Walking for Fitness

Walking for Fitness: Getting Started

  • Start exercising: Many exercise programs say to talk to your doctor before starting. Certain people with specific medical conditions may want to check with their doctor before becoming physically active, however; most people can start a simple walking program without problems. Even those recovering from heart attacks are encouraged to walk treadmills in cardiac rehabilitation programs.
  • Comfortable shoes: Only one thing is worth investing in when it comes to walking, and that's a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Even athletic shoes that are more than 6 months old may not have enough cushioning to support you. You may choose either athletic shoes for sidewalks and roads or light hiking shoes (rugged walking shoes) if you venture out on trails.
    • Select shoes especially designed for walking, which will be labeled as such. Running shoes are a second choice. Cross training shoes are a third best choice.
    • You want a shoe that bends easily through the ball of the foot but remains fairly firm. A low heel works best, which is why a running shoe with thick cushioning in the heel is not the best choice.
    • Avoid high tops unless they are specifically designed as walking or hiking styles.
  • Warm up: Spend 30 seconds each on five simple warm-up moves:
    • Ankle circles: Stand on one foot and lift the other off the ground. Slowly flex that raised ankle through its full range of motion, making circles with the toes. Do six to eight circles in each direction. Switch feet and repeat.
    • Leg swings: Stand on one leg and swing the other loosely from the hip, front to back, in a relaxed, unforced motion. Your foot should swing no higher than a foot or so off the ground. Do 15-20 swings on each leg.
    • Pelvic loops: Place your hands on your hips with your knees gently bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your body upright and make 10 slow circles with your hips, pushing them gently forward, left, back, and right. Reverse directions and repeat.
    • Arm circles: Hold both arms straight out from your sides, palms down, making yourself into the letter T. Make 10-12 slow backward circles with your hands, starting small and finishing with large circles using your entire arm. Shake your arms out and repeat with 10-12 forward circles.
    • Hula-hoop jumps: Hop in place on both feet. Keep your head and shoulders facing forward. Twist your feet and lower body left, then right, back and forth with each of 20 hops.
  • Observe basic safety while walking outside. Watch for traffic all around you. Always walk on sidewalks or on the left side of the street facing traffic if there is no sidewalk. Carry an ID and a cell phone or change for a pay phone. Use caution if wearing headphones (perhaps use just one earpiece so you can hear traffic and other noises around you). Make yourself visible in low-light situations by wearing reflective gear, such as vests with reflective tape are especially visible.

Walking Technique Counts for Fitness

As you walk, consider adding four important techniques to improve the benefit of walking:

  • Stand tall. Posture matters, so, keep your shoulders back and tuck in your abs to avoid arching your lower back. Focus on looking forward to about 12-20 feet in front of you.
  • Take quicker, not longer, steps. Your stride will lengthen as you speed up, but don't force yourself to take longer steps. Taking unnaturally long strides can hurt your low back.
  • Relax your shoulders and bend your elbows. Bring your arms up to a 90-degree angle, but no more. Straight arms can lead to swelling or numbness of the fingers. Swing your arms naturally with each step, and should be bent at the elbow at a 90? angle. Your elbows should be close to the torso, with the hands going no higher than the center of the chest on the forward swing, or past the back of the hip on the back swing. Faster arms will make faster feet.
  • Try using the abdominal muscles and hip flexors to rotate the hip forward. As the leg swings forward and straightens, the body will land on the heel. The ankle should be flexed with toes pointed upward at about a 45 degrees. angle from the ground. The foot placement should be in front of the body, as if almost walking along a straight line. As the body’s weight passes over the leading leg, the foot should roll forward and push off from the toes to begin the next step. A strong push will give you more momentum and power. You should feel as if you're showing the sole of your shoe to someone behind you.

Speed Matters When Walking for Fitness

Here's a quick way to figure out how fast you walk. Instead of timing yourself on a measured track, you can calculate your walking speed by counting your steps. Once you're warmed up, count how many steps you take in a minute of walking (or count your steps for 20 seconds and multiply by 3).

  • If you're walking for your health, a pace of about 3 miles per hour (or about 120 steps per minute) is about right. That's a 20-minute mile.
  • To walk for weight loss, you'll have to pick up the pace to 4 miles per hour (or 135 steps per minute), a 15-minute mile.
  • Aerobic fitness comes at 4.5 miles per hour (you're moving along at 150 steps per minute).

Walking for Weight Loss

The first step in losing weight may be walking without changing a thing you eat.

With dieting, the focus is too often on input and calories. However, the other side of that equation: calories out is more important. Burning calories by boosting your metabolism through activity, not pills or diet promises, may be a far more successful way to lose weight.

Walking helps you shift your attitude toward health, fitness, and weight loss. Change doesn't happen overnight -- nor did gaining those extra pounds. Take a year to move through these three steps (at least 16 weeks for each step) to make gradual but positive lifestyle changes.

  • Step 1: Increase your activity level. Just get out there and walk a little. Build a daily habit. Don't think about changing clothes, going to a gym, or jumping around for an hour.
    • Just take a short walk to the bus stop, the corner mailbox, or the convenience store for a gallon of milk. Find ways to add an extra 2,000 steps into your daily routine.
    • Buy and wear a pedometer to measure your steps. A 20-minute walk is about 120 steps per minute, or 2,400 steps. You can break that up into three walks of 800 steps each.
    • How far or how fast you walk aren't important. Simply walking in short spurts most days of the week can be effective. Be careful. Once you start paying attention to walking, you'll want to walk farther.
    • Add a simple four-minute stretch routine a few days a week after your walk to maintain your natural range of motion. Just stand up, even if you're at work fully dressed in work clothes. Put one leg back, bend the front knee, and lean forward to stretch the calf muscle. For thighs, grab your ankle from behind, keep your knees close together. Lean forward to stretch your lower back.
    • Eventually add a simple two-minute warm-up before you walk: Hold on to a railing for balance and circle your ankle, one leg at a time. Then swing each leg, forward and back. Put your hands on your hips for a circular trunk rotation. This gets the blood flowing and leaves your muscles less prone to injury.
    • Goal: You'll realize you don't have to hurt to feel better. After a walk, you'll feel invigorated and happy.
  • Step 2: Walk longer, build strength. Start increasing your walking distance, and you'll begin to see weight loss. During this second phase, increasing distance means increasing time to 45-60 minutes two days a week.
    • You can cover serious distance in an hour of walking and walk even longer on weekends. Build up to a half-day or day-long hike. This increase in duration increases weight loss, burns more calories, and builds strength as you get off the beaten path and hike up and down hills on a challenging course.
    • Hike 2 miles somewhere and back at a brisk pace. Ask at any outdoor shop about the best places to hike, such as conservation land, state parks, a waterfront, or rail trail. Go for a full-day trek through a bird sanctuary, take a picnic to a waterfall, or go on an organized hike with a group.
    • When the weather outside is frightful, many people turn to treadmills. Admittedly, treadmills are boring. Spice up a complete treadmill workout by using elevation to give the sense of a trail. You don't have to follow the preprogrammed courses. Create your own interval training with hills. Make it a mental game. Life isn't automated and your treadmill workout shouldn't be either. Ascend and descend by varying your elevations and speeds.
    • Pick five of your favorite albums for your MP3 player. Start and end with an easy one, but use random play in between and walk in time with whatever tempo come on. Put a fan in front of the treadmill to create natural cooling from the wind you'd normally get on a trail.
    • Keep an activity log. Noting your daily activity is a great motivator, especially when you see those miles start to build up. Tally your daily, weekly, and monthly totals.
    • Goal: Walk vigorously for a longer period of time twice a week. Don't be discouraged if you don't see dramatic weight loss; it may be because you are building muscle.

Another Tip When Walking for Weight Loss

  • Step 3: Walk faster and seek variety. In this 16-week segment, you'll find the athlete within. Speed up your walking and you'll see total body fitness improvements. A couple days a week, go fast enough to break a sweat and breathe hard.
    • Use the 1-to-10 scale of perceived rate of exertion to measure endurance. Think of 1 as watching TV; 10 is gasping for air (you can't go any further). Daily walks, for example, are 5 or even 6-6.5 sometimes. Twice a week, crank it up to 7, 8, or 9 on a steep hill for a few minutes. Now you're burning serious calories and building real aerobic fitness through interval training.
    • Need variety? Complement your walking with a counterbalancing exercise such as martial arts, yoga, water aerobics, or a court sport like tennis.
    • Goal: Walk in a 5K or 10K event such as a corporate cup run/walk, a fundraising race for the cure, or other organized community activity.
    • How to measure progress: Other than simply feeling great and watching the scale, you can actually measure what walking is doing for your body. Before you begin your activity program, have your doctor check your cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose (high levels can be a sign of early or undiagnosed diabetes), and your body mass index (BMI). BMI is a number that reflects your height-to-weight ratio (simply take your weight in pounds, multiply by 703 and divide by your height in inches squared -- keep this number under 25 for optimal health).
    • Measure again at 26 and 52 weeks. You'll see marked improvements but not necessarily on the scale. You may be turning fat into muscle, which weighs more than fat. The best measure is how you feel -- about yourself.

How to Use a Pedometer

If you like gadgets, you'll love using a pedometer. It's smaller than a cell phone, and you wear a pedometer on your belt to record the number of steps you take. Digital pedometers record not only your steps based on your body's movement but will convert those steps to miles. Some even tell the time and estimate the calories you've burned based on your body weight. Less-sophisticated pedometers simply click off the number of steps taken. The point is that you are walking and tracking your distance.

Pedometers also work well for people who simply don't have time or don't take time to walk consistently as a form of exercise. By tracking the number of steps you take each day simply doing your regular daily activities, you may find that you're getting in plenty of exercise. Some experts recommend 10,000 steps a day. Others say this would be an eventual target.

  • In normal daily activity, adults cover about 2-3 miles. About 2,000 steps equal a mile. To make walking a beneficial activity, you would need to come up with at least another 4,000 steps in a day. You can find ways to add steps here and there, such as walking farther from parking lots, taking stairs when available instead of escalators and elevators, walking the long way to get somewhere in your office building, walking your children to school, having a walk/talk meeting instead of sitting down in a conference room, or planning a short walk around the block as a break.
  • For sedentary (inactive) people who, for example, work at computers all day or drive vehicles for a living, set your goals lower and try to add steps when you can. Be realistic. Log your steps each day and try to add more.

For More Information about Walking for Fitness

Department of Health and Human Services, Guide to Physical Activity

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Physical Activity for Everyone: Recommendations

Medically reviewed by Kelly A. Truesdale, DO; Board Certification: Family Practice


Klippel, J.H., et al. Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. New York: Springer, 2008.