Have a hefty weight loss goal? Consider walking, not running, toward your best new body. A recent British study found people who regularly walked for fitness—albeit at a fast pace—weighed less than those devoted to other types of physical activity, including running, swimming, and cycling. (Burn calories and build muscle—all while boosting your mood—with our 21-Day Walk a Little, Lose a Lot Challenge!)
Though she's tried everything from kettlebells to gyrokinesis, personal trainer and fitness video guru Jessica Smith says walking remains her workout of choice for fitness and weight control.
"I truly believe it's the best way to get and stay in shape," she said. "Not only is it free, anyone can do it and you don't need any equipment to begin. It's easy on the joints, and I believe it helps with appetite control"—unlike with running, she feels less hungry after walking, not more.
Depending on where you begin, you can expect to shed a half-pound to two pounds per week with a new walking program, said Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, author of Walking the Weight Off for Dummies. (Good news: The heavier you start, the faster you'll shrink.) To get your new program up and walking—and have a good time along the way—follow these tips from Palinski-Wade, Smith, and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Scott Mullen, of the University of Kansas Hospital Sports Medicine and Performance Center.
Check with your doc.
Walking does work for just about every body—but bumping up your activity level does put strain on your muscles, joints, and heart.
"If you haven't been exercising, running it by your primary care doctor is a good idea, just to make sure they don't have any concerns or think you need any testing ahead of time," Mullen said.
Once you've begun, stay alert for signs you're overdoing it.
"Always listen to your body and pay attention to its signals," Smith said. "Pain, lightheadeness, or nausea can all be signals that you are exerting yourself too much."
Other red flags include chest pain, pain that shoots down your arm or up your neck, or severe headaches, Mullen said—if you develop them, stop your workout and check with your health care team.
Got the all-clear? Good. Your next stop—a sporting goods or specialty shoe store, where you should pick up a pair of high-quality sneakers. Look for a shop that does gait analyses to help you select the right pair for your specific foot type, Mullen said. Go a half-size up from your regular work shoes, Smith advised, since feet tend to swell when you exercise.
Walking doesn't require a closetful of expensive athletic wear, but investing in a few key pieces can make you much more comfortable on the sidewalk or path. Start with the right sports bra—"it should support but not squish you," Smith said. Try a few on and do some jumping jacks in the dressing room; you might feel silly, but it's worth it to make sure you can move easily but with the right degree of uplift.
Look for tops and bottoms in moisture-wicking fabrics, which sop up sweat to keep you comfortable, dry, and chafe-free. Choose styles with a bit of stretch, so they don't pinch if you take a bigger step or stride uphill, Palinski-Wade said. In cold weather, layer up—you'll want to start protected from the elements but have clothing to shed as you warm up during the workout.
Fight the chafe.
The combo of sweat, movement, and clothing can leave your skin raw and irritated. Ward it off pre-workout by applying petroleum jelly or Body Glide—a convenient, plant-based balm. Use it on your thighs, neck, arms, around your sports bra, or anywhere else you're prone to painful rubbing.
Stop blisters before they start by pairing properly fitting shoes with socks that fit snugly without sliding, Palinski-Wade said. And if sore spots do pop up, cover them with a product like Compeed Blister Cushions, which fit like a second skin to relieve pain, speed healing, and prevent new irritation.
Ultimately, you'll want to build up to 30 to 60 minutes of walking most days of the week. But start where you are—if you haven't worked out in a while, that could mean fitting in 10 minutes of motion each day, Palinski-Wade said. Each week, boost that daily total by 5 minutes. This slow, steady ramp-up gives your body a chance to adapt, reducing your risk of injury as you get fitter.
"One of the great things about exercise in general but especially with walking is that it really can be cumulative during the day," Palinski-Wade said.
If you feel overwhelmed by a 30- or 60-minute total, break it up into three 10-minute segments. You'll burn just as many calories and net the same health benefits with less stress on your schedule.
At first, keep your pace comfortably challenging—you should be able to speak a few sentences, but not carry on a lengthy conversation without effort, Palinski-Wade said. Maintain a steady program and you'll build endurance—you'll notice that you can naturally walk faster with less effort.
After a few weeks of steady striding, add in some speedier intervals—brief bursts of faster walking—to amp up your results. Ohio State University researchers recently found people who varied their walking pace burn up to 20 percent more calories than those who stride at a steady pace.
Calm aches and pains.
With any new routine, a small amount of soreness comes with the territory—for instance, your calves might feel tight the day after you walk uphill, Palinski-Wade said. For minor muscle aches—the kinds of things that hurt a bit but feel better once you start moving—apply ice (or a cooling pack like Therapearl, which doesn't leak and fits perfectly around spots like your knees, ankles, or lower back).
Take a day off if soreness alters your gait or limits your movements, or if your aches occur around your joints rather than just in your muscles, Mullen advised. Pain directly behind your kneecap, around your Achilles tendon, or in your ankles or hips could mean you're pushing harder than you should. If a few days of rest and icing don't resolve these issues, see a sports doc or physical therapist for advice.
To ward off aches and injuries before they begin, add in 2 days of strength training per week, Mullen said. As a bonus, this also turns up your burn—in a recent 12-week study, participants who combined cardio and weights shed more fat than those who did one type of exercise alone.
Stay motivated by tracking your progress in a training journal, Palinski-Wade suggested. You don't need to get crazy-detailed—just note how far you walked and how long it took you, plus your incline if you're on the treadmill. Over time you'll start to see signs of improvement—"not just on the scale but in your fitness. That can be really motivating," she said.
Make it fun.
Don't overlook the most important element in a successful long-term fitness routine—fun. Find as many ways as you can to make walking enjoyable. For instance:
• Invest in a fitness tracker—start with a simple step-counter like the FitBit Zip ($59.95) or a stylish option like the Misfit Shine 2 ($99.99). Instant feedback makes each step more rewarding, and vibrations and alerts nudge you to do more.
• Add an app. Try MapMyWalk to chart your path or find a new one. Use MatchUp (free for iPhone, or use online) to join fitness challenges and see how you stack up against friends, even if they use different trackers or GPS services. Or download Charity Miles (free for iPhone or Android) and earn up to 25 cents for your favorite nonprofit with each mile you stride.
• Curate a playlist of your most motivating songs. Or download one from Spotify (we like moving our feet to the Latin Dance or Epic Workout mixes).
• Nab that colorful, strappy tank top you've been eyeing. Better yet, sign up for a service like Fabletics—you'll get a cute new workout outfit delivered to your door for $50 per month.
• Grab a friend—what Smith calls a walking "accountabilibuddy"—and spend some time catching up as you stride.
• Mix it up. Every 2 to 3 weeks, try a new route (maybe one with hills), bump up the incline on the treadmill, or grab a pair of light hand weights. "Not only is it more challenging to your body, you're going to see results faster that way, and it keeps the exercise fresh," Palinski-Wade said.