Walking might not be the most strenuous form of exercise, but it is an effective way to get in shape and burn fat. We know one of the most dangerous types of fat — belly fat — is also one of the easiest to lose and while you can’t spot-reduce fat, walking can help reduce overall fat (including belly fat). The key, though, is staying consistent and walking in the right heart rate zone to maximize calorie and fat burn.
TARGETING BELLY FAT
Losing weight (including belly fat) is all about burning more calories than you’re consuming. Once you have a healthy, well-balanced diet in place and are upping your step count consistently, you’ll begin to notice overall weight loss. For some people, belly fat might be the last area of the body where you notice results, while for others it is the first.
That said, some methods of losing fat and trimming your waistline are more effective than others. Below are four ways you can focus your workouts for burning as much fat as possible, so you can get fit and achieve your weight-loss goals.
AIM FOR THE FAT-BURNING ZONE
To burn as many calories as possible and maximize your weight loss, you’ll need to walk in the correct heart rate zone. The fat-burning zone is roughly 60–70% of your maximum heart rate and burns about 7–12 calories per minute depending on the person. You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then, multiply that number by 0.6. For example, a 30-year-old has a maximum heart rate of 190 beats per minute (bpm). To achieve an intensity equivalent to 60%, aim to hover around 114 bpm.
When you exercise in this fat-burning zone, keep in mind, duration is key. Since the intensity is low to moderate, you want to make sure your workouts are long enough (work your way up to 45 minutes to an hour) so the body burns fat instead of stored carbohydrates. In the beginning of your workouts, sugars and stored carbs are burned first. When these are depleted, the body becomes more efficient at burning fat as the workout duration increases.
TRY FASTED CARDIO
Completing your walking workouts in a fasted state in the morning before you eat or drink anything can also help teach your body to use your fat as an energy source for your workouts instead of relying on those carbohydrates you’ve just consumed for breakfast.
“Fasted cardio burns more fat because less nutrients are circulating within the body to use for energy,” says Ben Walker, a fitness instructor and owner at Anywhere Fitness. “Keeping it long and steady targets more fat cells.”
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to keep your intensity on the lower-end of the spectrum. “When training beyond 50% of max intensity, we start to initiate our anaerobic system,” says Walker. “In this state, our body requires glucose from carbs and sugar as a fueling system. If completely absent, we can suffer from rapid fatigue, nausea, muscle spasm and even damaged muscle tissue. In the long run, this is not good for general health or weight loss.”
A good rule of thumb is to walk in the fat-burning zone for 45–60 minutes and work your way up to 4–5 times per week. As you get more fit, you start to see positive waistline results.
Try this sample workout: Begin with an easy 10-minute walk to warm up your muscles and get loose. For the main set, walk for either 45 minutes in Zone 2 or do two sets of 22 minutes, taking a break, if needed, at the halfway point. You can also do a few exercises like squats, lunges or pushups to break things up before you begin the second half of your workout. Once you’ve completed 45 minutes, end your walk with another 10 minutes of easy walking to cool down.
MIX UP YOUR WORKOUTS
If you do the exact same workout all the time, your body eventually adapts, and calorie burn is less significant. While you’ll want to do a majority of your workouts in the fat-burning zone, if weight-loss is your primary concern, upping the intensity 1–2 times per week can provide an extra boost.
“To lose body fat, you have to train all aspects of your fitness and progressively increase intensity,” says Walker. Remember, “losing weight is a patience game.”
In fact, this study shows increasing the intensity with interval training can be even more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal body fat than lower-intensity exercise. Keep in mind higher-intensity exercise places more stress on your joints and requires plenty of recovery between sessions to avoid injury, which is why no more than two sessions per week are recommended.
Along with walking intervals, Walker recommends mixing things up with strength training a few times a week. “When performing resistance training such as bodyweight exercises or lifting weights, our muscle fibers break down, needing nutrients and rest to repair,” says Walker. “During this phase, our body burns a significant amount of energy. Accompanied with a good diet, a combination of both training methods burns more calories.”
Including a couple of higher-intensity workouts during your week can also be helpful for days when you don’t have as much time to work out. For these sessions, you only need about 30 minutes to get some of the same benefits as your longer Zone 2 sessions.
Try this sample workout: Begin with a 10-minute warmup, gradually increasing your pace. For the main set, alternate 2 minutes of walking at a moderate pace with 1 minute at the fastest walking pace you can tolerate. Open your stride, pump your arms, and raise your heart rate as much as possible to burn the most calories. Alternate 2 minutes easy, 1 minute hard for 20 minutes. Cool down for 10 minutes after your 20-minute block is completed. To make this workout more difficult, try jogging or light running for your 1-minute periods instead.
You can also try this 4-week no gym, no problem workout guide.
FOCUS ON NUTRITION
In addition to a regular exercise routine, diet plays a significant role in weight loss, and cutting out unnecessary calories is still one of the best methods to lose unwanted belly fat.
Eat a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of whole foods, says Walker. “Choose less-processed carbs and opt for whole grains like oats, barley, quinoa and buckwheat, which are great for long-lasting energy and have more vitamins and minerals.” He also recommends consuming healthy fats and plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain filling, gut-friendly fiber and micronutrients. Walker adds that,“lean proteins with less saturated fat such as chicken, fish and lentils,” can also help with weight loss and reducing your midsection.
For some people, meal timing is important, too, says Walker. You might find eating a big breakfast to help power you through your day and a smaller dinner helps with weight loss. For others, several smaller meals throughout the day (as opposed to the traditional three) works better.
Wherever you are in your weight-loss journey, try tracking your food intake with an app like MyFitnessPal so you can get an idea of what you’re consuming and when. From there, you can make adjustments that suit your lifestyle and individual needs.
Originally published October 2019, updated with additional reporting
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.