Why Your Walking Program Isn’t Helping You Lose Weight

Photo by Henry Xu on Unsplash

“If you walk most days for 30 minutes or more, you’ll get in better shape and drop a few pounds.

How many times have you heard that? So, wanting to do the “right thing”, you lace up your exercise shoes, grab a water bottle, and hit the pavement. Weeks later you step on the scale and nothing has changed, or even worse, you’ve gained weight. What could be more frustrating?

If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. It’s a VERY common problem. There are two main reasons why you’re not losing weight from your walking program. One is you’re overcompensating for those extra steps you’re taking by eating more — a very common problem. The other is you’re doing the “same old, same old” every time you walk.

Let’s look at each and how you can make the changes you need to jumpstart the health benefits and lose more weight.

Doing the Same Old Walking Routine Every Day

When you first start a walking program, or an exercise program of any type, it’s a shock to your body. After sitting around for months, any type of movement is a wake-up call. The first few weeks, your body has to work hard to accommodate this new level of activity, but as all good bodies do, it adapts.

What does “adaptation” mean? Your body becomes more efficient at walking at the pace you’re asking it to walk. Our bodies love taking the easiest path possible to conserve energy. They don’t like to waste any more energy than they have to, so they become more efficient at performing tasks.

Greater efficiency means they can do the same job with less energy expenditure. Therefore, six weeks into your walking workout, assuming you haven’t changed your route or the intensity, you’re burning fewer calories than you were before.

Not that you’re not getting health benefits. If you’re walking at a brisk pace, you’re forcing your heart to pump harder and that improves the way your cells handle glucose. Aerobic exercise also lowers blood pressure and reduces stress — but if your goal is to lose weight or continue to improve your fitness level, you have to “shake things up.”

Shaking it up sounds a little scary. Don’t worry, you don’t have to run, unless you want to — there’s another option. A study out of the University of Ohio found that one simple change — switching up your walking pace could burn up to 20% more calories.

To get these benefits, you don’t have to break into a run, just change your walking speed at intervals. Walk at your usual pace then step on the gas pedal for 30 seconds before returning to your normal pace. Some people refer to this as interval walking.

The practice of starting and stopping increases the number of calories you burn when you walk. In the Ohio State study, researchers asked participants to walk on a treadmill. The treadmill kept a constant pace, but the participants switched back and forth between fast steps that took them to the front of the treadmill and slow steps that took them further to the back. This simple variation burned more calories.

You can do the same whether you walk on a treadmill or outdoors. Change the speed and size of your steps as you walk. Look at a landmark in the distance, like a mailbox, and double your speed as you move towards it before slowing down again. Avoid maintaining a constant speed where your body gets into a comfort zone. Keep it guessing!

Walk for Distance, Not Time and Climb Some Hills

Another tip — you’ll burn more calories if you walk for distance rather than time, as this study shows. When you know you have a certain distance to cover, the tendency is to pick up the pace to get there quickly, but you feel less of a sense of urgency when you’re walking for time.

Of course, you can shake up your walking routine in other ways as well. Find some killer hills to climb! Climbing hills is a great way to burn calories and get greater cardiovascular benefits from walking as well as strengthen your thighs and buttocks. Walking on level ground does little to enhance thigh and buttock strength. So, add a hill or two to your walking routine. If you walk on a treadmill, increase the incline. On the treadmill, keep your hands off the railing. Gripping the railing decreases the calories you burn.

If you want to take your walking routine to a new level, invest in a pair of Nordic walking poles. When you walk holding these poles, you don’t feel like you’re working harder but you’re actually burning up to 45% more calories. Using walking poles will also improve your coordination, balance, and agility skills. Ambling with Nordic poles will also improve your range-of-motion since the poles force you to take longer strides and use your upper body more, so you’re getting a total body workout.

Another way to increase the effort and the calorie burn when you walk is to strap on a back pack. Start with an empty backpack and gradually fill it up with books or anything else that has weight to force your body to work harder on your daily jaunts. Another alternative is to wear a weighted vest. (affiliate) You can even wear one of these around the house to burn more calories. They look snazzy too!

Overcompensating for Exercise

Another reason you may not be losing weight from walking: you’re compensating for the calories you burn by eating more. Too often people think because they worked out they can have an extra cookie, brownie, or ________ (fill in the blank).

The reality is most of us overestimate how many calories we burned during a workout. If you walk for 30 minutes at a moderate pace (around 4 miles per hour), you’ll burn around 210 calories if you’re of average weight. Think how easy it is to overeat 210 calories. I was just looking at the calorie counts of some cookies at Panera. The lowest calorie one they had on display had almost 400 calories! Here’s a good rule of thumb:

You usually burn fewer calories and eat more calories than you think.

Here’s a disturbing finding. According to a study published in the journal Appetite, even thinking about exercise can be motivation to pig out. This study showed participants helped themselves to 52% more of a snack mix when they thought about doing a workout. Plus, most of us are not very good at estimating how many calories we burned during a workout.

The best way to make sure you’re not out eating your workouts is to keep a journal of everything you eat for a week or two. Write down EVERYTHING that goes in your mouth, not just what you eat when you sit down to a meal. If you don’t like the idea of writing everything down, simplify the task by using an app. My Fitness Pal and Lose It are some of the many apps that’ll help you track your exercise and eating habits. A little awareness goes a long way towards changing mindless eating habits.

Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

You might discover you’re a more prolific snacker than you thought. Those little bites here and there, and even samples at the grocery store can add up, and for some reason, people think if a food sample costs nothing it has no calories. If you haven’t noticed, most of the samples grocery stores give out are packaged foods loaded with unhealthy ingredients.

Know Your Walking Goals

There’s nothing wrong with walking at a steady pace for 30 minutes if it fits with your goals. A 30-minute walk is an excellent stress reliever and a way to get closer to nature. If you enjoy leisurely walks outdoors — keep doing it! But if you want to lose weight or improve your fitness level, kick your workout up a notch a few days a week.

References:

  • Health Day. “For a Better Calorie Burn, Adjust Your Speed While Walking”
  • Fitness Magazine. “Why Do You Pig Out after Your Workout?”
  • The Ohio State University Department of Engineering. “New Study Shows Varying Walking Pace Burns More Calories”
  • Mayo Clinic. “Nordic Walking: Pole Pushing Burns More Calories, Helps with Stability”

I’m a family physician who believes in the power of lifestyle to transform health and prevent disease. Food is the best medicine!

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