Walking for weight loss: Free walking plans from fitness experts

Learn how walking could help you lose weight and support your wellness goals, then check out three walking plans designed to get you moving—and help you go farther and faster.

If you want to dial up your fitness efforts but feel intimidated, don’t worry: Exercise doesn’t have to be super-intense or punishing to be effective. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that walking is one of the most beneficial forms of low-impact activity. Not to mention, it generally doesn't require a fancy gym membership or special equipment, and you already have the moves memorized: one foot in front of the other! Walking is a foundational exercise, says Michele Stanten, a certified fitness instructor and the author of Walk Off Weight. “It’s an activity that can bridge all life stages and is something you can come back to again and again,” she adds.

Read on to learn more about walking for weight loss, the health benefits of walking, expert advice for buying sneakers, and three walking plans to help you go farther and faster.

Walking and weight loss

If losing weight is part of your overall health and wellness plan, you may be wondering if walking can help. All activities can help support weight loss, walking being no exception. Research has linked brisk walking with reductions in body weight, BMI, and waist circumference. It may even offer a bonus benefit when it comes to healthy-eating efforts: A 2015 study found that taking a 15-minute walk can help curb sugary-snack cravings.

How should you walk each day to lose weight? Public health guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) per week, and how and when you reach that goal is your choice. Check in with your current activity level, and aim to increase your walking in a way that works best for you. That might mean a 15-minute stroll after dinner during the week, with longer routes on the weekends; 30-minute walks five days a week; or simply getting up and walking whenever and wherever you can. If you’re just getting started, Stanten recommends focusing on consistency. Moving for even five or 10 minutes on your busiest days still counts and helps build the habit, she says.

Once you have a routine, you can experiment with raising the intensity level and trimming your time commitment. While both moderate- and high-intensity workouts support weight loss, high-intensity workouts raise your heart rate more and can impart the same benefits in less time. Research also suggests that people who do high-intensity activity may lose more body fat than those who do longer, less intense workouts. Try picking up your pace to complete your usual route in less time, or add short bursts of fast-walking or light jogging throughout your walk.

Ultimately, no matter how intense you choose to make your walks, the best activity for weight loss or any other health goal is one you enjoy and will do regularly.

Health benefits of walking

Beyond weight loss, the benefits of exercise are well established. But it’s easy to forget that the basic activity of walking counts toward your activity goals. “I often hear, ‘I just walked’ or “I’m just going for a walk’ and we all need to stop saying that,” Stanten stresses. Walking is free, easy on joints, and any movement is better than no movement. She also notes that the pros of walking are not reserved for people who walk as their main form of exercise. Even if you have a go-to fitness routine, taking a walk on an active recovery day or as an after-dinner activity with your family can offer physical and mental benefits.

1. May reduce disease risks

  • As we mentioned, incorporating any regular exercise into your routine can help improve overall health, and research has linked walking to the same benefits. Here are some of the chronic diseases that walking can help prevent:
  • Heart disease: Even one extra hour of walking per week can help lower risk of heart disease in women, according to a study published in JAMA.
  • Stroke: A 2014 study found that older adults who spent time walking had a reduced risk of stroke. While earlier research linked any pace to protective benefits, a recent meta analysis suggests that walking at a faster pace may lower risk even further.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Research has also linked walking to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and improved health outcomes for people living with the disease.
  • Certain cancers: While there are many risk factors for different types of cancers, a 2016 analysis found that leisure-time activity, including walking, was associated with a lower risk of more than a dozen types of cancer, including liver, lung, and kidney cancers.
  • Osteoporosis: Walking can help prevent osteoporosis—and reduce the risk of bone fractures—by supporting bone density.
2. Could boost your mood

No knock against people who run marathons to get that famed “runner’s high,” but you definitely don’t need to go that hard. Research has found that even a 10- or 15-minute walk can have an impact on stress and creative thinking. Experts say this is often all it takes to affect neurotransmitters associated with positive mood.

3. Supports better sleep quality

Over a third of Americans aren’t getting enough shut-eye, according to the CDC, and the effects are more than just feeling tired—lack of sleep can impact your physical and mental health. The good news: Regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and generally sleep better. Some research even suggests that simply boosting your step count throughout the day could improve the snooze experience: A small observational study in Sleep Health found that people who walked more during their waking hours reported better sleep. Further research will probe the possibility of a direct link more closely.

4. May strengthen muscles

While walking on level ground is generally not a muscle-building activity, you can trick out your walk with resistance moves that help dial up the strength benefits. Look for routes with stairs or hills, do a set of lunges or squats every so often, or add intervals. Incorporating these challenges to your walks will boost the intensity, which public health guidelines recommend when looking to build muscle and bone. Considering walking with small hand weights or wearable weights? While they’re fine to try, it’s best to avoid using them if you develop signs of strain in wrists, elbows, and shoulders, Stanten says. And note that wearing or carrying weights may slow your pace, affecting calorie burn. An alternate idea: Add a separate day of strength training to your routine.

How to shop for sneakers

You don’t need special gear to start a walking plan for weight loss or other health goals, but good shoes can help ensure your strolls are comfortable and enjoyable, Stanten says. While there are general guidelines to follow (i.e. cushioning and flexibility), everyone’s feet are different, so it’s really about finding a pair that feels good to you.

A few tips to help you find the right fit: Head to the shoe store or measure your feet in the late afternoon when they’re largest due to swelling; try on sneakers with the style of sock you plan to wear most often; and if you’re between sizes or have one foot that’s slightly larger, size up. All that said, sometimes it’s hard to find that just-right feeling, so be sure to review return policies, especially when shopping online.

Goal: Start a walking program

If you're starting from zero, this is the program for you. Perhaps you've never exercised before—and you'd rather not use the "E" word to describe what you're about to take on. Instead think of it as something you'll do to feel better physically and mentally. Designed to get you in a routine of walking, your goals are time-based, realistic, and attainable. No distances to hit; it's just you and your timer, clicking off the minutes.

This program is for you if:

  • Your lifestyle has been sedentary up to now
  • You're recovering from a long-term illness or severe injury
  • You wish to build an endurance base and eventually be able to walk farther and/or faster

SUNMONTUESWEDTHURSFRISAT
15 min stretchingWalk 10 minWalk 10 minWalk 10 minUpper body movementWalk 10 min
15 min stretchingWalk 10 minWalk 15 minWalk 10 minUpper body movementWalk 15 min
15 min stretchingWalk 10 minWalk 20 minWalk 10 minUpper body movementWalk 20 min
15 min stretchingWalk 15 minWalk 20 minWalk 15 minUpper body movementWalk 20 min
15 min stretchingWalk 15 minWalk 20 minWalk 10 minWalk 15 minUpper body movementWalk 20 min
15 min stretchingWalk 15 minWalk 20 minWalk 15 minWalk 15 minUpper body movementWalk 20 min
15 min stretchingWalk 15 minWalk 20 minWalk 20 minWalk 15 minUpper body movementWalk 20 min
15 min stretchingWalk 15 minWalk 20 minWalk 20 minWalk 20 minUpper body movementWalk 20 min

KEY:

Stretching: Stretch hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, and calves. Find stretches here.

Upper body movement: Simple and designed to keep you active, do each movement for 30 seconds one after the other, then repeat twice. Eventually you want to work up to being able to do each movement for 1 minute.

  • Alternating right and left jabs. Like a boxer, jab the air in front of you.
  • Right and left overhead reach. Lean a little bit to the right and left as you alternately reach arms overhead.
  • Forward giant arm circles. Move slowly and deliberately.
  • Reverse giant arm circles. Squeeze shoulder blades together as your arms circle back.
  • Wall cactus. Stand with your back against a wall, tailbone and head pressed against the wall, elbows level with shoulders and bent 90 degrees.
Goal: Walk farther

Recording actual distances can be motivating as well as provide a strong sense of accomplishment. Keep in mind that building mileage should never be combined with an attempt to go faster. They should be mutually exclusive goals, and the focus of this program is expanding the distance you walk while staying healthy and injury-free.

This program is for you if:

  • You've completed Start a Walking Program or have at least two months of walking a minimum of three days per week for 30 minutes at a time with no pain or discomfort
  • You can commit to the time it takes to build mileage
  • You're interested in the possibility of taking on a 10K walking challenge

SUNMONTUESWEDTHURSFRISAT
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 10 minWalk 1.5 milesUpper body movementWalk 2 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 10 minWalk 1.5 milesUpper body movementWalk 2 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 10 minWalk 1.5 milesUpper body movementWalk 2.5 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 10 minWalk 2 milesUpper body movementWalk 2.5 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 15 minWalk 2 milesUpper body movementWalk 3 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 15 minWalk 2.5 milesUpper body movementWalk 3.5 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 15 minWalk 2.5 milesUpper body movementWalk 4 miles
15 min stretchingWalk 1 mile, easy paceWalk 15 minWalk 3 milesUpper body movementWalk 4 miles

*To progress to a 10K distance, continue this program for another eight weeks, and bump up the Saturday walks a half mile every other week.

KEY:

Stretching: Stretch hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, and calves.

Upper body movement: See "Goal: Starting a walking program" key.

Goal: Walk faster

Perhaps you walk up to 30 minutes at a time most days of the week, sometimes longer. If you've been mobile for at least two months and feel ready to take your walking to the next level, you can jump in here—or follow the Walk Farther program—and build on your base. Keep in mind that at any time during the course of this schedule should you feel shortness of breath, lightheaded, or acute or lingering soreness in any joints, that's a sign to back off a bit. Our recommendation: Follow to the last week of the program above, then begin this one again at Week One. Pushing yourself to the point of pain or dizziness may result in greater setbacks than if you listen to your body and take care of it along the way.

This program is for you if:

You're ready for a more challenging weekly routine

You've completed Start a Walking Program

You wish to continue to increase endurance and move a little faster

SUNMONTUESWEDTHURSFRISAT
15 min stretchingWalk 20 min, steady paceWalk 15 min: 5 min steady, 5 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, steady paceUpper body movementWalk 20 min: 5 min steady,
10 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 20 min, steady paceWalk 15 min: 5 min steady, 5 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, steady paceUpper body movementWalk 20 min: Walk 5 min steady,
10 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 20 min, steady paceWalk 20 min: 5 min steady, 10 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, steady paceUpper body movementWalk 25 min: Walk 5 min steady,
15 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 25 min, steady paceWalk 20 min: 5 min steady, 10 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 20 minUpper body movementWalk 25 min: Walk 5 min steady,
15 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 25 min, steady paceWalk 20 min: 5 min steady, 10 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, brisk paceWalk 20 minUpper body movementWalk 25 min: Walk 5 min steady,
15 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 25 min, steady paceWalk 25 min: 5 min steady, 15 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, brisk paceWalk 20 minUpper body movementWalk 30 min: Walk 5 min steady,
20 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 25 min, steady paceWalk 25 min: 5 min steady, 15 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, brisk paceWalk 25 minUpper body movementWalk 30 min: Walk 5 min steady,
20 min intervals, 5 min steady
15 min stretchingWalk 25 min, steady paceWalk 25 min: 5 min steady, 15 min intervals, 5 min steadyWalk 15 min, brisk paceWalk 25 minUpper body movement

Walk 30 min: Walk 5 min steady,
20 min intervals, 5 min steady