Walking with Weights This Winter? Leading Physical Therapist says "Not So Fast!"

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Mel Cave, Director of Physical Therapy at Somers Orthopaedics Offers Tips for Safer Alternatives to Adding Weights While Walking

While walking with weights does increase caloric burn somewhat, the effect is negligible and not worth the increased risk of injury to ligaments, tendons and muscles.

The health benefits of walking have long been known. More than 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates said, "Walking is a man's best medicine." Today we know that walking, like other forms of regular exercise, improves cardiovascular health, controls weight, reduces stress and helps maintain overall strength and fitness. And walking is the easiest and safest form of exercise. It can be done anywhere, requires no special skill or instruction and no equipment except a pair of well-fitting walking shoes. Americans have gotten the message. According to a 2012 report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, there are more than 78 million fitness walkers in the United States. But can walkers increase the intensity of their workouts and derive more benefits from the exercise by carrying hand weights or strapping on ankle weights when they walk? Opinion isn't unanimous, but most medical and fitness professional think not.

“The goal of walking with weights is to burn more calories and improve muscle tone in the arms and legs, says Mel Cave, M.S., D.P.T. and Director of Physical Therapy at Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group. Adding weights while walking can cause injury. There are better ways of intensifying a walking program.”

“While walking with weights does increase caloric burn somewhat, the effect is negligible and not worth the increased risk of injury to ligaments, tendons and muscles. The risk is similar with hand and ankle weights, comments Mr. Cave. Walking with even light weights strapped to the ankles changes the gait significantly and, especially as the walker tires, can lead to improper body alignment, which in turn can cause painful knee, hip and back injuries. Walking with hand weights – either small dumbbells or wrist weights – offers little in the way of toning benefits but increases the natural, gentle momentum of the walker's swinging arms beyond their normal extension; the over-swinging can cause injury.

“We see damage to walkers' shoulders and upper arm ligaments and tendons caused by unnatural stretching of the arms while carrying weights,” says Mr. Cave. “And walking with weights may even work against the goal of burning more calories since the added weight may cause the arms and then the legs to move more slowly, wiping out even the small, additional calorie utilization.” An additional risk is that carrying hand weights can cause a rise in blood pressure in some people, thought to result from tightly gripping the weights.

A safer way to use weights to intensify a walking workout is with a weighted vest, which distributes the additional weight evenly around the body's core, which can support the weight without excessive strain. “There are many other ways to increase the impact of a walking program without special equipment,” says Mr. Cave. “Walk for a longer time; walk faster; find hills to walk up; walk up stairs; swing your arms more vigorously; try alternating your walking pace with some gentle jogging; set goals for your walking and track your progress.”

Maintaining proper form while walking is straightforward: The spine should be straight, the head aligned with the back and the gaze focused about 20 feet ahead. Arms should be bent slightly at the elbow, held close to the sides and should swing forward and backward, not across the body. A warm-up stretching program is recommended. This will help prevent muscle soreness and stiffness which can result in unnecessary injury. The stretching program should include ankle, knees and hip muscle groups. Additionally, the program should incorporate thoracic and pectoral stretching for improvement in posture and respiratory function.

Medical and fitness professionals agree that adding weight training to any exercise program is a good idea, but it should be separate from a walking routine. Working out with weights increases metabolism, which causes the body to burn more calories; it strengthens bones and it improves strength and flexibility, which reduces the risk of injury. But the best way to work out with weights is at home or at the gym, not while walking.

“Walking is ideal exercise,” says Mr. Cave. “It's low impact, it can get your heart pumping, it burns calories, it can be done by almost everyone and it confers all the benefits of moderate exercise with little risk of injury. As Charles Dickens famously said, 'Walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.'”

Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group, founded in 1988, is one of the most comprehensive and specialized practices in the region. http://www.somersortho.com

Melvin Cave, M.S. D.P.T., is Director of Physical Therapy at Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group with 4 New York area physical therapy locations: Carmel, Hopewell Junction, Mt. Kisco and Newburgh.

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