image: pixabayBy Crabby McSlacker
First off, let me just make clear that I think walking is a very healthy activity.Walking a lot is an awesome idea.
However, if you are hoping to rely on walking craploads of miles as a primary strategy for weight loss, I may have some bad news for you. I came across some research a few weeks ago that was kinda depressing.
Note: this research is not bad news for everyone, just some of us!
So what's unpleasant bit of potentially bad news?
Walking a Mile Burns a Lot Fewer Calories Than Running a Mile.
Did you think they were about the same? I did! Or that the difference was minor. But, well, not so much. Our bodies use more calories running a mile than walking it, plus, running gives you a much bigger "afterburn" and you burn more calories even after you finish.
I first came across this unfortunate information in a blog post from Runner's World on calories burned walking vs. running and was seriously bummed to discovered how much less "credit" I get from walking that I'd thought.
But since the blog post was written back in 2005, I thought I'd see if there'd been any more research, possibly something with some more cheerful figures. Well, sure enough, there was a more recent update based on newer running vs walking calorie burn research. But, damn it, the 2012 report on walking vs running calories pretty much confirmed what the first article said.
Turns out, the figures I'd been using to calculate how many more calories I could greedily scarf up per day per for every mile I'd walked? I was way too optimistic, and should have been using walking calories per mile, not running ones.
What's the next bit of bad news, especially for walkers, but also for anyone else who counts exercise calories and plans to eat accordingly?
To Evaluate the Impact of Exercise on Calorie Burn, You Need to Subtract Out Your Resting Metabolic Rate
Let's say you went for a long walk and burned 350 calories exercising. Yay you, that's great!
But does that mean that your exercise earned you 350 extra calories you can eat that day? Or that it burned off an additional 1/10 of a 3500-calorie pound of fat over what you'd have burned had you sat on your ass all day?
No it doesn't. Because even if you'd been lying passed out in a cupcake coma the whole time, you'd still have been burning calories.
photo: Adam Gerard
Cupcake Comas: under-reported health menace.
You burn calories breathing, circulating blood, digesting, growing hair, making gross things like ear wax, and doing a bazillion other little bodily tasks that you don't even think about all day long. That's your Resting Metabolic Rate, also called Resting Energy Expenditure (REE). So the calories you burn just due to your RMR/REE during the time you were exercising have to be subtracted in order to know how many calories you additionally burned by exercising, as opposed to existing.
(OK, sorry, technically I'm thinking an actual coma would be a lower figure than your RMR, probably your basal metabolic rate (aka BEE, Basal Energy Expenditure) instead. But the two terms are almost synonymous).
But guess what? If you use My Fitness Pal to plan your caloric allotment for the day, they do not seem to do this for you! They will give you full calorie credit for any exercise you enter. Thus one has to learn to wipe away a few tears and then under-report your exercise to get the right results. It might be the same deal with other calorie/activity counters and apps, so beware!
And this points to another reason walking sucks relative to running: since it takes longer, you have to subtract more calories that your coma-self would have burned being in a coma that much longer than a runner would.
Here is a resting metabolic rate calculator; mine, for example, is a little under 1400 a day or about 58 calories an hour, which, the hell with it, I round to 60 calories an hour.
Doing the Math on Calories Burned by Walking or Running
Everyone's physiology is different, so it's all kind of a crapshoot. But if you're going to try to estimate your exercise contribution in order to know how much you can get away with eating, it would be nice not to screw yourself over by using unrealistically high figures.
However, it's harder than it sounds to get a good estimate. The Runner's World articles have some helpful formulas, but they were based on different studies, and at least for me the numbers came out differently. And most annoying was that for some reason they decided it was too boring and/or depressing to factor in your Resting Metabolic Rate in the more updated article, so you would still need to subtract that.
Older Study :
Total Calorie Burn/Mile Running: .75 x your weight (in lbs.)
Net Calorie Burn/Mile Running: .63 x your weight
Total Calorie Burn/Mile Walking: .53 x your weight
Net Calorie Burn/Mile Walking: .30 x your weight
Newer Study Equation (That Doesn't Give the Option to Subtract Coma Calories):
CALORIES/MILE Running .72 x wt in lbs
CALORIES/MILE Walking .57 x wt in lbs
CALORIES/MINUTE Running .07 x wt in lbs
CALORIES/MINUTE Walking .03 x wt in lbs
Or you can try the Ace Physical Activity Calorie Counter to enter your weight, duration and activity. However, I don't believe this subtracts out your resting metabolic rate calories, so you need to do this step yourself if you want to know what your activity is really buying you.
For me personally, it was a bit of a shock: with the first study formula, at my weight, age, and size, I only get an additional 40 calories for every mile I walk over what I'd get at rest. With the updated one, it was more like 55, which I hope is right though its still less than what I'd been figuring. But then I tried the Ace Calculator I was back down to 44 once I subtracted out my resting metabolic rate.
Seriously, FORTY F--CKING CALORIES per mile????
At forty calories a mile I'd have to walk to Cleveland and back to make up for a few moments of bliss with a baggie full of trail mix, let alone the damage I can do to a batch of home-made cookies. Need I mention I live no where near Cleveland?
However... one thing these formulas make very clear is:
The More Weight You Need to Lose, The Better Idea It Is To Walk a Lot
The multiplier in all these formulas is your weight. The more you weigh, the bigger the payoff you get for walking over being sedentary. Would you do even better running? Sure, but for some people the injury potential is much higher. If you are fit and overweight and not injury prone, there's no reason you shouldn't run for faster results! But it may be far more sustainable for many people to get in the habit of walking a ton.
The converse of this? If you are close to your target weight, especially if you have a small build, and you are spending an enormous amount of time walking, walking, walking, not just for fun and health but because you think you are burning something like 100 calories a mile? You are probably not getting the results you were hoping for.
For optimum health, you should be doing some high intensity intervals and strength training anyway. But it's interesting to discover that even for your basic calorie-burning daily routine, you may want to consider cranking up some of your endless walking to something a little more running-like. Or, stop eating as though you are running if you are not.
When Bad News is Actually Good News.
Knowledge is power, right? Even shitty knowledge that you wish you didn't have?
After reading this study, I made some adjustments to my own routine.
Because I've been wanting to reverse some post-menopausal weight gain--weight that I had lost before but that seems to have hunted me down and found me again. And I haven't been having much luck.
It's not just vanity either: the extra weight is all around my middle, exactly where it can cause the most trouble.
I already do HIIT and strength training and some moderate cardio, but the problem? I also eat like a total fucking pig.
photo: daniel sh
I thought that by doing a ton of walking (which I enjoy anyway) in addition to the more intense exercise, I could continue to justify my greed. Fortunately, I do eat a very healthy diet--I just eat way too much.
And yes, I am certainly not the first to note that you can not exercise your way out of bad eating habits. But coming face to face with how little I was buying with my extra walking forced me to be more realistic and make a couple of changes.
1. While I can't jog or run (back issues), I can bicycle and jump on the elliptical more frequently and for longer than I have been. My guess is that since my heart rate gets into running territory, my body is probably doing similarly inefficient, calorie-burning things as it flails around. Despite the paleo-ish trend away from longer, more endurance types of aerobic exercise, it seems to work well for me. I still think it's smart to do HIIT and strength training too, and I have no plans to stop, but I'm increasingly curious about the effects of plain ol' vanilla aerobic stuff on fat loss versus just walking.
2. Remember when I did the My Fitness Pal Review and discovered how Annoying but Useful it was? Well, I've forced myself back on there, but this time armed with better exercise calorie estimations. So I'm no longer fooling myself about how many calories I'm burning. Lo and behold, I'm finally getting some traction on getting the scale moving the right direction.
Will I keep the experiment up long enough to get more significant results, or will I slack off and go back to old habits? Who knows? But at least now I have a better understanding of the sucky numbers behind the "walk it off" school of weight loss for those not carrying a huge amount of extra weight to begin with.
How about you guys, do you rely on walking or other exercise for help with weight management, and if so, does it work?