One of the biggest milestones in our first few years of life is learning how to walk. This activity becomes so habitual it is easy to forget that it is, in fact, exercise. The American Heart Association even calls it “one of the simplest ways to get active and stay active.” A piece on walking from a 2009 Harvard Health School newsletter points out that even though walking is such an automatic human function, “modern man appears determined to walk as little as possible.”
As walking is one of the simplest — and most accessible — forms of exercise, if you begin walking for fitness and are hoping to speed up results and make the activity more challenging, it may seem harmless to just add in some weights. However, carrying weights may be doing more harm than good. Here’s why and what you should be doing instead.
First and foremost, even though walking is something we do every day, before you start a walking routine, you should, of course, consult your doctor. Getting a regular checkup before doing cardiovascular work helps ensure your heart and lungs are at their healthiest and can effectively handle the stress of added physical activity.
When out and about, you may have seen people in your neighborhood or local park walking and carrying a set of weights and thought it seemed like a practical way to add strength training while getting cardio. However, because these are separate types of exercise, in this case, it may be in your best interest to treat it as such.
“When done correctly, walking is an effective, low-impact, low-risk exercise,” says Mark Sullivan, who provides personal, one-on-one e-coaching and counseling for runners, walkers and multi-sport athletes at iRuniCoach.com. “It is not, however, especially efficient for burning calories. While adding weights will definitely increase the calorie burning, walking with weights may also increase your risk of injury and may even cause unexpected side effects like back pain or an increase in blood pressure.”
Carrying weights in your hands can actually cause a postural imbalance and put added stress on your shoulders and neck. During a single walk, this may not be too much of an issue, but over time it can cause added stress to your joints. If you choose ankle weights, you can put added stress on your ankles and knees.
“I would not recommend anyone using ankle weights while walking due to the torque that it could cause on the ankle and knee joints,” confirms Jennifer Burningham, personal trainer and running coach at Right Track Health & Fitness. “Additionally, ankle weights while walking do not increase the value of the walk.”
You can still get in a bit of added strength work when walking both indoors and outdoors. Changing up where you walk can help you work different muscles and even increase the difficulty of your workout.
“If you want to increase your workload, add an incline to the treadmill or find a hill to walk or hike,” suggests Carmen Jackinsky, a coach and the owner and founder of Reshod Walking Shoes. “If you want to include weight training in [after] your walking workout, pack them in your gym bag for a quick post-workout routine done separately.”
Doing a separate strength-training routine is the best way to ensure you are working your muscles the correct way and avoiding injury at the same time. To get the most out of any routine, finding a coach or personal trainer can help you make any modifications you may need while teaching you how to maintain correct form and posture.
“Weight training is a much better option to walking with weights,” explains Burningham. “For example instead of walking with weights, you could start with some knee-down pushups, tricep dips, unweighted squats or a modified wall sit to begin to build strength.”
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When it comes down to it, most trainers agree that you don’t need to walk with weights. It is best to focus on building strength separately and making sure your walking form is as efficient as it can be.
“It’s really not necessary to use hand, wrist or ankle weights when walking,” reiterates Sullivan. “You will probably benefit more by adding supplemental weight training separate from your walking routine. And if you’re just starting an exercise program or have not been active for a while, using weights may provide too much of a challenge.”
Before you start a program, set your fitness goals and make sure the work you are putting in aligns with what you are trying to achieve. You’ll probably find walking with weights actually hinders your progress.
“Do you want better cardio fitness, strength or both,” asks Jackinsky. “My fitness goal is to walk fast and efficiently. Adding weights while I walk will slow me down. Resistance bands are a better way to target muscles that I want to challenge; I also do multiple hill repeats on a gradual incline. Yes, strength training is a part of my overall plan, but I work on strength building separately.”
Originally published June 2018