Fitness Articles

When Walking Isn't Enough

How to Add Variety to Your Walking Program

It’s hard to say enough about the benefits of walking for weight loss and general health, both physical and mental. It definitely belongs on your to-do list as often as possible. That’s why you’ll find an extensive collection of information on walking for people at every fitness level in SparkPeople's Walking Guide and Fitness Resource Center.

But many people will eventually reach the point where walking alone isn’t enough to help them achieve their personal fitness and weight loss goals. Here's how to determine if walking is no longer working for you, and what you can do about it.

Pay attention to your heart rate. To get the most benefit from your cardio exercise, you need to elevate your heart rate to a specific level, known as your target heart rate zone. This zone is a range between 60% and 85% of your maximum heart rate. This range will maximize your calorie burn and allow you to continue improving your endurance, conditioning and overall fitness level. As your fitness level improves, your walking workout will become easier. After a while, it can become extremely difficult to increase your walking intensity (speed) enough to keep your heart rate in that training zone for the length of your workout—even if you include hills or inclines.

Especially if you have a limited amount of time for exercise, you no doubt want to make the most of your time by keeping both your calorie burn and the training benefits as high as possible. When your walking routine no longer elevates your heart rate above 70% of your max, walking alone probably isn't enough to reach your goals. In this case, it’s time to add some different aerobic exercises into your program that will be challenging enough to keep your heart rate elevated.

Look at your exercise routine. Although walking may be the safest and easiest way for most people to begin a regular exercise routine (especially you've been inactive for a while, you've got a lot of weight to lose, or you have medical concerns that limit what you can do), you still need to incorporate some variety into your exercise program. Here's why:
  1. Your body adapts itself to exercise you do on a regular basis. Over the course of about six weeks, it will “learn” how to perform an activity more efficiently, which means you'll will burn fewer calories overall. Likewise, if you don't continuously increase the intensity of your workouts, they will no longer stimulate your muscles or your cardiovascular system enough to provide training benefits.
  2. Your body responds to the specific exercises you do. Therefore, you need to do a variety of exercises to effectively condition your entire body and improve your overall fitness. In other words, when you walk, you condition your body for walking. You'll be able to walk faster and longer, but that won't make you a better runner, golfer, tennis player, or swimmer. Nor will it make your "walking muscles" or your cardiovascular system any stronger than they need to be—just strong enough to handle the walking you do. And, of course, walking alone doesn't train your other muscles.
For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to expand your exercise repertoire to include a variety of activities and intensity levels. And you don’t need to wait until you’ve gone as far as you can go with your walking program.

Whether your primary goal is burning calories to lose weight, enhancing your fitness level, improving your ability to do a wide range of daily activities, or (ideally) all of the above, the basic approach is the same. You need to:
  • Keep your heart rate up in your aerobic training zone for a minimum of 30 minutes, three days per week. (More is better, and those minutes can be accumulated in multiple bouts throughout the day, if necessary.)
  • Exercise all your major muscle groups in a variety of ways.
If this sounds daunting, don’t worry—it’s not as complicated or difficult as it sounds. The solution may be as simple as incorporating a little jogging into your existing walking routine. SparkPeople's Beginner's Guide to Running can help you get started. But if running don’t work for you, there are literally hundreds of pre-designed workout programs you can try, whatever your current fitness level. Here are some possibilities to consider:

For those who like group activities, there are many fitness classes that will fill help you meet your cardio goals, including step, dance, Tae Bo, Tae Kwan Do, Spinning (indoor cycling) and water aerobics. You are always in control of how hard you work in these classes, so don’t be put off if some of the class members can do more than you can right now—it’s not about keeping up with others. You can incorporate different kinds of classes into your program, so that you can also work on flexibility and strength training too. Most gyms and health clubs offer a variety of classes and schedules, and you don’t necessarily need to sign long-term contracts or pay extra to try classes.

If you prefer work out solo, then cardio machines like the elliptical, Gazelle, stair climber, stationary bike, and rowing machine can all get your heart rate up. They come in commercial (for gyms) and personal (for home) models. You may need a little help to figure out how to use these machines the first time around, so don’t hesitate to ask for assistance, whether at the gym or in the sporting goods store. Swimming and outdoor cycling are also great, low-impact exercises.

And if exercising at home is your thing, there are literally thousands of affordable exercise videos on the market that will guide you through effective cardio routines.

Walking is a great way to add more activity to your day, and everyone should try to take as many steps as possible for better health. But as you can see, there are many reasons and ways to expand your exercise program beyond walking alone. Remember to also include strength training and stretching in your exercise program along with your cardio exercises. If you have specific questions about what might be best for you, you can post them on the Fitness and Exercise Message Boards, where SparkPeople's coaches and members will be happy to help you design the best exercise program to meet your goals.

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Member Comments

  • Wish I could walk for long periods. It was the only form of exercise that I even remotely tolerated. Now I'm limited to a recumbent bike which is boring!!!!! At my age (65), my options are very limited.
  • If you're on certain blood pressure drugs, you shouldn't work at too elevated a heart rate. Some drugs are designed to keep your heart rate from getting too fast.

    Look for Spark article on why heart rate monitors aren't recommended if you're on blood pressure meds. Measure by an exertion instead.
  • oh i love the outside walking it fun to me i walk by my self
  • I used to walk and liked it. Can't any more because of back problems.
  • Nordic Walking is incredible! I love going out with my poles. Love hiking with them. Less wear and tear on the joints, and if you already have joint problems, well, the poles help you so much! You get more of a work out without feeling like you have had more of a workout. Fantastic.
  • I agree - with Nordic Walking poles, you are also working your upper body and substantially increasing your calorie burn. Good for your posture, too!
  • Good article - for a more complete walking workout - add poles (Nordic Walking) and exercise the UPPER body at the same time.

    I walk four times a week (Tues - Friday) with a local walking group. In May I joined a Nordic Pole Walking group on Saturday mornings - this has been a great experience adding variety and a completely new dimension to walking. Now, when I walk by myself I take my poles along.

    Walking with Nordic Poles is easy to learn, not as tiring, reduced body pains (legs), extended distances and increased walking speed.
  • So, what happens when after you "mix it up"--start running, lifting weights, etc. etc. and still nothing changes? I am stuck at a plateau that will not budge. My body has adapted to everything. I have tried it all--more calories, less calories; run, walk, resistance training, yoga, you name it. Now what?
  • I find a lot of benefit in doing intervals - either the "Scouts' Pace" approach or Covert Bailey's sprints or mixing it up as Figsandolives does. It certainly increases the intensity but doesn't place the same demands on joints as continuous running or jogging would. There's a lot of long-term research supporting the interval approach; Covert Bailey's advocated it for at least 15 years that I know of.
  • Coach Dean,
    Just what I needed to read today. I just finished 4 weeks of 10 minutes a day, and my exercise consisted of walking. I list it as hiking because just walking out the front door is uphill. But I do need to step it up. I am not at all regular on strength training, and need to be.
    Thanks for the very timely article.
    I also love the Walk Away the Pounds DVDs. I bump up the calorie burn by wearing 1.5 lb wrist weights, and also sometimes holding 2 lb hand weights during the workouts. I can really feel that added resistance, especially when doing the fast-paced 5 mile DVD. I also do Zumba, the elliptical at the gym with a resistance program, and have incorporated resistance training with the weight machines at the gym. At home, I use resistance bands or hand held weights with different DVDs.

    When it's cool enough to walk outdoors, my neighborhood route provides several hills for a good cardio workout.
  • Great advice Dean. I agree that walking alone won't cut it. After awhile you can feel it getting easy, then you need to change things up. I joined a gym and take a variety of cardio and strength training classes like step, zumba, kettle bells and body pump and have been getting good results. I also use the eliptical and treadmils, but when using them I either use the fat burn or cardio programs that measure your heart rate while using the machine. These programs keep you in your target heart range by adjusting the resistance or incline throughout your workout. It's great because you don't have to think about it. Just put on your headphones and go for it!
  • It would have been helpful to include the details of calculating your target heart rate.
  • Don't forget Nordic walking (AKA Pole-walking)!!! It boosts your calorie consumption and also gives you more of an upper body workout than regular walking. Great for people who need a low-impact alternative to running, or as a good cross-training sport. I've been NW for years and I love it!
  • Walking is a great activity because almost anyone can do it. But I do agree that is n't always enought, and sometimes you just can't - sorained ankle, bad knees, sore feet, etc. I like swimming as an alternate, and if you can walk but it just ins't enough anymore, try doing some elliptical training. It is a much more difficult workout. Biking can be a challenge too.
    I like to mix things up = yoga, dancing, hula hooping, aerobics: It's all good. Even going up & down stairs changes it up to boost the weight loss.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

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