Walking isn’t just a great way to improve your blood flow, feel better, and burn a few extra calories every day. If you’re making the right decisions when you go out—you’re walking faster, you’re changing your terrain, you’re mixing up your routes, and you’re striving to walk farther and improve each and every time—walking is a wonderful low-impact and moderate-intensity exercise activity that comes with a range of benefits to your body. (For more on what those are, see here for What Happens to Your Body When You Walk More.)
But if there’s any downside to walking for fitness, it’s that it can become repetitive—and a bit stale—fairly quickly. You can rectify this by mixing into your walks a bunch of really great tips and tricks that can elevate the overall experience of walking and make it not only more productive but also more enjoyable. With that in mind, we asked several top trainers and walking experts for their tips on walking better for exercise, and here are there answers. And if you’re a dedicated fitness walker, make sure you’re up to speed on The Single Worst Shoes for Walking Every Day, According to a New Study.
Regular walking—or “steady-state” walking—can feel repetitive, especially if you’re constantly walking the same routes. One way to keep your walks fresh and burn a lot more fat in the process is to incorporate interval walks into your routine. Interval walking is a form of high-intensity interval training that requires you to vary the pace of your walks by working in shorter bursts of really intense walking.
“By varying the speed of your walk, especially adding in some faster pace interval work, you will raise your heart rate and increase your caloric expenditure, helping you lose more weight over time,” says Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN, an exercise physiologist and author of The Micro-Workout Plan: Get the Body You Want without the Gym in 15 Minutes or Less a Day.
Holland advises a walking interval workout that goes like this: 1) Walk at an easy pace for 10 minutes to get warm, 2) Then, for 30 seconds, do a power walk in which you walk as fast as you can, after which you slow back down for an easy walk (repeat at least 9 times), and 3) a 10-minute easy-walk cool down. And for more on the benefits of walking, learn What Walking for Just 20 Minutes a Day Does to Your Body, According to Science.
Nordic walking, founded by Finnish skiers who wanted to stay fit during the off-season, is a more intense version of walking in which the person uses specially-designed walking poles to propel them along. Nordic walkers will tell you that it’s a better workout—and more fun because it takes you deeper into nature.
Research conducted by Bristol Nordic Walking in the UK found that Nordic walking burned 45% more calories than regular walking. “Nordic walking brings many more muscles into play than ordinary walking—your chest, arms, shoulders, abs and other core muscles are all involved as well as your legs,” say the experts at Bristol Nordic Walking. “Plus, the poles propel you forwards helping you walk faster, raising your heart rate and expending energy.”
If you’re doing interval walks—or any form of fitness walking in which you increase your pace—it’s crucial to get your heart rate up to the optimal zone to maximize your fitness gains. “Interval walking will provide a better calorie burn than steady-state, or casual, walking because it will elevate the heart rate into the proper zone,” says Timothy Lyman, CPT, NASM-PES, the director of training programs for Fleet Feet.
Here’s his advice for finding the right zone: “There is no perfect pace for interval walking. The effort level simply needs to feel hard or about 70-80% of what an individual is capable of. What should the steady part feel like and what should the speedy part feel like? I go back to push pace and recovery pace here. The speedy part should feel like you’re working towards being out of breath, while the relaxed part should feel easy enough that your heart rate drops.”
If you’re new to interval walking, Lyman says that a good walking interval workout would be two minutes of intense walking followed by one minute of slower walking, and “consistently for 30 minutes.”
One lesser-used tactic for increasing the intensity of your walks is to wear a weighted backpack, otherwise known as “rucking.” “It’s based on the loaded march exercise activity in the military, and it’s a great way to make walking more challenging when it’s too easy,” says Josh Schlottman, C.S.C.S. “You can start with just putting some light weights in a backpack and gradually build up your strength from there. You can always pick up a ruck sack that’s designed to hold more weight.”
Schlottman also advises his clients take their walks away from flat ground. “I’ll have them walking up hills to increase the intensity and achieve a higher heart rate,” he says. “Ideally, they’ll wear a heart rate monitor so they can measure how much the intensity of the hill walking is having. I’ll calculate their ideal heart rate zones and have them focus on walking up the hill until they get their heart rate in this zone.” And for more on walking for better health, make sure you’re aware of The One Major Side Effect of Going on Single 1-Hour Walk, Say Experts.
One way to ensure your walks feel fresh and less boring is to add in music or podcasts. But the key is to ensure they’re the right songs or podcast-speeds so you’re teasing yourself to walk faster. “If you want to do an endurance steady-paced run, you must find a steady beat as the faster tempo makes you pick up your pace without even noticing,” says Samantha Clayton, a former Olympic sprinter who is the VP of sports performance and fitness at Herbalife.
According to walking researcher and professor Marie Murphy, the dean of postgraduate research and director of the Ulster Doctoral College at Ulster University in the UK, the song “I’ve Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas is the perfect walking workout with a BPM of 128.
For her part, Andy Hoffer, CPT, a trainer, yoga instructor, and bodybuilder, says you can’t go wrong with any songs you like that have a BPM of 135 to 140. If you prefer to listen to a podcast, she advises you not to listen to it at normal speeds. Rather, ramp it up to speeds of “x1.35” or “x1.5.”
Though he’s not a credential fitness expert of any stripe, motivational speaker Shawn Anderson is something of a self-styled walking expert, having personally walked thousands of miles across at least seven countries over the last few years. His fastest walk was 550 miles in 27 days across the whole of Spain.
Here are his biggest tips for improving your walks. “1) I walk multiple and different routes, as this takes away from potential boredom. 2) To challenge myself, I have a timed record for each of the loops I do so I can measure my sharpness and improvement. 3) I always carry a water bottle with me to avoid dehydration. 4) If I am doing a 10+ miler, I take my iPod with me as the songs always help me find a second and a third wind with tired legs. And 5) I keep a small snack in my pocket in case I need extra energy.”
Also, consider adding in some strength training. According to Garret Seacat, C.S.C.S., performing aerobic exercise is better for losing weight than strength training—but combined you’ll lose even more. “If your goal is weight loss, aerobic exercise (walking or running) burns a statistically significant more amount of fat than weight lifting,” he says. “However, when combining both aerobic exercise and lifting weights for a total of 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week, people lose significantly more.”
He goes on: “Keeping yourself [brisk!] walking 3-5 times a week can help you reach your weight loss goals when you keep in mind every 45 minute walk will burn 250-500 calories. While that doesn’t sound like much, five walks a week will net you a negative 1250-2500 calories! With a well balanced diet you will be on your way to reaching your weight loss goals in a safe and effective manner!”
Seacat advises you to use the “talk test” to ensure that you’re walking fast enough: “Walk at an intensity that makes it hard for you to complete more than two sentences without having to catch your breath,” he says. “Can’t say more than a couple words? Chances are you are going too hard to keep going. If you feel like you could tell a friend an entire story? You are walking too easy.” Find the Goldilocks zone, and you’ll be walking just right!
“No walking program is going to be successful unless you stick to it, and the best way to stick to a walking program is to make it fun,” says Jeanette DePatie, CPT, author of The Fat Chick Works Out! and founder of Everybody Can Exercise. “Love talking with people? Walk with somebody else. Love quiet meditation? Find a nice place to walk that makes you feel at peace. Love tunes? Make a playlist and pack some jams. BPM (the speed of the music in beats per minute) can be a great tool to keep you on track. But more important than that is staying inspired and having a good time.”
“I recommend morning and evening walks, ideally when the sun rises and just before the sun sets,” advises health and fitness coach Chad Walding, DPT, co-founder NativePath, you’d be wise to schedule them at exactly two times per day.. “You want to expose your eyes and skin to the sun to help align your body with its natural circadian rhythms. This helps the body naturally produce cortisol (a stress hormone) in the morning and allows it to taper off in the afternoon and evening. Lower cortisol has been proven to help people keep weight off.” And for more great healthy living advice, see here for the Secret Exercise Tricks for Keeping Your Weight Down for Good.