Walking is one of the best forms of cardiovascular exercise. It’s weight-bearing yet easy on your joints, accessible to most people, and free (
However, walking requires more time and intensity to increase your heart rate and burn the same number of calories as other forms of fitness like jogging or cycling. That’s why some people consider walking with weights.
Read on to learn about the benefits and downsides of walking with ankle weights, hand weights, weighted vests, and backpacks.
For short walks, Sami Ahmed, a physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, says adding ankle weights that are 5 pounds or less can increase strength in your calf muscles, quadriceps, and hip flexors, while also challenging your core muscles.
However, there are also drawbacks. “Ankle weights put more pressure on the knee and could lead to tendonitis, joint issues, or even worsening arthritis,” says Ahmed. That’s why it’s important to discuss adding ankle weights to your walking routine with a medical professional.
Although ankle weights can add an additional load to your body while walking, Jayesh Tawase, PT, head physical therapist at Theradynamics, says this added resistance can have adverse effects on your functional symmetry if not closely monitored.
“Adding resistance to an exercise like walking can cause the stronger, more dominant muscles to be overactive during your training cycle,” he explains. Tawase says this can exacerbate muscular imbalances and increase the risk of injuries due to functional asymmetries.
For example, when wearing ankle weights, the quadriceps will fire more than the hamstrings, which can lead to excessive loads on your ankles, knees, and hip joints.
Hand weights are typically small dumbbells that you carry in each hand. Ahmed says hand weights are a safe option for someone looking to add weight when walking, as they’re easier for your body to tolerate.
“I typically recommend starting with a 3-pound hand weight in each hand, and increasing the weight once you’re comfortable,” he says.
If well tolerated, Ahmed says using hand weights can lead to a higher calorie burn due to the added resistance to your natural arm swing when walking.
Tawase says using very light hand weights for resistance when walking can be helpful after a stroke or for those with Parkinson’s disease or other similar neurological conditions. That’s because it allows you to incorporate multiple functional activities while walking around.
Although hand weights are one of the easier resistance tools to add when walking, Ahmed says if you’re carrying heavier weights, you may be more likely to experience pain in your elbow and shoulder.
“The resistance can over-stress the bicep tendon and elbow since they’re forced to keep the muscles flexed,” says Ahmed. Additionally, gripping hand weights can increase the strain on your arm, which can cause tennis elbow.
If ankle and hand weights are not your thing, consider wearing a weighted vest.
“A weighted vest is a nice option because it places weight near the body’s center of gravity, which leads to less strain on the joints, unlike hand or ankle weights,” says Ahmed.
Tawase likes weighted vests because they add a more uniform and controlled resistance throughout the body. They also help improve endurance, cardiovascular efficiency, bone density, and overall strength.
That said, weighted vests require core stabilization, and as a result, Ahmed says the weight could cause pressure on the knees and hips. “Jumping too quickly to a 25- or 50-pound vest puts you at a greater risk of injuring yourself,” he explains.
Unless you’re a professional athlete, Ahmed recommends staying away from that weight range and instead opting for a 5- to 8-pound weight vest. You can also choose a weighted vest that’s no more than 5–10% of your body weight.
Unlike weighted vests that evenly distribute weight to your front, back, and sides, a weighted backpack places the resistance solely on your back. If you decide to go this route, Ahmed says to start with a 5- to 15-pound weighted backpack.
He also cautions against leaning too far forward or carrying too much weight, as doing so could strain your lower back and stress your joints or ligaments.
If you decide to walk with a weighted vest, make sure your form is impeccable. Keep your body upright and avoid leaning forward. Also, focus on engaging your core muscles to help protect your lower back.
It’s critical to use weighted vests and backpacks correctly, especially if you have a history of neck or back problems, such as a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, or you’ve recently had surgery.
Tawase says this type of loading can change your body’s center of gravity and add excessive pressure on your spine.
“Carrying extra weight while walking encourages the body to work harder and can therefore burn more calories,” says Ahmed.
However, as with any exercise routine, he says it’s important to take it slowly and gradually increase the weight you carry and the distance you walk.
Ahmed recommends starting with a 10-minute bout of exercise, and once you can double the mileage, increase the amount of weight you’re carrying.
“Carrying weights while walking intensifies the exercise, but remember, as you increase the weight, you increase the risk of injury, too,” he adds.
It’s also worth noting that the increased energy expenditure when walking with weights is not dramatic.
A small 2013 study found a slight increase in calorie expenditure when wearing a weighted vest while walking on a treadmill compared with not wearing a weighted vest.
More specifically, participants who wore a weighted vest equal to 15% of their body weight burned 6.3 calories per minute, whereas participants who didn’t wear a vest burned 5.7 calories per minute (2).
Walking is one of the easiest and safest ways to exercise. To increase the intensity, some people like to add weights to their routine.
Walking with ankle weights, hand weights, or a weighted vest or backpack is appropriate for some people — but not all.
Before walking with any type of added weight, seek guidance from a healthcare provider who can provide tailored recommendations.
While the benefits of walking with weights are numerous, the added pressure on your joints can increase your risk of injury. As with any new exercise, start slowly and aim for sustainability over time.