Your Biggest Walking Questions, Answered

Walking is the most natural exercise, but a little extra know-how can pump up your workout. We've got answers to common questions that may be on your mind, plus tips for getting more out of your walks.

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Q. Do you burn more calories if you walk in the morning or evening?


A. You'll get the same results no matter when you walk. But experts say that a.m. exercisers are more apt to stick with their routines. "Morning walkers are usually on the road before all the busyness of life occurs—phone calls, meetings, family obligations," says Mark Fenton, author of The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness (Lyons Press). However, if you can't get out the door first thing in the morning, the key is to make walking part of your daily routine, whenever it fits in. "As long as you can maintain a consistent habit of walking, any time is a good time to walk," says Fenton.

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Q. I'm so busy that I only have time to walk a few minutes a day. Should I even bother?


A. Absolutely. Although the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that adults ages 18 to 64 get at least two and a half hours of physical activity every week, even a few minutes of daily exercise, here and there, adds up. Some experts say you can avoid yearly weight gain by burning just 100 more calories a day—that's doable by walking at a steady pace for just 15 minutes. Bottom line: Some exercise is better than none.

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Q. Do you get a better workout walking outside or on a treadmill?


A. Depending on your location and routes, outdoor treks may offer a few slight advantages. In cold weather, walkers may burn more calories outside because the body uses additional energy to keep warm. Going against the wind and up hills also makes muscles work harder. But there's no need to worry if you're a treadmill regular. To get similar benefits inside, set your machine on an incline and vary your speed at different points during your workout. And don't forget that walking, no matter where, is better than not exercising at all.

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Q. Should I eat before or after my workout?


A. Research has shown that eating high-fiber foods with a moderate glycemic index, such as whole-grain cereal, before exercising can boost your performance. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetic Association recommend a high-carb, 400- to 500-calorie meal two to three hours before exercise. Choose foods chock-full of whole grains and fiber, like a sandwich made with whole wheat bread and lean meat. If you're walking early in the morning, it may not be possible to eat a few hours ahead, but aim to get something in your stomach—like a banana or half a bagel—before heading out the door, says Fenton. And don't forget to drink plenty of water.

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Q. Is pain after walking normal?


A. Occasional aches and discomforts, like sore muscles and blisters, are usually not causes for concern. But never ignore persistent pain that changes the way you walk or function, warns certified athletic trainer Ralph Reiff, director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. "A limp, a change in stride length, or preferring the right or left side of a foot because something's sore all indicate that it's time to stop and evaluate," says Reiff. Speak to your doctor to determine the best course of action.

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Q. What should my heart rate be during my walks?


A. Your heart rate tells you how hard you're working—and how much you're getting from your effort. If you're new to exercise or just looking to maintain your weight, aim to walk at 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate for at least 30 minutes or the duration of the workout. Crank up the intensity so you're between 60 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate to get into the fat-burning zone. To find your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Take that number and multiply it by 50, 60, or 70 percent, depending on your goal—the result is your target heart rate for walking.

A heart-rate monitor can give you an accurate reading. But if you don't have one, here's how to calculate it: Within five seconds of when you stop exercising, take your pulse by placing the tips of your first two fingers against the side of your neck or wrist. Count the number of beats for six seconds and multiply that number by 10. Compare it to your target. If your actual heart rate is lower, walk a little faster. If it's higher, you should dial back your pace.

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Q. Should I walk with weights?


A. Probably not. Researchers at Indiana State University found that walking with hand weights increases pulse rate, thus boosting intensity. But experts like Fenton warn against it. "It might seem like you're getting more from your workout, but walking with hand or ankle weights may do more harm than good," he says. Weights can throw off your natural stride, making you prone to injury, or get in the way of arm movements, affecting your speed. Better to be safe and do strengthening exercises as a separate workout on your non-walking days. One potential bonus: you'll likely walk faster without weights, and that alone could result in a bigger calorie burn.

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Q. Do I need to warm up and cool down before and after walking?


A. It's a good idea to do both. A 10-minute warm-up gradually increases blood flow, which raises muscle and joint temperature. This makes you less likely to get hurt, according to Fenton. The following moves target muscles used for walking:

Ankle Circles: Support yourself by placing a hand against a stationary object, such as a wall or lamppost. Lift one leg straight in front of you, and circle your ankle 10 times to the right, and then 10 times to the left. Then repeat with the other leg.

Arm Circles: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and lift your arms straight out to your sides at shoulder height. Circle them 10 times forwards, then 10 times backwards.

Leg Swings: Again, support yourself with a stationary object, like a wall or lamppost. Swing your entire right leg easily front to back from the hip, 20 times in total. Repeat with the left leg.

To cool down, simply walk at a slower pace for 5 to 10 minutes. This gets the heart rate down gradually and prevents dizziness, which can result from blood pooling in your legs when you suddenly stop exercising. Then, stretch for five to 10 minutes. Focus on your hamstrings by putting your left foot slightly forward of your right foot, bending forward from the waist with your chest forward and knees slightly bent, and reaching for your toes. Hold for 30 to 40 seconds; then repeat with the other leg. Next, stretch your shoulders: Cross your left arm over your chest, place your right arm on the upper left arm, and pull it tightly in to your chest. Hold for 30 to 40 seconds. Repeat with the right arm.

See more stretches for walkers

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Q. What should my walking "form" be?


A. Good posture can help you burn more calories, up your energy level, and go farther more comfortably. Slouching while walking limits your speed because it restricts rib cage breathing, and can lead to tightness in the back, neck, and shoulders. Fix your form by standing tall with shoulders back and chest forward. When you start walking, roll through your foot, from heel to toe. As you pick up the pace, your stride will naturally lengthen. Bend your elbows at 90 degrees, and swing your arms, but only to chest height. The goal is quick, efficient steps. "But don't think too much about form," says Fenton. "Just let it happen."

Originally published on in May 2010.

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