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Does walking for weight loss really work? How to burn more calories

There are many benefits of walking — and yes, weight loss is one of them. Experts explain how to create a walking routine that can help you lose weight.
Walking for warming up around her apartment in an early morning-stock photo
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/ Source: TODAY

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Looking for an easy-to-start workout routine that can deliver results, without having to go to the gym, learn complicated moves or spend money on equipment?

Try walking.

The simple movement might not seem like the most efficient exercise available, but experts on the topic say it can help with weight loss, mental health and more. Even a few thousand steps a day can burn hundreds of calories and reduce your risk of disease. It's easy to add some modifications to your walking routine to increase calorie burn and lose weight.

Can walking really help you lose weight?

According to Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, walking "certainly can" help with weight loss.

"It is a low-impact aerobic exercise that allows individuals to expend energy and burn calories," Bryant explains.

Some recommend walking as a form of exercise due to its simplicity and accessibility.

"I am a fan of walking as a form of movement — especially if you're just getting started," says Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian in Atlanta, Georgia. "What's most important is finding a type of activity you like and will do."

If you are using walking as a tool to help you lose weight, Bryant recommends walking for 45 to 60 minutes per day most days of the week — about 15 to 30 minutes more than the basic guideline for general health and wellbeing, which is 30 minutes of activity a day most days a week.

"The thing to understand is that it doesn't have to be all in one walking session, you can break it up through the course of that day," Bryant explains, adding that he advises breaking up those walks into two or three large chunks.

"Maybe you go for a 30-minute walk in the morning, and then maybe it's another 15- or 30-minute walk following dinner or during your lunch break," he suggests. "The idea is to try to accumulate, you know, for about 45 minutes to an hour of walking, which tends to correlate best with reasonable weight loss or better weight control."

How much weight can you lose by walking?

Bryant says it's difficult to guess how much weight one may lose while walking due to the amount of factors involved, but he adds that people can expect to burn about a hundred calories for every thousand steps they take.

"Generally, the amount of weight one can expect to lose (is) usually going to be a function of how frequently you do it in terms of days per week, as well as the duration that you walk and also the intensity at which you walk," he says.

Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian based in New York City, explains that "the average 40-year-old woman who's 5'4'' and 165 pounds might lose five pounds in two months if she went from inactive to walking for an hour five times a week."

But you can't out-walk a bad diet, Cassetty says. "She would have to make some healthy tweaks to her diet, which result in a slight calorie deficit (around 100 calories a day)."

"Maintaining this workout routine and the healthy eating habits can help keep those five pounds off, but the walking alone isn't likely to result in additional weight loss," Cassetty says.

"Generally speaking, the average healthy adult will likely notice a difference in how they feel by incorporating more movement and sprucing up the diet," says Moore. "You may or may not lose weight with diet and exercise changes, though. Whether you lose weight can vary with personal genetics and metabolism, age, overall physical activity level, stress levels and even sleep."

How can you start a walking routine for weight loss?

Walking is one of the easiest exercise routines to start — just pick a route and get moving! Bryant recommends wearing comfortable footwear, but there's no need to invest in fancy shoes or other gear.

A good speed to start at is walking at a pace of about 3 miles an hour, or walking one mile in twenty minutes.

If you're looking for a metric to compete with, Bryant recommends trying to work your way up to 10,000 steps, which will help you burn about 1,000 calories. Recent research showed that logging 8,000 steps a few days a week lowered mortality risk, so even if you can't quite hit the 10,000 step benchmark, you'll still be making strides for your health.

Tips from Start TODAY members to help build a walking habit include focusing on mental health benefits, documenting your journey with pictures, being flexible with changes to your routine, focusing on consistency rather than calories or distance, and using walking as a way to learn more about your community.

How can you burn more calories while walking?

If you're looking for a full-body workout, it's possible to amp up your walking routine by changing the terrain.

"Walking uphill or inclining your treadmill increases the intensity and challenge of the walk," Bryant says. "You can also introduce some intervals where you change your walking speed. If you're outside, maybe walk really briskly from a stop sign to a stop sign and walk at a normal pace until you get to your next stop sign. If you're on a treadmill ... walk comfortably for three minutes and then for the next minute or two, walk a half a mile an hour faster."

You can also add weights, though Bryant recommends avoiding hand weights and instead investing in a weighted vest, which can make you push yourself harder without putting stress on the joints.

If you're looking for an equipment-free way to burn more calories, you can try doing something as simple as waving your arms. A study by the American Council on Exercise found that moving the arms vigorously expends more calories.

"It may look a bit odd but but vigorously pumping the arm certainly adds to the intensity of the workout," Bryant says.

What are some other health benefits of walking?

Of course, there are more benefits to walking than just losing weight. Like any other aerobic exercise, walking will help improve the function of your cardiovascular system, boost blood sugar control and lower blood pressure.

"Any benefit you can get from other forms of cardio exercise, like cycling, running, swimming, you can derive all those same benefits while walking," Bryant says.

Walking can also have benefits for mental health. Bryant says that the exercise can help relieve and manage stress and anxiety.

"I would tell people ... to really pay attention and focus on how walking makes them feel, because I think that can serve as a great motivator to kind of keep them in the game in terms of continuing to walk," he says.