Exercise doesn't have to be complicated. Case in point: Walking has benefits that match or rival those of most other workouts.
Not only do regular, brisk walks help you reduce the risk of various heart conditions and ease joint pain, but it can also help boost your immune system and improve your mood.
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Sounds pretty good, right? But the question is: Should you kick things up a notch by wearing ankle weights during your next walk around the block? The answer to "Are ankle weights good for walking?" isn't as simple as you might think.
Walking with ankle weights poses risks: You could easily injure your lower-body muscles or joints.
Pros and Cons of Walking With Ankle Weights
In general, ankle weights make your muscles (specifically, your calves, glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings) work harder to do the same motion. And wearing ankle weights while walking of 1 to 3 pounds can increase oxygen intake by 5 percent to 10 percent, according to Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council of Exercise. That means you'll burn more calories.
Training with weights also increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ankle weights provide light-weight resistance and particularly recommended for senior citizens or those recovering from injury to use in place of larger and heavier machine weights.
Bryant notes that ankle weights can disrupt your walking and running mechanics, which can lead to knee and ankle pain or injury. Additionally, according to the Mayo Clinic, altering your gait to compensate for the extra weight may cause you to lose balance or coordination, potentially resulting in a fall and/or injury.
And because ankle weights pull on your ankle joint, this poses the risk of major ligament injuries to the hips, knees and back, says Terry Downey, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at the Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.
Ankle weights for kids put them at even greater risk because the muscle, joints, ligaments and tendons aren't fully mature. Plus, growth plates at the end of long bones are usually open in until the age of 16 or 17. If they're damaged and not treated promptly and properly, it can lead to misshapen bones, limbs that are too short and arthritic problems, per to the Nemours Foundation's Kids Health website.
Other Ways to Amp Up Your Walking Workouts
If walking is your preferred type of exercise, rather than using ankle weights, you could try mixing up your walking routine to burn more calories and increase your endurance. Try picking up the pace, climbing more hills, adding short bursts of jogging or walking on grass, gravel or sand.
In fact, two different studies — a September 2018 one in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research and an April 2017 one in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy — found hill climbing provides the same strengthening benefits to the ankles and calves that you would potentially get from wearing ankle weights — but without the high risk of pain or injury.
You could also try counting your steps using a fitness app and increasing your steps each week. Berkeley Wellness also recommends swinging your arms when you walk, because this allows for a quicker pace and provides a great workout for the upper body as well.
How to Safely Use Ankle Weights
To get the benefits of ankle weights without the risks, only use them for resistance-training workouts.
Using ankle weights during your next leg or glute workout is likely the safest option, because "the muscles have to work harder to move this increased load against gravity, and in turn this will increase strength," Downey says.
If you want to try using ankle weights with your next strength workout, start on the lighter side and never doing back-to-back days of ankle weight workouts. Try performing bent-leg raises, flexion and extension exercises with ankle weights for knee pain.
Downey advises working one-on-one with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer to develop a personalized strength training plan if you want to use wearable weights.
1. Bent-Leg Raise
You can use ankle weights for inner thighs, too, when performing exercises such as bent-leg raises. People usually have stronger outer thighs than inner thighs; bent-leg raises help balance this out.
- Start wearing 1-pound ankle weights and sit in a chair with your knees bent, feet on the floor.
- First, extend one leg straight and hold for 60 seconds.
- Then bend the knee 45 degrees and hold for 30 seconds.
- Finish by placing the foot on the floor.
- Work both legs. As you become stronger, increase ankle weights by 1/2 pound at a time.
2. Chair Straight-Leg Raise
Chair straight-leg raises tone the quadriceps, one of the most important muscles for supporting the knee joints.
- Put on 1-pound ankle weights and sit down in front of a bench.
- Place one leg on the bench in front of you.
- Then raise your leg 3 inches toward the ceiling.
- Hold for 10 seconds.
- Do this exercise with both legs individually to tone your thighs.
- Only increase weights by 1/2 pound at a time.
3. Knee Flexion
The knee flexion exercise strengthens the hamstrings, the muscles on the back of the thigh that also support the knees.
- Stand holding onto the back of a chair for balance, wearing 1-pound ankle weights.
- Place all your weight into one leg and bend the knee of your other leg to kick the heel toward your butt.
- Keep the foot up for one second.
- Lower your foot back down slowly.
- Be sure to work both legs.
- Harvard Health Publishing: 'Wearable Weights: How They Can Help or Hurt'
- Berkeley Wellness: 'Better Walking Workouts'
- Mayo Clinic: 'Could ankle weights help me get more out of my usual walking routine?'
- KidsHealth.org: 'Growth Plate Fractures'
- Mayo Clinic: 'Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier'
- American Council on Exercise: 'Do the benefits outweigh the risks if individuals hold dumbbells in their hands while doing step aerobics or other cardio activities?'
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy: 'The impact of incline and speed of treadmill on ankle muscle activity in middle-aged adults'
- Journal of Foot and Ankle Research: 'Peroneal muscle activity during different types of walking'