Are You Walking in the Fat-Burning Zone?

man walking up concrete steps

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

Walking has so many wonderful benefits, like improving fitness, strengthening bones, and easing joint pain. It can also improve mental health. For those who are trying to burn fat, walking can also help accomplish your goals. Here is what you need to know about walking to burn calories and fat.

Walking for Fat Loss

There are two keys to burning more fat when walking. The first is that you need to walk with enough speed and/or intensity to burn fat for energy. And the longer you walk, the more you burn stored fat (rather than the sugars your body uses for quick bursts of exercise). While any exercise can burn calories, brisk walking and other aerobic exercises are especially good for burning internal abdominal fat, called visceral fat. This type of fat not only contributes to your waistline but also raises your risk for diabetes and heart disease.

What is the Fat-Burning Zone?

The American Heart Association (AHA) categorizes brisk walking at a pace of 2.5 miles per hour as a moderate-intensity aerobic activity. According to the AHA, your target heart rate for exercising at this level of intensity should be 50–70% of your maximum heart rate. (For more vigorous activities, your heart rate should be about 70–85% of your maximum heart rate.)

Working out a low to moderate intensity can actually help you burn fat. That's because the body uses stored fat as fuel compared to workouts of a higher intensity, which rely on carbohydrates.

The heart rate range for this zone varies by your age. You can use a chart of heart rate zones by age to find the right numbers. Take your pulse while exercising to check your heart rate. There are also heart rate apps for your cell phone and pulse monitors built into many activity monitors and smartwatches.

When you are exercising in this zone, you are breathing heavier, feeling increased exertion, and probably sweating, but you are still able to carry on a conversation. Beginners should build up their walking time and speed gradually. A beginner's walking plan starts with 15 minutes per day, five days per week, working on good walking technique. Increase walking time by 5 minutes per session each week.

Ways to Boost Walking Intensity

If you find your heart rate is still below 60% of your maximum, you need to make your workout more intense in order to burn fat. There are several ways to do this.

Add Distance and Time

Make your walk longer to keep your body working harder. Keep your pace brisk. Walking additional minutes will burn more stored fat. But since not everyone has time for these extra minutes, you might find other options more feasible.

Walk Faster

Work on walking faster by using good posture, arm motion, and a powerful stride. Even if you go out for a short walk, aim to do it a little faster than normal. It may help to time yourself walking a set route, and then challenge yourself to complete it a little bit faster each time you do it.

One study looked at people walking 3.6 miles per hour, 4.1 mph, and 4.6 mph. The acceleration to 4.6 mph burned more than 50% more calories than jumping from 3.6 mph to 4.1 mph.

Add Intervals

Use the above strategies to walk faster to incorporate intervals, where you rev up your speed for a set distance or time, alternating with a slower pace. Intervals add intensity and also help to increase the overall pace. Research on people with diabetes found that those who did interval walking workouts for four months lost six times as much weight as those who walked at a steady pace.

Add Hills or Stairs

Incorporating hills or stair-climbing into some of your walks also helps keep you challenged and makes your workout more intense. If you don't have access to a hilly outdoor route or stairs, you can use a treadmill (start with a slight incline and work up to a steeper one) or stair-stepping machine at the gym.

And you don't need to walk briskly on hills: One study showed that walking slowly on an incline was an effective workout that didn't cause stress on the knee joint, especially for people who were obese.

Use Walking Poles

When you walk with poles, you add intensity (not to mention an upper-body workout) without feeling like you are working much harder.

Skip Walking With Weights

It might seem like weights would boost intensity, but if you weigh 150 pounds and walk for half an hour at 3.5 mph with 5-pound weights, you burn only 10 more calories than you would have without the weights. And weights can actually slow you down so you burn fewer calories. They also increase your risk of injury, so they just aren't worth using.

Switch Up Your Workouts

For best results, mix up different types of walking workouts throughout the week: intervals, short and fast walks, long and moderate walks. More meditative, mindful walks also have stress-reducing benefits. These walks help lower cortisol, which can contribute to weight gain.

If you can't spend 45 continuous minutes walking, make the most of the time you have. Fit in two to four 15-minute walks at a brisk pace. You will be burning calories, building your walking speed and ability, and achieving the minimum recommended physical activity level for health.

It's also a good idea to include other types of exercise in your routine. Other moderate-intensity exercise activities include bicycle riding on level terrain, water aerobics, using an elliptical trainer, ballroom dancing, gardening, and doubles tennis. Challenge your body in new ways and balance your muscle development by doing a variety of different physical activities.

In addition to burning fat, you are also building muscle and raising your basal metabolic rate. With a boosted metabolism, you are burning more calories all day long.

Walkers who are training for a distance event, such as a half marathon or marathon, should walk at low to moderate intensity for their long day of distance training each week.

Sample Fat-Burning Walking Workout

You can use a treadmill or walk outdoors for this workout. You will need good athletic shoes that are flat and flexible and have the proper support and cushioning for a long walk. Wear clothing that allows freedom of movement and wicks away sweat.

  • Warm up: Walk 5 to 10 minutes at an easy pace, increasing your speed gradually. The warm-up is important. It burns off stored blood sugar and depletes the ready energy stores in your muscles. This signals your body that you are going to be doing a longer exercise session. As a result, your body gets ready to start burning stored fat.
  • Speed up until you are in the fitness zone (heart rate of 60% to 70% of your maximum). Check your heart rate every 10 minutes to ensure you are staying in the zone.
  • Walk in the fitness zone for 30 to 50 minutes or more. If your heart rate dips, pick up your speed.
  • Cool down: End with 5 to 10 minutes at an easier pace for a cool-down.

A Word From Verywell

The first step towards burning fat is simply to get moving. Use a quick start walking program to build your walking time, technique, and speed if you haven't already been walking briskly for 30 minutes or more. Taking it easy at first and working on the basics steadily can get you to your goal.

8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Karstoft K, Winding K, Knudsen SH, et al. The effects of free-living interval-walking training on glycemic control, body composition, and physical fitness in type 2 diabetic patients: a randomized, controlled trial. Diabetes Care. 2013;36(2):228-36. doi:10.2337/dc12-0658

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Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.