There’s been lots of buzz in the fitness world lately about extreme workouts — but if you’re not keen on crawling through mud or scaling up walls, here’s good news: You can forget it all. Super-intense exercise “is more likely to lead to injury or burnout than lasting weight loss,” says Jamé Heskett, MD, author of The Well Path: Lose 20 Pounds, Reverse the Aging Process, Change Your Life ($16.99, Amazon).
If getting slim without going on an insane diet is your goal, just take a short walk. “It feels good, and it’s the most natural way to lose fat,” says Dr. Heskett. Proof: Harvard research has revealed that walking improves our overall health and flips genetic switches that make it easier for us to get lean. Plus, Heskett adds, “Walking lowers stress hormones and stimulates circulation; factors that prime the metabolism for weight loss.”
Pair a few short walks with healthy eating, and the payoff is amazing. Seattle-area textbook author Lorraine Papazian-Boyce began with a goal of walking a mile a day, and now she’s down 145 pounds. “At 63, I’m in the best shape of my life,” she says.
Meanwhile, Texas restaurant manager Meg Fuschak, 31, zoned out while strolling to her favorite music. “The first day I got out of bed and realized I wasn’t breathing heavy anymore, I knew I was doing something amazing,” she recalls. Today, she’s 212 pounds slimmer.
Then there’s Tennessee mom Noelle Dawson, 37, who often walked with all five of her kids in tow. She lost 38 pounds in 30 days, and 233 pounds total. “I was surprised by how good it felt from day one. I can’t even put the difference in words.” Wow!
How can the rest of us get such impressive results? Just try one (or more) of the science-backed strategies that worked wonders for women like Lorraine, Meg, and Noelle.
Walk slower to fast-track fat loss.
Walkers going at a comfortable pace burn 700 percent more fat than power walkers, according to an Arizona State University study. And Duke researchers found that easy walking plus a healthy diet helps us lose three times more weight than running. Why? Simply put, “Moderate-intensity exercise tends to burn more fat,” says Duke University's William Krause, MD. This is because any form of exercise that leaves us breathless reduces our oxygen intake — but we need oxygen to “ignite” fat.
That’s why arthritis-sufferer Lorraine lost up to five pounds a week, even though she crept along during her early walks. “I was getting very motivating results,” she recalls. As for Noelle, “When I first started, I could barely keep up with my five-year-old.” Still, the weight was falling off. “Don’t be discouraged if you’re slow,” Noelle urges. “The only thing that will hold you back is if you don’t start.”
How to Eat to Speed Results
Walkers automatically burn 100 percent more fat when they eat foods to balance blood sugar, British researchers report. “When blood sugar rises, it triggers the release of the hormone insulin, which can block fat burning even when you’re active,” explains Heskett.
To avoid insulin spikes, follow Meg’s lead: Load up on nutrients that slow the rise of blood sugar— namely fiber, protein, and healthy fat — and skimp on processed foods and sugar. “Switching from Coke to water was one of the easiest things I did that had a big impact,” Meg says. Noelle’s approach was to enjoy five low-sugar, protein-rich meal replacements each day, and then a protein-and-veggie-packed dinner. The Optavia program can help you do this. “It was such a no-brainer way to get myself in fat-burning mode,” she says.
Benefits of Compression Pants
Compression pants have the power to boost metabolism by 15 percent if we wear them while we’re active, say researchers from California State Polytechnic University. “Compression garments support the circulatory system and make it more vigorous, speeding oxygen through your system and maximizing fat loss,” explains Heskett. Meg is a fan of compression tights made by Danskin and Nike. Adds bargain-shopper Noelle: “I find mine on the clearance rack at Ross or T.J.Maxx.”
Rev Up With Short Walks
If you don’t have a solid chunk of time to devote to walking, no worries: You can get even greater benefits by squeezing in multiple shorter sessions. In a study at Loughborough University in London, women who went on three 10-minute walks per day ultimately lost 100 percent more weight than women who walked for 30 minutes straight. As it turns out, a series of short walks can actually stimulate metabolism more than one longer walk.
The key to success is figuring out the best way to fit walking seamlessly into your life. “Choose the tricks that make exercise feel easiest for you,” Heskett says. “That’s the best and fastest way to get to your goal!” How can you keep up with your new habit? Try a few of these tips.
1. Track your step count.
Wear a Fitbit Activity Tracker ($69.95, Amazon) like Noelle and Lorraine, or use the step counter on your cellphone. A Stanford study found that seeing steps rack up motivates us to walk an extra mile a day.
2. Enjoy the view.
All of our successful slimmers stroll outdoors, which is a smart move. Japanese researchers found walking in nature is so soothing, it reduces fattening stress hormones an extra 16 percent.
3. Use weight-loss music .
Walking to music inspires us to go an extra 10,000 steps a week, according to one study. Noelle gets a boost from tunes like “Imagine” by John Lennon and “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten.
4. Chew gum for weight-loss
“Sometimes when I walk, I’ll chew gum,” shares Meg. And — surprise! — research shows gum revs us up so much that we walk farther and burn nearly 20 percent more calories.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.