Is it Better to Walk For Time or Distance?

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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Is it Better to Walk For Time or Distance?

If you plan to start a regular walking regimen — or even if you’re already walking consistently — you may be wondering if it’s better to measure your efforts by time or distance. After all, the American Heart Association recommends all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, while health experts in various fields keep pushing for a minimum of 10,000 steps (nearly five miles) per day.

So, which approach is best?

THE RESEARCH

Let’s take a look at the research: In a new study published in International Journal of Exercise Science, researchers divided 15 overweight subjects into two groups. One group, a time-based cohort, was to walk or run for an increasing amount of time 3–5 times per week. The other, a distance-based cohort, had to cover an increasing number miles every week. Though the exercise program aimed to keep total calories burned as close as possible between the two groups, the distance-based group lost an average of 8.8 pounds, while the time-based group gained an average of 2.4 pounds by the end of 10 weeks.

So, why did the two groups achieve opposite results, even though they performed equal work? The answer may lie in perception.

Study authors suggest that those who walked for time rather than distance likely overestimated the amount of work (measured by number of calories burned) they performed during the activity, leading them to overeat as a result.


READ MORE > ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO WALKING AND STEPS


Another study in the journal PLOS One bears this out: Researchers found men who walked for time as opposed to distance overestimated the calories they burned by 31%, while women overestimated by a whopping 37%.

According to International study author John C. Garner, PhD, certified strength and conditioning specialist, professor and chair of the kinesiology and health promotion department at Troy University, walking for distance offers a more accurate estimate of calories burned, as you can expect to burn approximately 100 calories for every mile you walk or run — regardless of fitness level. And this estimate doesn’t take into account the calories you burn after your workout through a phenomenon known as excess post-oxygen consumption (EPOC), also commonly referred to as the afterburn effect.

Meanwhile, trying to estimate the calories you burned during a 20-minute walk can be a challenge. This is because intensity plays a major role in how much you burn while performing any given activity. After all, the faster or more intense your walk, the more calories you’ll expend not only during your walk, but afterward, when your body has to work harder to help you cooldown and recover.

THE CONCLUSION

In other words, whether your goal is to lose weight, improve health or boost fitness, your best bet is to walk for a set distance (e.g., two miles), as opposed to a specific period of time (e.g., 30 minutes).

That said, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to walking for distance or time. While research suggests walking for distance may be the better option, it’s only beneficial so long as it works for you. If you find it easier to track your walks according to time, then, by all means, continue to do so.


READ MORE > THE NOT-SO-SECRET KEY TO WEIGHT-LOSS MANAGEMENT


The key to achieving any fitness goal is consistency, first and foremost. As your fitness levels improve and exercise becomes a regular habit, you do need to gradually increase your activity levels week-to-week, but whether you choose to measure it in minutes or miles is up to you.

“The important aspect to remember is to keep expectations realistic and attainable while still challenging,” Garner says. “It’s important to modify the exercise prescription so your body will continue to adapt to the demands.”

For best weight-loss results, keep increasing the distance, time and/or intensity of your weekly walks.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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14 responses to “Is it Better to Walk For Time or Distance?”

  1. Avatar Tlhq says:

    Why is it that MyFitnessPal only uses time for walking or running when distance is a better measure of calorie expenditure?

    • Avatar Kara says:

      Mine uses distance because iPhone tracks steps and syncs to MyFitnessPal. However the numbers are grossly different than this article claims. At just over 6000 steps it says I burned 43 calories, but if 10,000 steps is 5 miles at 100 calories a mile, then 5000 would be 2.5 miles for 250 calories burned. I’m not sure what rate MFP is using for steps even, but it definitely doesn’t seem realistic. And neither do the exercise inputs that over estimate calorie burn. My friend put that she walked 5mph for 30 minutes and it told her she burned almost 500 calories. But that was awhile ago.

      • Avatar Karen Duncan says:

        Once you know your walking or running speed (for walking either a 15 or 20 minute mile) you can measure either time or distance. If you know it takes you 15 minutes to walk a mile, then you know that in 30 minutes you will have walked 2 miles. Thus you can estimate your calories burned. Or just wear a Fitbit.

  2. Avatar Kaiser says:

    I think I would disagree with your estimate of 100 calories per mile. I use both Polar and Fitbit to gauge my mileage and energy consumption and I’m nowhere near 100 calories per mile. How did you come up with that number? Is it different between men and women? Age? Fitness levels?

    • Avatar Homer says:

      i recently learned one’s weight and distance traveled are key to calorie burn estimation. At 300lb, my 3 mile walk burns 420 cal. My 95lb marathoning daughter in law burns 100 cal in same distance. i also learned that except at extreme fast or slow rate, calorie burn per mile is about the same at any speed (which the blog indirectly affirms).

    • Avatar Karen Duncan says:

      The 100 calories per mile is a rough estimate. Another way this article was very unscientific. The actual amount of calories you burn is also determined by body size and weight, age, and other variables.

    • Avatar Robert McKeown says:

      Actually I would agree. My Galaxy Health tracker for today shows 4155 steps, 32 mins @ 3.4 mph, 1.84 miles burned 265 calories. = 144 calories per mile. I’m male and 58 yrs old. And fit.

  3. Avatar CalistogaKid says:

    I guess I’m doing a combination. I walk between 5-6 miles each morning shooting for at least 15 min miles. Your body weight also has an effect which is why I also wear a weighted vest.

  4. Avatar Dio Leander says:

    Physical exercise is good for our body especially doing running or jogging which involves almost all of our muscles plus it increases our endurance. There is a new research about anabolic running and the benefits that comes with it.

  5. Avatar G Thomson says:

    So, the answer is “mibby aye, mibby naw” 🙂

  6. Avatar Karen Duncan says:

    This article is ridiculous on many levels. First, “health experts in various fields” are actually not pushing for 10,000 steps per day. That was originally a marketing ploy by a Japanese company that made pedometers in the 1960s to get people to buy their product. It was an arbitrary number picked with no scientific study whatsover by marketers and advertisers. The 10,000 step fad then caught on in the U.S. with the advent of wearable fitness devices like the Fitbit.

    What actual fitness experts really say is that the more you walk and move, the better. So 10,000 steps – or 15,000 or more – are good for you. The more you move throughout the day the better. But 10,000 is not a magical number. It’s a benchmark that helps you to not sit all day.

    Then, the study she quotes in the Journal of Exercise Science only has a sample size of 15 divided into two groups. That’s six or seven per group. Really? That’s not an adequate sample size to prove much of anything. And the explanation for the difference in results was that the group that walked for a set amount of time rather than distance tended to overestimate the amount of calories they burned. That doesn’t test for which is better, distance-based versus time-based. To do that, the experiment should have had both groups on a similar diet with the same amount of calories and the same macronutrients. The way you do a randomized study is to properly control for all variables so that you make sure that the result is caused by what is being studied, not something else. The only way to know whether time-based or distance-based is better is to make sure that every other variable (including calories consumed) is the same so that only the time or distance is different. Then you can know whether that makes a difference. And you need a much bigger sample size than 15 people to do it.

    Further, most mainstream science today states that to lose weight you have to change your eating habits. Exercise alone – and certainly not walking – will burn enough calories to make a difference. If you want to lose weight you also have to limit intake of calories as well as do more activity to burn the calories you take in. You can’t do it without both components.

    • Avatar Karen Duncan says:

      As for the Journal of Exercise Science study, all it really found was that the people in the time-based groups were less good at estimating the number of calories they burned. But we still don’t know, based on the study, which is more effective, distance-based or time-based walking. If each group had the same number of calories, we’d have a better idea of which is best of losing weight.

      Meanwhile, the problem of over or underestimating calories can be solved by wearing a Fitbit or other wearable device and letting it estimate the calories burned and keeping track of actual calories consumed. Nobody ever gets estimates correctl without help.

  7. Avatar allanholtz says:

    Calories burned per mile is a function of your weight, your speed, your age and how much vertical you cover. You need heart rate based measurement and even that can be suspect, depending on your training history, which can affect the size of your heart and the volume of blood your heart pushes per beat. When I run/walk on a treadmill, the calorie count of the treadmill versus my polar heart rate monitor vary by up to 30% depending on my speed and the slope of the treadmill.

  8. Avatar Ray Cook says:

    Let’s go back to the heart of the article, walking for a distance or a set time .to achieve greater weight loss. Common sense tells us that subject A walks at 3 miles per hour for 1 hr on day one.Then walks the exact same route at the exact same body weight in the exactly same weather conditions, in the exact same state of hydration, in the exact same state of internal macro content at the exact same time of day. Whilst doing this achieves and maintains the same exact BPM spike.But stops walking 15 minutes earlier than the previous day. Subject A has burnt less calories on day 2 then day 1 . But only during the walk, what about the post work out burn, what was the subject BPM spike ,how long was the subjects BPM in a fat burn state or cardio state. This report is completely floored. We know nothing of the two groups genders age groups ethnic backgrounds. There BMI health conditions .I could go on. Calorie usage is determined by physical output, measured by weight age pace and resistance. The post work out burn is governed by the rate at which the body recovers. Which is based on the subjects unique circumstances. Age weight and current health and fitness. Time and distance are not the key factors, how you use the time you have allowed your self to travel that distance is. The Weight loss process has become over technical over analysing and selling the dream of quick fix weight loss, is as we all know big business. Yet we all have at some point allowed ourselves to become a part of this circus. If your reading this message and want to loose weight and are wanting help with the answer, to this question
    Time or Distance when walking. Neither the answer is simply walk and enjoy it. Be that for 10 minutes or two hours.
    I’m no doctor I have no letters behind my name , I was a 5ft 10 inch 49 year old man who woke up one day weight 17st 4 pound and realised I’m obese. 23 weeks later I was 12 stone 8 pound. One year on I’m 13 stone. Drink plenty of water get at least 7 hours sleep a day have a healthy balanced diet be active. Be happy

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