You don't need a gym to get a quality workout -- just head out the front door for a brisk walk. It's the most popular way to stay fit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012. Walking as an exercise can even help you lose weight, if combined with a low-calorie diet. How much you need to walk to make weight loss happen depends on the intensity of the walk and on your size.
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Walking for Weight Loss
Walking helps you lose weight when it contributes to a calorie deficit. By increasing your activity and decreasing the number of calories you eat, you force your body to dip into your fat stores to fuel you. A deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories yields a loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Most people can afford to cut 250 to 500 calories from their meal plan without dipping below 1,200 calories, which can cause your metabolism to slow down and can also cause nutritional deficiencies. This means that to make notable weight loss happen, you need to burn another 250 to 500 calories daily by walking. The American College of Sports Medicine makes a general recommendation that 250 minutes per week of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, is necessary for significant weight loss.
Walking Calorie Burn Rates
How many calories you burn when walking will depend on your speed, the terrain and your size. A slow, 2-mph pace burns 204 calories per hour for a 180-pound person. But, if that person doubles the speed to cover four miles in an hour, she can burn 409 calories. Take the walk uphill for the entire hour, and burn 490 calories.
Smaller people burn fewer calories -- a 125-pound person uses 270 calories in an hour long, 4 mph walk. Larger people burn more -- a 185-pound person burns 400 calories walking for an hour at 4 mph. The more slowly you walk, the less energy it takes and you'll burn fewer calories per hour. If that 185-pound person walked an hour at 4 mph for nine days, without increasing calorie intake, she could burn enough calories to lose 1 pound.
If physical activity is new for you, start gradually with just 10 to 15 minutes a day. Slowly increase the amount of time you spend walking and increase your speed when you feel more comfortable doing so. Walk outdoors if the conditions permit; if you need to head indoors, choose a treadmill, a shopping mall or an indoor track. You don't need to do all of your walking in a single continuous session to provide you with health and calorie-burning benefits. Break it up into 10-minute or longer increments so you can easily schedule walking into your day.
Why Walking Works
Any physical activity that burns calories helps with weight loss. What makes walking valuable is its ease and accessibility. Most people can walk, and they don't need more than a pair of supportive, well-fitting shoes to get started. Regular exercise can also help get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check and may reduce your risk of chronic disease -- specifically, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Walking is a weight-bearing exercise that helps promote bone strength, and it's easier on your joints than jogging.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in 2013 showed that although running produced greater weight loss than walking, you can also lose significant weight with walking. Walking is especially helpful for those who find that running is too intense -- such as those who are just starting a fitness program or who are extremely overweight. Also, you can walk every day -- you don't need the 1-day break after each workout that some people require after higher impact exercise -- so it's easier to develop a daily fitness routine.
Additional Strategies for Weight Loss
Controlling portion sizes and minimizing your intake of sugary and fatty foods supports walking as an exercise to lose weight. Avoid fried foods, full-fat dairy, refined grains, soda and baked sweets. Fresh vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy should comprise most meals. Small portions of nuts, fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt and whole-grain crackers make appropriate snacks when you're trying to slim down.
In addition to walking, add two muscle-strengthening sessions per week. This involves at least one set of an exercise for each major muscle group. Muscle-strengthening helps hone your ability to do day-to-day activities, such as to move furniture or carry grocery bags. It also slows the loss of muscle that can occur during aging and weight loss. When you lose muscle, your metabolism decreases, which makes it harder to lose weight. And introducing strength training into your routine also benefits your posture and -- in some cases -- your flexibility, which can help you lead a healthy, active life.