Have you ever seen a neighbor walking through the neighborhood carrying dumbbells or wearing ankle weights? Has it made you wonder if you should be walking with weights, too? If so, read on to learn the potential benefits and risks before heading out on the block.
“When you think about walking, there are only a few ways to change your intensity,” says medical exercise specialist Chris Gagliardi, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. “You can either walk faster or change your incline and walk up a hill. But adding an external load, whether hand weights, wrist weights, ankle weights, a weighted vest—that can also help you to increase the intensity.”
Some people believe that they’ll exert themselves more by walking with weights, leading to more heart pumping and calorie burning. Others worry that walking with weights may throw off their posture, gait, or center of gravity, leading to injuries. Experts say that both schools of thought have valid points.
Intrigued by the idea of walking with weights? It’s possible to introduce the habit safely, if you follow some guidelines. Here’s what to do:
Keep it light
The idea is to carry a bit of weight to increase your heart rate and calorie burn without adding so much weight that it causes changes to your posture or stride. Researchers have shown that limiting handheld and ankle weights to one to three pounds may impart benefits without causing injuries.
“You shouldn’t be using such a heavy weight that you’re not walking the same, that it changes your gait,” Gagliardi says. “If you already have a condition like osteoarthritis of the knees and you’re now adding weight . . . the heavier you are, the more forces there are on your joints, so it could bring about any pain from existing conditions sooner.”
Don’t exaggerate movements
If you’re carrying dumbbells, you may be inclined to swing your arms more intensely or even do curls. But the point of weights isn’t to turn walking into a strength training activity, it’s to enhance the intensity of your cardio routine.
“People tend to pay more attention to their arm swing, so they’re moving their arms more,” Gagliardi says. “If I walk for miles, it’s a lot of repetition. That’s a lot of wear and tear, even if I get that increased caloric expenditure from doing it. It could end up [being] harder on specific joints.”
Try a water bottle
Don’t have dumbbells? Some research found that people who carried about one pound in one hand walked more quickly. Bringing a full water bottle may help you speed up, burning more calories.
“Although the study was not about exercise intensity, my belief is that adding weights to the arms could be an alternative way to control for exercise intensity, especially for those people who cannot or do not wish to increase speed or distance,” says study author Hyung Suk Yang, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology and sport management at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. “Something like a water bottle or watch was exactly what we were thinking.”
Wear a vest
Think beyond dumbbells and ankle weights: Some experts prefer weighted vests, because they add weight to your frame, where you’ll carry it more naturally. “Ideally, the placement of the weights would be such that mechanical changes in the movement would be negligible,” says Frank Wyatt, EdD, professor of athletic training and exercise physiology at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. “Generally, this means that the weights would be distributed around the body’s trunk region and not at the periphery—that is, ankles or hands.”
Some research has shown that wearing a weighted vest equivalent to 10 to 15 percent of your body weight helps you burn more calories without feeling like you’re exerting yourself more. “When they asked them to rate their perceived exertion, it didn’t have that same linear increase, so it could be a way to get people to increase the intensity,” Gagliardi says. “It translates to you working harder, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like you are.”
Skip the backpack
A heavy backpack won’t provide the same benefits as a weighted vest, and it may cause or worsen lower back pain. “Wearing a vest is much different, because the weight is in the front of you, the back of you and the sides of you, versus just being in the back, which is going to have a different impact,” Gagliardi says.
Use weights occasionally
Don’t walk with weights more than a few times a week. “There are no established guidelines for walking with weights,” Wyatt says. “Begin with two to three days per week with low weights, positioned on the trunk of the body for a low-intensity aerobic session for 20 to 30 minutes. Alternate this with other activities, and progress to greater frequencies, longer durations, higher intensities, and more weight in about four to six weeks.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.