August 17, 2015

Walking for Weight Loss? Some Possibly Sucky News

image: pixabay
By 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?


  1. I rely on walking, when I think to do it, to give me fresh air and a bit of exercise. I've got the post-menopausal weight gain and whatnot, but unless I see myself naked in a full -length mirror I don't think of it. And neither do I own a full-length mirror. I am currently eating more of the good fats and less of the simple carbs just because it appeals to me. I expect that will change with the weather.

  2. I don't walk as much as I should....I run and do exercise classes and whatnot. I always say I need to walk more though. Regardless of what the results of the tests say.....walking is wonderful. Anything that has us not sitting on the couch (with a bag of Doritos and a two liter of soda beside us) is a good thing. That said......knowing the calories burned is important....but it boils down to this...if you are walking...and your losing weight with what your eating...great job...if your walking and not losing weight, adjust something. Sadly, I am one of those people that really can't eat too many of my earned while I ran for over an hour yesterday, the calories really didn't matter because while I did indulge in an Oreo that took me over my base calories...I didn't use even a quarter of what I earned. :-(. It's such an individualistic process to figure out what works for each of us! :-)

    1. That somehow doesn't seem fair Mary Fran! But good for you for figuring it out the best you can and doing so much for the exercise front and being so smart about what you eat.

  3. Like Leah, I walk for the pleasure of it, the same reason I did regular strength training before my shoulder edged into perpetual whiny-complainy territory. If these things get me healthier, that's a bonus.
    Perception of exercisiness: Yesterday at work, in addition to my usual active day, which involves never sitting down and seldom standing still, I spent an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon shoveling gravel into a cart and hauling it over (loose) gravel to where I dumped it out and spread it. Somehow, this didn't leave me feeling that I'd had any exercise, although I was a lot more tired than usual at the end of the day, whereas a twenty or thirty minute walk feels like exercise. I've been puzzling over this ever since. Apparently, for me, exercise must involve forward motion (or, on the elliptical, fake forward motion.)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. OK that's really WEIRD Mary Anne! It sure sounds exercisey to me! Interesting the forward motion psychological component!

    2. It made me sweat, and I think it slightly raised my heart rate (apart from the ants exploding out of the gravel pile with every shovel-full: DO NOT crawl up my pants legs, ants, just don't do it!) but it just didn't seem like a lot of effort. Not as much as I expected from watching the fit athletic teenage boys doing the same thing the day before. Not like a brisk hilly walk.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky, celebrating the weird in all its aspects

  4. The days of thinking that using exercise for weight loss are sadly numbered. I'm a dietitian, and a few months ago on a specialty training for Weight Management this point was brought out. Upping exercise doesn't contribute to weight loss for an number of reasons -- like eating to compensate, feeling hungrier, and rewarding ourselves for exercising by eating more. The overestimation of calories burned wasn't noted, but could be a factor too. In terms of menopausal weight gain, there are some small tweaks to diet that can make a difference. Not to toot my own horn, but I have clients in this phase of life who I've helped in the past.

    1. Hi Jessica,
      I'm interested in the things that have worked with your clients with menopausal weight gain. Do you have more info?

    2. Wow, thanks for mentioning this Jessica! I just saw some other expert say the same thing.

      But I gotta say I find this awfully counterintuitive and I'm not sure I believe it's that black and white. I mean sure, there's the potential to overestimate calories or to be more hungry, but I find my over eating has little to do with hunger and everything to do with entertainment. And exercise not only burns a few calories to increase the bank to work with, it changes body composition and RMR, at least for me. Plus it aids sleep, which is also a factor in weight loss.

      But it's certainly eye-opening how much less exercise matters than we thought when it comes to weight loss!

  5. Well, crap - walking was my fallback exercise when I no longer can, or want, to run. I didn't know it was so much lower than running, geez! I will say that a lot of people overestimate their calorie burn while exercising, be it running, walking, or a cardio machine at the gym, so I've always estimated my burn on the low side, and I really only throw caution to the wind with eating back those calories after I've run more than 6 or 7 miles. But this is a pisser, to be sure.

    1. Well Shelley, it does really validate that the extra effort you've made to do the running thing when walking would be so much easier might really make a difference! So yay you and hope you feel at least a little bit smug!

  6. I'm usually a runner but had a brief stint of IT band troubles earlier this year, so had to cut back. I'm now doing a combo of running and walking. When I am so used to running, it's kind of sad how LONG it takes me to walk the same distance I might normally run. I also know that I am way less tired after a five mile walk than I am after a five mile run, so I'm not entirely shocked.

    But it still beats lying on the couch in a cupcake coma, I suppose. Although, even when I was running a lot of miles, I still knew that it was much harder to burn OFF calories than it was to eat them. No activity is efficient enough to burn calories as quickly as I can eat 'em!

    1. Sounds like you have the perfect mindset OTF--maximize sensible exercise but don't let it justify scarfing up much in the way of extra calories!

  7. Well look at it this way. Since you walk in those lovely natural areas, each mile you walk takes you further away from those precious cupcakes at home!

    The reason running burns about 100 cal an hour and walking half that is the vertical aspect of running. Just remember, if you do not go airborne with your running you are walking. If you tend to do the prancercise pretend running, it is better to walk FAST for calorie burn rather then the fake running.

    1. Oh but prancercise is SO much more amusing Dr. J, you burn the extra calories just laughing at yourself!

  8. I'd just like to add that I say forget the numbers. Just look or weigh or whatever yourself. If you are not getting what you want then change your program to reflect better eating and exercise.

  9. This just confirms a comic strip i saw many years ago. It shows a lady on a treadmill, collapsed over the front of it with exhaustion, while a skinny trainer is telling her "Great work! You just burned enough calories for 3 M&M's!"

    1. Sadly messymimi, I don't think that's an exaggeration!

  10. Regardless of these studies - walking rocks and I am going to keep on, keeping on ;) And it's better than sitting on the couch doing NOTHING, am I right?!

    1. Exactly Gigi, and the mental health benefits of getting out of the house are worth it too!

  11. Crabby,
    That's very interesting. btw, thanks for the tip on that calculator, it looks super!

    I think walking is great in lots of ways: for getting you started in exercise, for stress reduction, cooldowns, and things less directly fitness-related, such as creative idea generation, problem-solving, and socializing. Unless you're injured, it's just so nice and properly chilled! ;)

    But even before seeing the figures above, I wondered about walking for calorie reduction per se. So it would be a great step to take, but it seems that it's not the only step needed. There I go again, making bad puns even when not trying to. :)


  12. After menopause I couldn't seem to lose weight! So I read something along the lines of
    if your working out too hard or too often it can trigger cortisol hormones, which can keep
    you from losing weight. Also we become more sensitive to carbs after menopause. So
    to make a really long story short last October I switched to a mostly paleo-ish diet higher
    protein and healthy fats lower carbs along with just switching to walking for cardio and lifting
    weights 2x a week. And guess what? I lost 15 pounds w/o being miserable for the first time
    in my adult life! Bottom line is conventional wisdom didn't work for me I had to find what really works
    myself and my blood markers are fine I had them checked at the 6 month point of this new way
    of eating. I hate the word DIET of course we all have one. I hope sharing a little of my story helps someone out there.

  13. all I do these days is walk.
    Ill letcha know if I ever get anywhere :-)

  14. Sorry to be so late. I am in Europe trying to burn all sorts of calories by doing some of the famous bicycle climbs. But this may be largely offset by the leisurely, generous 3 course dinners thrown in with the tours we are doing.

    But in more direct answer to you, Crabby, I think it's increasingly obvious that we really don't know what we thought we did. Dr. J's comment - basically, if it works, keep it up; if not, tune it up a bit - makes more sense to me than all the supposedly magical self-help books. I personally found it worked just fine to lose weight by exercise alone, and as I did it very slowly (2 years, 25 pounds), I totally learned how to control things & am now 12 years out & have chosen to let 10 more pounds go.

    BUT! I am totally counting on the idea that I will not have to keep cranking up the activity level to maintain. The Death Ride was more than enough!

    Oh, and I think part of my system's success is thanks to my being naturally pretty small; until I had my second baby, I could not have gained or lost weight to save my life. My body knew what it wanted & got it. So I don't particularly expect my solution to be right for anyone else.

    And walking is,wonderful, whatever it does on the calorie-burning front!

  15. I guess is somebody is doing something, it is better than nothing. :) You have to at least put something into it too & hill walking or hiking can burn some more. I do a more calorie dense workout AND the food is huge! You can't outtrain a bad diet even with the higher calorie burn. :)

  16. I lost 80 pounds by simply walking 1-3 miles every day. I think when you've been living a sedentary life for some time, walking burns more calories than these studies show. I don't like to promote running because it very strenuous impact on your bones not to mention can also increase your hunger causing you to eat more which negates the purpose. I'm living proof that changing your diet and walking does allow you to lose weight. I would not rule it out for anyone wanting to lose weight.

  17. Walking is wonderful for weight management. See here for effective exercises to lose more weight in easy way.

  18. Whatever you think of walking, here's one tip that has helped me:

    I don't weight myself too often. Yes, to properly monitor your progress in getting involved with your chosen diet program, it is best if you use a weighing scale for it. However, you should not use it too often. When you step on the weighing scale every day, you actually would not be able to appreciate your drop in weight. Thus, it is best if you do it on a weekly basis instead, so that you can see a larger difference.

    More insanely easy weight loss tips (like we need more, right ;)...

  19. Walking is what I consider a GREAT start to weight management. If you are not a runner, then getting off the couch and just starting to run is never going to work out! Getting off the couch and walking, then starting to run after a few pounds have been dropped will work wonders!

  20. Wow! I really like hiking all the great areas around Washington DC. Thought it'd be a little more beneficial. Great post.

  21. I always thought walking as a way to lose weight was over-rated.

    There seem to be a lot of overweight postal carriers (no offense) vs muscular, lean sprinters.

  22. Just like Running, Swimming, Weight training and Jumping rope, walking is a fun and exciting way to lose weight. It was also discovered in a research at ULC that walking adds to a person's lifespan.

    Personally, I encourage everyone with two functioning legs to take this as a way to stay fit. Walk while making phone call, walk while you listen to music, walk with your dog, walk on the beach...Don't stop walking!


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