Since I started walking longer distances and have lost some weight in the process, I’ve gotten a bunch questions from people about it. My original plan was to wait and write this post answering some of those in early January, with a full regular calendar year of walking under my belt. Then it occurred to me that waiting to drop a post on walking tips until the middle of winter was a spectacularly dumb idea, even by my standards. Putting this up now in case some of you have the opportunity to use some of the following advice to walk during weather which is actually pleasant seems like a much more reasonable approach.
This particular revelation was triggered in part after reading a tweet from my friend Kim, the one here.
That reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago, in which I made a similar argument to a friend when I compared walking to cameraphones. The camera in your phone might not always be the best option to take a picture, but it’s much more likely to be the camera you have on you. Similarly, walking may not always be the most metabolically efficient activity, but it’s one that most of us can nearly always do.
It may not be the sexiest exercise, but it’s accessible as hell. So here’s a bit on why I walk and how I walk, and why you might want to as well. Best case, something in here will be of use to you.
Why You Should Walk
It’s not hard to find studies on the internet that tout the benefits of walking in terms like “lower mortality” or “greater longevity,” but as far as I’m concerned that all comes back to the single greatest benefit of walking for me: weight loss. As I discussed back in December, my physical condition wasn’t so hot pre-pandemic and had deteriorated to outright problematic by last fall.
Historically, the best and most enjoyable way for me to exercise was running. But when you haven’t run regularly in years and you’ve gotten out of shape in the meantime, getting back on that particular horse can be challenging.
Fortunately for me, while on hiatus from a couch-to-5K program due to a back tweaked while on said couch-to-5K program, I ran into our local walking legend Dean. After a single conversation with him about his experiences walking 10+ miles a day as someone a few decades older than I am, walking went from little more than a mere rehab activity to a primary exercise focus. Shortly after talking to Dean, I Googled for “online activity calorie calculator.” This is what it told me I might expect to burn calorically:
- Cycling, moderate pace for 30 minutes: 375 calories
- Running, moderate pace for 30 minutes: 675 calories
- Swimming, mild pace for 30 minutes: 375 calories
Those aren’t bad, and literally any exercise is better than none. But given the weight I’d added, I was looking for something a little more significant, and the reality of the couch-to-5K programs I was trying to ramp up on was that it’d be a month or more before I’d even work up to 30 minutes of moderate running.
After hearing about Dean’s experiences losing weight via walking, however, I asked the calculator what kind of calories I might burn if I walked for two hours. The answer?
1150 calories. If I could find a third hour in there every so often? The number jumped to 1750 calories.
All of a sudden, walking became a lot more attractive as an option. Now most of the cyclists and runners I know will object, noting that they don’t work out at a moderate pace, they crush their workouts. But particularly when I started all of this, I simply wasn’t in a position to push like that. I was, however, willing and able to walk, and to keep walking.
As it turns out, the calories burned on those long miles pay off. Here’s a line chart of my weight over periods stretching back over a decade. As you can see, I wasn’t in a great place with my weight even before the pandemic hit, but that – and a number of other things going on, it must be said – didn’t help.
It took me just shy of 70 days of walking to get back to my pre-pandemic weight, but that was still too heavy. A hundred days after that, I was lighter than I’d been since 2011. And I’m 15 pounds lighter than that now.
More importantly, walking has become part of my day to day in ways that other exercise routines haven’t, which means that this feels more sustainable. This isn’t some crazy, crash diet sprint I can’t maintain, it’s the accumulation of a few small changes and an exercise I genuinely enjoy.
My current plan is to keep going and see if I can get to my high school / college weight; still a ways to go there. But worst case, if I can do nothing more than hold more or less where I am, that would be an enormous win versus where I was a year ago at this time.
I am not a morning person. I never have been, and I never will be. I’m just not wired that way, and if I needed more proof my six year old is cut from the same cloth. Getting up at five in the morning, therefore, is not something I do for fun, or even willingly without major justification.
And yet I regularly get up at that unholy hour to go for my walks, because – the 5 AM part aside – I genuinely enjoy it. The only hard part is rolling out of bed; once I’m up, out and walking I’m happy about it. Here are a few reasons why:
- It’s meditative, for one. When all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other at a deliberate pace, your mind is free to wander, to process or just to zone out. Walking is a perfect way to temporarily detach from your day.
- You can get to know your community better. I’ve gotten to know a bunch of other regulars out on the trails, not to mention their dogs, and they were good dogs. At the same time, they also have gotten to know me. Embarrassingly, I’ve had close to a dozen people that I don’t know other than from the trails stop me to say kind things about my progress losing weight, and to cheer me on. After seven months, one even stopped to show me a “secret” trail that I never would have found otherwise.
- You may get to see things you wouldn’t otherwise. Chris Arnade, for example, walks 12 miles a day in cities all over the world and the pictures he’s taken are incredible. While my walking has been strictly local, however, I’ve seen all kinds of things I would otherwise miss, including some incredible sunrises like the one above (good) and a skunk that almost sprayed me (bad).
- Lastly, while I could never manage the trick of listening to audiobooks while running – I needed music – I can while I walk, which means that I’ve been absolutely plowing through books.
In the interest of full disclosure, “no impact” is a little bit of an exaggeration in my case, since I ended up going down on icy trails and roads this winter several times, breaking a couple of ribs on one occasion. But that was based on some poor choices on my part.
The simple fact is that relative to a number of other exercises, most notably running, walking has next to no impact. Per this study, for example, “Running produces ground reaction forces that are approximately 2.5 times body weight, while the ground reaction force during walking is in the range of 1.2 times body weight.” The cardio benefits of running offset that additional impact, to be sure, but particularly if you’re just getting started or are restarting with a fitness regimen walking is easier on the body. It is, of course, something that a lot of us do every day anyway.
It’s Easy to Scale Up
Not only is walking low impact, it’s inherently easy to scale up or down. You can start slow, and up your pace. You can walk a short distance, or walk a little further. You can also, as I’ve started to do a bit on our trails here, mix walking with running to get a little extra cardio work. It’s inherently flexible and adaptable to whatever you might have on a given day.
How To Start Walking
When you get started walking, the single most important thing – as with any exercise regime – is to start gradually and build yourself up over time. I started by walking across the bridge and back to our house. Then I started walking past the house and back via a nearby trail. Then I added a loop. A route down one side street to a local dock. Another down to the ferry. Then loops on the next next island over. And so on.
This meant two things.
- First, my mileage grew in a slow, manageable fashion. I’d walk a route, and when I felt comfortable with it, I’d add some distance. I started out by walking 1.6 miles last October. Over a recent 12 week stretch prior to a week of travel, I averaged a tick over 8 miles per day six days a week.
- Second, it means that I can very easily add or subtract distance based on the window of time I have available. I can walk a route as short as a half hour, as long as four or more hours, and anything in between just by manipulating my routes up or down.
A few other quick tips that may help you get started:
- Plan: I’ve found it very helpful to map out my week on Sunday nights. I look over my schedule, the weather and – depending on the season – the sunrise/sunset/civil twilight times, and slot in tentative plans for when I’ll be walking each day and for how long. Predetermining the schedule both ensures that I’ve thought through what my windows are for each day, and also helps ensure that I’m not surprised by the days when I have to be up and out early in the dark.
- Rest: Walking may be low impact, but I’ve found it beneficial to still build in a day per week where I have no walks planned. If nothing else, it makes me look forward to getting back out on the trail the next day.
- Yoga: I get asked about stretching a lot: do I stretch before I walk, after or both? With the caveat that I am absolutely not the person to take advice from on this subject because even playing sports in high school and college I never really stretched, I do not at this point stretch before or after my walks. What I have found success with instead, however, is 15-30 minutes of yoga at night before bed. I’m more flexible today than I was a decade ago, and yoga is the reason why. I don’t know for certain that it’s helped me from getting tight even after three or four hours of walking, but I’d bet it’s a big part of it. Yoga With Adriene is my recommendation if you’re interested in that.
- Injuries: When I was in high school, my coaches impressed upon us the difference between being hurt and being injured. While playing contact sports, the reality was that something was going to hurt pretty much all the time. This is also what happens as I’ve gotten older; something, somewhere is probably going to be sore. The trick is distinguishing being hurt from being injured, which is to say a situation in which continued activity might make something worse. This is a hard thing to learn, and it really depends on an individual’s history, tolerance for pain and so on. In my case, I find that when I get sore while walking, more often than not if I just keep walking the pain resolves itself, and usually pretty quickly. Every so often, however, something worse pops up and you have to take care of it. Listen to your body, but not too quickly, if that makes sense.
How to Dress for Walking
One of the things I had to adapt to while ramping up my walking, particularly as it grew colder this past fall, was working out the appropriate layers. Running generates enough body heat that even in winter, I used to run in shorts and a long sleeve top. Walking doesn’t generate anywhere near that much heat, and I have the added complication that the bridge I walk across is significantly colder than the rest of the island, so layers – lots of them – were key.
It’s a little more complicated than this depending on windspeed, precipitation and so on, but these are my starting points for different temperature bands:
- 60 or above: shorts and a t-shirt
- 50 – 60: pants, t-shirt and a merino 1/4 zip
- 40 – 50: pants, t-shirt, a merino 1/4 zip and a merino vest
- 30 – 40: pants, t-shirt, merino vest, merino hoodie, merino hat, merino glove liners
- 20 – 30: pants, t-shirt, soft shell, merino vest, merino hat, ski gloves
- 20 or below: pants, t-shirt, soft shell, merino 1/4 zip, merino hat, ski gloves and scarf
You’ll note that there’s a lot of merino in there. I’ve had merino gear for nearly a decade now, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the perfect fabric. It’s lightweight, keeps moisture off of you and is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I’m in the process of replacing any clothing I can with merino alternatives, right down to my boxers.
My gear comes from a variety of manufacturers: the 1/4 zip and hat come from Minus33, my hoodies and boxers come from Woolx (if you want $20 off anything from there, incidentally, click here) and my vest and glove liners come from Ibex. All of it is good, and I recommend all three companies.
The only thing I’ve found that merino does not deal well with is pet hair, but that’s a small price to pay in my view.
With the exception of walks in heavy snow or ice, all of my walks this fall, winter and now spring have been in Hoka’s – specifically the Bondi 7. I’d never even heard of the company, but when I looked up reviews on the best cushioned running shoes Fleet Feet said the Hokas were it.
I like the Hokas so much I’m now on my third set, and I have even gone out and replaced my Salomon hiking boots with a Hoka alternative. They’re heavily cushioned, stable and great for both putting miles in on pavement and even the occasional sprint down single track trails.
Can’t recommend Hoka enough, even if some of the boots look goofy as hell.
One of the things I learned to carry early on was a backpack. As you peel layers off, it’s nice to not have to carry them or tie them around your waist. It’ll be handy come summer as well to stash water in. I picked up this cheap, ultralight pack from LL Bean. It weighs next to nothing and does exactly what I need it to do.
I’ve never worn crampons regularly before this winter, but then I’d never fallen on an icy trail and broken ribs before either. Now I carry these. They’re a bit of a pain to put on while on a trail, but they do the job nicely.
What’s the Catch?
Walking isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. A couple of the downsides.
By far the biggest catch to walking is the time it requires. With other exercises, you hit it for a half hour or an hour, and get back to your day. Walking, at least if you want it to be comparable calorically, simply takes more time because it’s much less metabolically efficient. In my case, it hasn’t been too hard to find windows because my commute for the last year and a half has not been a half hour down to Portland and a half hour back up, but the ten seconds it takes for me to walk downstairs. Between that reclaimed hour and an hour for lunch, that’s all the time I need to walk around seven to eight miles.
Still, while all of our schedules at RedMonk are flexible, they are very, very full these days. When I can’t find that window during the day, then, I have to resort to alternative tactics.
- Go Before Everyone Wakes Up: As mentioned above, if I’m out the door a bit after 5 AM, I can get two hours in and be back in time to wake up my daughter for kindergarten at the usual time of 7:20 AM. This is admittedly easier in the spring when it’s light out and the weather is clear than the middle of winter when it’s dark and you can’t see the ice, but you do what you have to.
- Break up the Walk: Don’t have two hours? Take an hour in one window and an hour in another. Or four half hour chunks. Whatever works.
- Work While You Walk: This is a staple of mine particularly for longer 2.5-3 hour walks. I almost never have those kinds of windows during a weekday; but I do frequently have listen-only multi-analyst briefings, conference talks I need to catch up on and so on. I can’t really engage, because of wind noise if nothing else, but I can absolutely listen to a briefing while walking.
- Offset Work: If all else fails, sometimes I can trade work hours for evening hours. I try not to do this too much because it was an unhealthy if necessary habit during the period of the pandemic where my daughter was home full time, but every so often it’s my only option. I go for a walk during the day, and write – or do whatever else was on my plate – at night, after everyone else has gone to bed.
The point is that there’s usually a way to find time. It might be more or it might be less depending on your situation, but generally where there’s a will there’s a way.
It is inarguable that walking is expensive in terms of your time, but it’s a cost well worth paying at least in my case.
Maybe it’s hot where you live. For me that happens, but it’s neither common nor excessive. My problem at least over the winter months is ice, and more specifically falling because of ice. The first time this happened was a shock; by the fifth or tenth time, I had the process down. Or thought so until I broke my ribs. After which point I bought crampons, which brings me to the point here: prepare for whatever your climate brings. If it’s hot, dress accordingly. If it’s cold, layers are your friend. If it’s ice, get crampons. And if it’s really, really cold rain, do what you can, and make sure to wear a raincoat that has not delaminated like the one I wore for too long, but be prepared that you’re probably just going to be really, really cold.
Walking has had a major impact on my weight loss, but its effect on my overall cardio health was more muted. My VO2 max – even as measured imperfectly by an Apple Watch – has ticked up to the point that I am now technically “above average,” but the above part is literally by 0.1. So the “above” is a little bit of an exaggeration. Plan on finding higher intensity exercises, then, to augment your walking approach if cardio health is a priority.
Walking can be dangerous depending on where you live – certainly it was for Stephen King in this very state. Maybe it’s the neighborhood, maybe it’s the weather or maybe it’s the wildlife. Walking is safer statistically than some other fitness options, but it’s not risk free. A few suggestions:
- Walk Against Traffic: I’m always surprised when people don’t do this, but it’s surprisingly common. If you’re walking around cars, and the sidewalk isn’t an option, proceed against the flow of traffic so you can see the cars ahead of you and get off the road if necessary. Which reminds me:
- Mind Your Surroundings: It’s sometimes good that walking is meditative, but not always. My biggest issue in this regard was zoning out and missing the presence of black ice this winter – but after a couple of hard, painful falls, I got a lot more attentive.
- Don’t Freak Other People Out: I’m not that small of a person, I’m a guy, a lot of my winter attire is black and up until a couple of weeks ago, I had an often crazy beard. All of which is to say that my sudden appearance on back trails frequently elicited emotions like alarm from other users of the trail systems, particularly women on their own. Especially the time I hadn’t realized that my nose had started bleeding and crusted half my face and beard over with blood. It’s gotten better over time at least with the regulars as they’re used to seeing me, but I haven’t yet figured out how to convince new people that I’m just trying to get my work in. What I do, however, for their safety as well as my own – particularly if they have dogs – is smile, steer well clear of them, move slowly but steadily on my way. It always hurts my heart to know that people are, even temporarily, frightened of me, but that is unfortunately the world we live in. All I can do is try not to make it worse.
The Arnade piece linked to above mentions boredom as a real problem, but to be honest I am never bored. I’ve been walking variations of the same paths on the island here six days a week for months, and I can’t say that I’ve ever been bored. Probably part of that is that we live in a beautiful place, but honestly I think it’s the combination of distractions – be those in audiobook, conference talks or other forms – and the purely meditative nature of walking for me. Your mileage may vary here, however, so consider options for keeping yourself entertained.
All of the above is probably more than you ever wanted to know about walking, but if by some odd chance I missed a question you have post it here and I’ll answer it if I can.
This piece will obviously be less relevant for those of you with fitness routines that already work for you, but for those of you without that, all I can tell you is that in my life so far, there’s a before walking phase and an after walking phase, and that I’m a lot healthier in the after.
If you’re looking to get healthier yourself, you might give walking a try.