If you are a faithful walker, someone who has been putting in the time and effort to engage in a structured walking program, you may reach a point where the fitness gain starts to level off. Your body becomes accustomed to the demands you put upon it and needs greater challenges in order to make further progress.
To make walking more of a challenge, some people begin carrying weights. But is that a good idea? What are the pros and cons of adding weight to your walks?
Carrying weights does provide some benefit to your cardiovascular workouts. It helps you burn extra calories and increases your oxygen consumption and heart rate while helping to build muscle strength.
On the downside, however, the additional caloric expenditure is not all that significant. If you burn 400 calories an hour walking four miles per hour, carrying two 1-pound weights may burn just 40 calories more (an extra 10 percent). Carrying two 5-pound weights may increase your caloric output by about 40 percent — but that heavy load could be more than you can handle.
The more weight you carry, the greater risk of injury you incur to your elbows and shoulders. If, in addition, the weights are slowing you down or requiring you to cut short your workouts, the benefits disappear.
If you are still interested in trying hand weights, follow these pointers:
- Purchase weights specially designed for walking. They typically have padded handles for maximum comfort.
- Start with 1-pound weights and increase gradually up to a maximum of 3 pounds.
- Swing your arms to chest level in a controlled manner. To reduce the incidence of repetitive movement injuries, vary your motions — try to alternate pumping with punching as long as it does not interfere with your natural walking stride.
- Walk slowly until you get accustomed to the weights. Eventually, though, you will want to resume your original pace and duration in order to continue making progress.
- Monitor your heart rate. Compare it to your rate without weights. If your rate does not increase, you are not getting any additional aerobic benefit. If your rate gets too high too quickly, reduce the weight.
- People on medication for hypertension or heart disease should consult with their doctors before using hand weights. Also, be cautious if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow or shoulder injuries.
- As an alternative to hand weights, consider wearing a backpack with the desired amount of weight — try placing a full water bottle inside. Always be careful not to overload yourself and throw off your balance.
- Never use ankle weights. They can easily lead to injury and improper body mechanics.
If you have not done so already, begin to incorporate hills into your walking program. As little as a 15-degree slope requires nearly four times as much effort as walking on a level surface. Or try walking on rough terrain rather than paved sidewalks. Also, quicken your pace, aiming to cover greater distance in the same amount of time.