Can You Walk Off Unwanted Weight?

Just looking at the question here, your automatic response could be “of course!”  After all, exercise burns calories, and calorie burn helps a person lose weight

But there are many other things going on with walking and weight loss.  For example:

  • Perhaps some of you have decided to get going on regular walks but have not noticed much happening in terms of weight loss. 
  • Perhaps you have heard that exercise suppresses appetite, but instead you find the opposite.
  • Perhaps some of you wonder whether walking can improve your health even if you remain overweight. 

What is going on here?  What is the relationship between walking, health, and weight loss?  Why does it always seem like there are caveats, loopholes, or vagaries? 

Well, you could look at it this way:  in just about everything we do, there are caveats, loopholes and vagaries.  Why would walking be any different? 

Even such a straightforward thing as walking has many qualifiers IF you are going for health benefits or weight loss.  That’s because our bodies are wonderful, but they are also very complicated entities.  When you think about it, it’s a lot like a car:  If you want to keep it running well for a long time, you need to keep up the maintenance on it.  Once you get into maintenance, there are many things to consider.   

Let’s start with the following story.

Two women, Heather and Ellen, both want to lose some weight.  They both understand that in order to lose 1 pound of body fat, they need to get into a calorie deficit of about 3,500 calories.  So, they both decide to aim for a calorie deficit of 500 per day.  Very reasonable.  This will result in about 1 pound of weight loss per week. 

Heather decides to walk three miles every day, in addition to cutting back on what she eats.  This amounts to about 250 calories burned through walking.  This leaves her having to cut back on what she eats to the tune of 250 calories a day.  She does this pretty easily by cutting out sugary ice tea and switching out her usual afternoon snack of cookies or crackers for a piece of fruit. 

Ellen decides not to increase her exercise but to go with diet alone to lose weight.  She gets into deprivation mode and cuts out any snacking, most carbs, and gives up her beloved habit of having a sandwich and chips for lunch. 

After the first three months, they have both lost 10 pounds.  But by 6 months, Ellen has plateaued and then gains a few pounds back even though she is still feeling deprived.  Heather is still walking and watching what she eats, and continues to slowly lose some more weight.  Since she has really reached her goal, she is happy to maintain by keeping up with walking and embracing her new habit of cutting back on a few things. 

A Shocking Truth

Let’s say you lose weight through dieting alone.  To maintain that weight loss, you have to eat even less.  Why?  For one thing, when you lose weight, it takes less energy to do things.  For example, a person carrying around 10 pounds of extra weight uses up more calories doing the same activity that a more lean person would. 

For another, adding in some exercise helps you build muscle, feel more energetic, and actually feel like moving around more in general.  On top of that there is this: Adding exercise to weight loss maintains metabolism and may even rev it up.  Dieting alone actually slows down metabolism (aka calorie burning) so that more deprivation is needed just to maintain.  In that scenario, not only is the dieter getting sick of being deprived, but there is no letting up, and there is more deprivation ahead if maintenance is the goal. 

What About the Health Benefits?

There are some other things to throw into the mix.  Ellen is improving her health  by losing a few pounds.  She may be improving her insulin resistance, lessening some of the systemic inflammation that is created by fat cells, and may be feeling less sluggish at her new weight. 

On the other hand, Heather is experiencing these benefits plus much more.  By exercising, she is helping to lower her cholesterol, strengthening her heart, creating more mental alertness, building muscle tissue that burns calories, strengthening her bones, helping to maintain good blood pressure, improving sleep, and creating better hormonal control of body functions, including appetite control. 

What Else? 

Getting back to the questions at the beginning, there are a few more things to talk about. 

Notice that Heather walked AND watched her input.  So, while it is possible to lose weight just by walking, it could be a long haul.  Walking off 250 calories a day would mean that you could lose 10 pounds in about 6 months.  Not bad, but that also assumes that there is no increase in food intake at all. 

Unfortunately, according to research, many people easily compensate for calories burned through exercise by consciously or unconsciously increasing their input.  Look at it this way…adding an extra 250 calories after taking a walk is as simple as one small scoop of ice cream, or even one sports energy bar. 

What if you started walking more but kept the pounds on?  Can you get all the benefits of exercise mentioned above?  Well, no.  If you are carrying around some excess fat, you are still running the risk of more heart disease, strain on your joints, systemic inflammation, and more problems with insulin control.  Are things better for you than if you did not exercise?  Absolutely.  But making some improvements in your diet, both in quality and quantity, so that you lose a few pounds will multiply any benefits you get from exercise alone. 

A Last Word

Which do you think is an easier lifestyle change:  Changing eating habits or scheduling more walking into your life?  For many, including Ellen, the answer is, at least initially, to change eating patterns.  After all, this theoretically takes less time!   But for many, changing eating habits permanently is very difficult.  And as we noted, doubling down after weight loss in order to maintain can be even more challenging. 

Clearly, adding in more exercise is loaded with benefits for health and maintenance of weight loss.  The tricky part can be finding the time, and, for many, the motivation.  But, once established, adding in some exercise can be more motivating and more reinforcing than struggling with changes in diet all the time. 

To reinforce the point, let’s take a look at the National Weight Control Registry.  Here is a group of people, more than 10,000 in fact, that has lost at least 30 pounds and kept of off for at least a year.  How did most of them do it?  Overwhelmingly, they changed to low fat foods, watched portions, and added 60 minutes of walking most days of the week. 

Back to the original question:  can you lose weight by walking?  Yes, for calorie burn, yes for creating a healthy metabolism, yes for making it easier to keep weight off once it is lost.  Just note that walking is best for initial weight loss and for maintenance after there has also been a change in eating behaviors that reduces input.

All the best

© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Ljupco / iStock

The End of Try Try Again by Kristen Carter MS

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