Which matters most for weight loss: Speed or distance?

Dear Alice,

I have a question about walking for weight loss. My walking buddy believes the theory of walking distance is what helps you lose weight best versus my theory that it is the speed at which you walk that matters. So, could you help me figure this one out? Which matters most in ultimate weight loss: speed or distance?

Speed walker

Dear Speed walker,

Walking is a fantastic way for people to include physical activity in their daily schedule — so keep it up! Walking can assist with weight loss and provide additional health benefits, such as improved heart health and metabolism. However, your question is a difficult one to answer. When it comes to weight loss, it’s not clear which, speed or distance, would come out ahead without considering another factor — time (or really, duration). Ultimately, weight loss depends on net energy balance, or how many calories are burned when compared to how many were consumed. Therefore, it may help to think about maximizing the calories burned while walking.

Before exploring the relationship between aerobic (also known as cardio) activity and burning calories, it may help to go over some terminology. There are three aspects to exercise that may be helpful to understand: duration, frequency, and intensity. Here, duration means the number of minutes of physical activity (which can reflect both time and distance), and frequency is defined as the number of days per week you get exercise. Intensity is more complicated to quantify, though it can be understood as how hard the activity feels to you. Consider how you’re breathing, whether you’re sweating, and how tired your muscles feel. Since intensity can reflect a person's subjective experience, it may be a more convenient measure of how hard someone is working out than speed. Why? Well, speed may be difficult to measure without a treadmill or other measurement tools, but you don't necessarily need any equipment to measure intensity.

Now, back to aerobic activity and burning those calories. Different people may benefit from walking at different intensity levels depending on their weight and fitness level. For instance, according to some research, moderate-intensity activity (such as walking at three to 3.5 miles-per-hour) is ideal for maximum fat burning in sedentary, overweight people, especially if it’s for longer than 30 minutes (this takes in to consideration both intensity and duration). On the other hand, folks with a higher fitness level tend to burn fat at a higher intensity level. So, the answer to your question can really depend on the person.

Time to talk frequency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. If finding an extended amount of time in your schedule for physical activity is difficult, you may consider working out at higher intensities for 75 minutes per week. This may be a favorable strategy for busy-bees since vigorous-intensity workouts take less time overall. So, it's not just about speed and distance, but also getting active consistently each week. It’s good to note, however, that folks with certain health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and arthritis are advised to seek out medical advice before upping the intensity of any workout routine, so that they may do so safely.

In addition to being consistent, think about mixing it up your sweat sessions — some days, go for intensity with shorter, faster walks, and other days, go for endurance with longer, slower walks. Doing so could help you stick with your physical activity plan for a long time and help you avoid injuries by not putting too much stress on your body all the time. Plus, it might make your routine more interesting, help fit it into your schedule, and keep you and your buddy satisfied and happy.

As you can see, there are many factors at play when it comes to walking and weight loss, not just speed and distance. Sticking to a physical activity plan, such as walking daily, seems to help people achieve and maintain their weight loss. In addition, a nutritious, balanced diet and getting enough sleep can also help you to maintain a healthy weight. Lastly, seeking out some guidance from a medical professional can be helpful to assess your current fitness level and to get personalized recommendations to keep you healthy and safe during your sweat sessions. Ready for more information and motivation? Then, check out the Fitness category in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition and Physical Activity archives and the related questions.

Last updated Dec 30, 2016
Originally published Dec 21, 2001