Walking for Weight Loss: Why Your Walking Program Isn’t Working

walking program


“If you walk most days for 30 minutes or more, you’ll lose weight and get in shape.”

How many times have you heard those words? So, wanting to do the “right thing”, you lace up your exercise shoes, grab a water bottle, and hit the pavement. Weeks later you step on the scale and nothing has changed, or even worse, you’ve gained weight.

Big time frustration – and you wonder can this be?

This is a VERY common problem. You get up 30 minutes early or make time after work to walk every day and you get nowhere. Oh, you might lose a few pounds in the beginning but you quickly gain it back. What gives?

There are two main reasons why you’re not experiencing significant weight loss from your walking program. For one, you’re overcompensating for those extra steps you’re taking by eating more – a very common problem. The other is you’re doing the “same old, same old” every time you walk.

Let’s look at each one and how you can remedy the situation.

Doing the Same Old Walking Routine Every Day

When you first start a walking program or an exercise program of any type, it’s a shock to your body. After sitting around for months, any type of movement is a wake-up call. The first few weeks, your body has to work hard to accommodate this new level of activity, but as all good bodies do, it adapts.

What does “adaptation” really mean? Your body becomes more efficient at walking at the pace you’re asking it to walk. Our bodies love taking the easy path and conserving energy. They really don’t like to work any harder than we do! As a result, you burn fewer calories than you did before.

Not that you’re not getting health benefits. If you’re walking at a brisk pace, you’re forcing your heart to pump harder, improving the way your cells handle glucose, lowering your blood pressure, and reducing stress – but if your goal is to lose weight or continue to improve your fitness level, you have to “shake things up.”

Shake It Up

Shaking it up sounds a little scary. Don’t worry you don’t have to run, unless you want to. A recent study out of the University of Ohio found that one simple change – switching up your walking pace could burn up to 20% more calories.

To get these benefits, you don’t have to break into a run, just change your walking speed at intervals. Walk at your usual pace then step on the gas pedal for 30 seconds before returning to your normal pace.

The practice of starting and stopping increases the number of calories you burn when you walk. In the Ohio State study, researchers asked participants to walk on a treadmill. The treadmill kept a constant pace, but the participants switched back and forth between fast steps that took them to the front of the treadmill and slow steps that took them to the back. This simple variation burned more calories.

You can do the same whether you walk on a treadmill or outdoors.

  • Change the speed and size of your steps as you walk.
  • Look for a landmark in the distance, like a mailbox, and double your speed as you move towards it before slowing down again.
  • Avoid constant speeds where your body gets into a comfort zone.

Walking for Weight Loss: Think Distance, Not Time

Another tip – you’ll likely burn more calories if you walk for distance rather than time, as this study shows. When you know you have a certain distance to cover, you tend to pick up the pace to get there quickly, whereas you feel less of a sense of urgency when you’re walking for time.

Of course, you can shake up your walking routine in other ways as well. We live in a neighborhood with KILLER hills. Some are almost straight-up inclines. Climbing these hills is a great way to burn calories and get greater cardiovascular benefits from walking as well as strengthen your thighs and buttocks.

Walking on level ground does little to enhance thigh and buttock strength. So:

  • Add a hill or two to your walking routine.
  • Change speeds as you move up a hill.
  • Increase the treadmill incline.
  • On the treadmill, keep your hands off the railing. Gripping the railing decreases the calorie burn.

Grab a Pair of Poles, Walking Poles That Is

If you want to take your walking routine to a new level, invest in a pair of Nordic walking poles. When you walk holding these poles, you don’t feel like you’re working harder but you’re actually burning up to 45% more calories.

Using walking poles will also improve your coordination, balance, and agility skills. Ambling with Nordic poles will also improve your range-of-motion since the poles force you to take longer strides and use your upper body more, so you’re getting a total body workout.

Another way to increase the effort and the calorie burn when you walk is to strap on a backpack. Start with an empty backpack and gradually fill it up with books or anything else that has weight to force your body to work harder on your daily jaunts.

Another alternative is to wear a weighted vest. You can even wear one of these around the house to burn more calories.

Overcompensating for Exercise by Munching Out

Another reason you may not be losing weight from walking: you’re compensating for the calories you burn by eating more. Too often people think because they worked out they can have an extra cookie, brownie, or ________ (fill in the blank)

The reality is most of us overestimate how many calories we burned during a workout. If you walk for 30 minutes at a moderate pace (around 4 miles per hour), you’ll burn around 210 calories if you’re of average weight.

Think how easy it is to overeat 210 calories. I was just looking at the calorie counts of some of the cookies at Panera. The lowest calorie one they had on display had almost 400 calories! Here’s a good rule of thumb:

“You usually burn fewer calories and eat more calories than you think.”

Here’s a disturbing finding. According to a study published in the journal Appetite, even THINKING about exercise can be motivation to pig out. This study showed participants helped themselves to 52% more of a snack mix when they thought about doing a workout.

Plus, most of us are not very good at estimating how many calories we burned during a workout.

Those goodies from Panera Bread are loaded with calories.

Hold Yourself Accountable

The best way to make sure you’re not out eating your workouts is to keep a journal of everything you eat for a week or two. Write down EVERYTHING you eat and drink, not just what you eat when you sit down to a meal.

If you don’t like the idea of writing everything down, simplify the task by using an app. My Fitness Pal and Lose It are examples of apps that’ll help you track your exercise and eating habits. A little awareness goes a long way towards changing mindless eating habits.

My biggest problem, and Dr. A’s for that matter, is we snack a little here and a little there and it adds up. I’m going to curb this habit by setting aside a set quantity of snack food. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Around here, we’re constantly fighting a battle with a container of mixed nuts. They say sugar is addictive, but I’m convinced nuts are too.

Heck, even samples at the grocery store can add up, and for some reason, people think if a food sample costs nothing it has no calories. If you haven’t noticed, most of the samples grocery stores give out are packaged foods loaded with unhealthy ingredients.

Know Your Walking Goals

Don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing wrong with walking at a steady pace for 30 minutes if it fits with your goals. A 30-minute walk is an excellent stress reliever and a way to get closer to nature.

If you enjoy leisurely walks outdoors – keep doing it! But if you want to lose weight or improve your fitness level, kick your workout up a notch a few days a week.

The Bottom Line

Isn’t it time to ramp up your walking workout a notch? Walking IS a good form of exercise, especially if you take it to the next level by doing interval walking or using walking poles.

Just as importantly, be aware of your eating habits after a workout. You can compensate for the calories you burned with as little as half a cookie! Have an apple instead. Apples are surprisingly satisfying after a workout and they’re loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. 

Hope this helps if you’re walking but not happy with the amount of weight you’re losing. 


Health Day. “For a Better Calorie Burn, Adjust Your Speed While Walking”
Fitness Magazine. “Why Do You Pig Out after Your Workout?”

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.

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