Walking with weights. Does it help?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2012

Every now and then I see a walker striding briskly while swinging a small dumbbell in each hand. It seems like a logical way to burn a few more calories and tone the muscles of the upper body. But is it a good idea?

Exercise scientists haven't shown much interest in the effects of walking with weights since the early 90s. Maybe there are too many other theories to test or maybe they've learned all that they need to know. One can add weight by lugging those dumbbells or by wearing weighted cuffs on the wrists or ankles, donning a weighted vest or by carrying the kind of backpack that is part of the wardrobe of almost every school child in the nation. The list of serious scientific articles on these issues is pretty short.

The Internet is another matter. It provides lots of opinions on walking with weights and as is typical of such postings there is little agreement. Some of them tout the most obvious advantage: carrying some extra weight while you walk requires that you burn more calories. In actual laboratory experiments however, the advantage is either minimal — about 5 percent — or not statistically significant. It doesn't matter whether the weight is on your wrists, in your hands, strapped to your ankles or wrapped around your body. It just doesn't seem to make much of a difference. What does matter is that it may have some hazardous consequences.

Wrist or hand weights add stress to the shoulders and increase the momentum of the arm swing but that doesn't burn many more calories. Several investigators disapprove of ankle weights citing the stress imposed on the ankle joint and the finding that it could lead to stress fractures. Even though they are padded, ankle weights can cause skin irritation that might not be readily apparent, especially in older individuals. Specifically, persons with diabetes should avoid any activity that could cause injury to the feet and ankles because of impaired sensation that is common in diabetes.

A weighted vest seems to cause the fewest problems because the joints are not involved but it doesn't add much to the results. A long walk on a hot day while wearing a vest with an extra 15 or 20 pounds of lead inside it would probably discourage anyone but the most dedicated athlete.

The bottom line: walking is good; walking with weights isn't worth it.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.