. (Just set the incline to 1 percent to mimic the resistance you'd experience outdoors, recommends an often-cited study from the August 1996 issue of Journal of Sports Sciences.)

If you're brand new to exercise, start small: Walk for just 10 minutes, going five or 10 minutes longer each week until you've built up to a full half hour. Walking in shorter spurts works well when you don't have time for a single 30-minute session too. "You could do a quick 10-minute walk after every meal or during break times at work," says Upton. Ideally, you'll aim to get a 30-minute walk done five to seven days a week.

Don't feel like paying attention to the clock? You could also track your steps with a pedometer and aim to raise your number each day until you reach your goal. "You could increase your step count by building in activities like walking to work, taking the stairs, or walking to the store," Upton says.

Or if you're on the treadmill, listen to a podcast or catch up on your favorite Netflix show. You won't pay as much attention to the time that way!

And while you may have heard that 10,000 steps is the magical number to aim for, research published in the May 2019 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who walk 7,500 steps (about 3.75 miles) daily fare just as well as people who walk longer distances.

Once you've worked up to walking 30 minutes at a brisk pace, find new ways to push yourself. "Your body will adapt as you become fitter and lose weight. So you need to keep increasing the stimulus and challenging yourself," Upton says. Some ideas that'll keep you on your toes:

  • Walk longer or further. Try adding tacking on another 10 or 15 minutes or adding another half mile to your route.
  • Add bursts of faster walking or jogging. Walk fast at a 7/10 difficulty level for 45 seconds then walk slowly at a 3/10 difficulty for 30 seconds, says fitness instructor Samantha Clayton.
  • Walk up hills or climb steps. Upping the incline forces your body to work harder.
  • Walk on more challenging terrain. Your body has to work harder to stay stable on surfaces like sand or grass compared to cement.
  • Break up your walk with exercises. Stop in a park and do assisted push-ups against a bench or try lunges or crunches on the grass, Clayton says.
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