Walk Off the Weight? Yes and No...

by Patti Finke and Ellie Hodder, Northwest Walker
You can't pass a single women's magazine at the grocery store these days without being bombarded with articles about how to walk the weight off. "Walk Off 10 Pounds in 30 Days", screams one (I love that all things are possible in 30 day increments). "Lose a Dress Size Walking This Month", hollers another. "6 Weeks to a Bikini Body!" says another. So, can you lose weight by walking? What's the real truth?

The real truth is: yes, you can and no, you can't. Walking, as well as all aerobic exercise in general, is a major element of both weight loss and weight management. For most people, a regular walking program will result in firming and toning muscles while burning calories. Some walkers will lose a lot of weight; some will lose a little; others won't lose any weight and some will actually gain weight. Magazines are sold by giving us quick solutions geared to the way we look on the outside. Now, we would be loath to say looking good on the outside is a bad thing. Nor would we insist that obesity is a health benefit. On the other hand, weight is only one element of total health and it may or may not be a major factor depending upon the individual. Weight loss may not actually the change you want and/or need. Loss of body fat and/or change in body size may be the actual measurable goals you want. Another problem may be that dramatically Increasing exercise and drastically dropping calories the way many magazines suggest may be detrimental to your long term weight control.

The real importance of walking, as we see it, is in what it does for total health and well-being, including, but not limited by how you look on the outside. The most important issue should be how you feel on the inside!

This being the case, what can you expect from your walking program?

TRUTH: To reap the benefits of exercise, you must do the work.

For some, those of the "exercise is punishment" mind set, this is a good reason to be a couch potato. Think about this: if you have $100 today and put it in the bank, in all likelihood you'll still have that $100 plus the interest tomorrow and the next day, in a month or a year. If you walk today, you will have the benefits of that exercise today; some benefits tomorrow ; but if you don't continue to walk, in a couple weeks, it will be as if you hadn't exercised at all. To keep getting the benefits, we must keep doing the exercise.

There is no one best exercise or exercise device to lose weight or get any other benefit. The best exercise is the one you'll do. That means it's important for all of us to experience a variety of activities--walking, bicycling, swimming, skiing, aerobic classes--to find the ones we most enjoy. When people choose something they like to do, they have a greater degree of success in sticking with it for the long term. And, when we have a variety of things we will do, we have options when choice #1 isn't available.

Exercise is for everyone! This is true for someone who is stick-figure skinny to one who is Santa Claus round and everyone in-between. Walking is an excellent exercise for most people, it's easy to do, doesn't take much equipment (only a pair of good shoes) and can be fun! To get the benefits, consistency is the key. See the prescription below for the appropriate exercise parameters for the goals you have in mind.

                           PATHWAY PROGRAM PRESCRIPTION

                       Health      Weight Control      Wellbeing

          Frequency  3 times/week  4-7 times/week     3-7 times/week               
FORMULA   Intensity              Target Heart Rate
                             (60 - 90% Heart Rate Max)       
                                   "Talk Test"*
          Time        20 - 30 min   45 - 60 min       5 min - hrs
The FIT Formula
  • Frequency = how often should I exercise?
  • Intensity = how hard should I exercise?
  • Time = how long do I have to exercise?
*"Talk Test" means you should exercise at an intensity where you can still carry on a conversation.

TRUTH: Exercise is one of the single most simple and effective means of improving overall health.

Research shows that even moderate exercise improves overall health. This includes emotional well-being as well as, decreased risk of some cancers, lowered blood pressure, improved musculo-skeletal strength and flexibility. We know that the addition of exercise is a major factor in helping to lower blood pressure and to control diabetes. For some individuals, exercise can be the difference between needing medication to control the disease and not needing it. Some studies suggest that for individuals who suffer from depression, exercise can be as potent as drug therapy in helping to maintain emotional balance.

TRUTH: Moderate exercise will promote improvements to total physical and mental health.

More may only be "more", not necessarily better.

Whoa, you say! The most recent Harvard study reported widely in the news media said vigorous exercise, walking 4-5 miles per hour, is necessary to improve my health. Not exactly. The study of male Harvard graduates noted that those men who said they exercised vigorously for 45-60 minutes had a lower incidence of premature death from heart disease than the group who reported more moderate or no exercise at all. The study did go on to state that even moderate exercise was a positive factor in lowering blood pressure, helping to control diabetes and reduce the risk of colon cancer, not to mention the mental health benefits. However, the study that found the greatest change in health looked at individuals who went from "couch potatoes" to mild exercise.

TRUTH: Speed training must have purpose.

Because many walkers tend to be apologetic ("Yes, I did a marathon, but I 'only' walked") that there is a tendency to think faster workouts are better workouts. The fastest speed you can walk may not be the best walk for you every day. Nor does setting a designated speed where benefits occur make sense either physiologically or psychologically.

First of all, walking fast is a skill, not a totally natural-born gift like running fast. There are age, fitness, body size and skill factors that make a 4-5 miles per hour pace a cinch for some, for example, and an impossibility for others. Does that mean the slower group will never have benefits from walking even at their fastest pace? Of course not!

If we follow the primary truth ( that we have to keep doing the exercise), we know that to stay motivated, the exercise mostly needs to be comfortable and enjoyable. We lose motivation because we overstress our bodies and our minds. To train all of the energy systems, to prevent exercise injury and to keep from being burned out, the logical approach to train in endurance (comfort, 60 -75% HR Max) mode for 80 - 90% of our training and add specific speed workout for those who want or need it. Much of the speed work for walkers should be done to improve the motor skill or improve the neuromuscular facilitation, so that the specific skills needed are done without a great deal of concentration and with more efficiency.

If we have been doing the same exercise over and over and want to see a change in weight or body shape , we need to change the exercise. For many, speedwork can add variety and increase calorie burning making the body change by losing weight or inches.

TRUTH: Rule: Honor diversity . . . not all bodies are shaped and/or respond to exercise the same!

The body changes we have seen through our years of experience with lots of different exercise programs (walking, running, aerobics, circuit training, bicycling and weight training) have been as variable as the body types, shapes and goals we've had in our classes. Some exercisers (usually men) lose weight very quickly and have to increase calories to keep weight on. This is the body scenario we all dream about, but constitutes a small portion of exercisers. Others drop body fat gradually with the long term result of weight loss. Many build muscles and may gain weight, but lose body fat and drop in clothing sizes. We have also seen some with no changes in weight and body fat who have dropped several sizes. All of these exercisers can talk at length about how much better they feel, how much more energy they have and how proud they are of continuing or completing their exercise goals.

The body needs regular exercise and nutritious and adequate fuel and will then pick a body fat and weight that works for it. Studies are finally showing that exercise and adequate fueling work together for long term weight control. We cannot change just one aspect : go on a very low calorie diet with no exercise or exercise while continuing to overeat and expect a skinny body. In fact, some of us have bodies that may never be or look skinny.

The shape we have somewhat determines what the result of our exercise is to our body. The other part is our inherited metabolism, about 60 - 80% of how fat or lean we are is based on heredity. This does not mean we are doomed to be fat, skinny or frail, it means that the goal of our exercise should be to be healthy and to have the best body we can.

For many, instituting a regular walking program means that clothes will fit differently. So, it's important to take some time and look carefully in the mirror at the body shape we actually have. It may be the one shown in the magazine--tall and lanky--but more than likely, it will be a different shape. Exercise gives us a firmer, stronger, leaner version of that basic shape. A woman with an hourglass figure, for example, will have an hourglass figure of a different size if she loses or gains weight even if she is working out with weights to tone "specifically". Learn to like the body you have and see what it can do. Maybe your body can walk a marathon, take part in a relay or explore the back country by foot. Give it a chance, it may surprise you!

Copyright 1995 by wY'east Consulting and Team Oregon which reserve all rights to republication.