— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
With gyms closed and a global pandemic keeping people confined to their neighborhoods, 2020 became the year of the walk. But ambling around isn’t just a last-resort workout option or an excuse to get out of the house. The seemingly simple exercise has many health benefits for everyone. “Walking is perhaps the easiest, most natural way to move your body,” says Timothy Lyman, director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh (ACE-CPT, NASM-PES). “It not only helps with cardiovascular and respiratory fitness, but has many psychological benefits as well.”
Get expert shopping advice delivered to your phone. Sign up for text message alerts from the deal-hunting nerds at Reviewed.
After over a year of strolling through the neighborhood, however, you may be ready to level up. Check out these 10 ways to help you ramp up the difficulty—and health benefits—of your daily walk.
1. Incorporate bodyweight exercise
One great way to challenge yourself is to stop and incorporate some strength training. Trekking is an awesome aerobic exercise that can help improve cardiovascular health on its own, but adding some resistance training can give you added benefits like improving muscle and bone strength. “Every five minutes do 10 squats and 10 push-ups, then keep going,” Lyman says. “Your heart rate will be elevated from the walk, so sprinkling in some simple exercises will make it even more beneficial.”
Keeping the bodyweight exercises simple is enough to jazz up your daily trek. But if you need some inspiration—or want to change up your routine—downloading a workout app may help. Our favorite app for exercising when you’re on the go is Aaptiv. It costs $14.99 a month or $99.99 a year and has thousands of excellent audio-only workouts, which makes it easy to follow along without having to stare at the screen. Workouts include HIIT training, strength training, yoga, and more, and many classes can be done with minimal or no equipment. Aaptiv also offers guided walking workouts, in which instructors talk to you and play tunes as you speed up and slow down through certain intervals, which may get your heart going even more than if you were on your own.
2. Head for the hills
Taking steps on a flat surface already activates tons of muscles. But adding an incline either on a treadmill or an actual hill can work those muscles even more, especially your hip, knee, and ankle extensor muscles. This means your glutes, hamstrings, quads, knee muscles, and calf muscles are all working overtime while moving uphill. And the steeper you climb, the more they work.
This doesn't mean you have to trudge uphill for your entire workout. If you exercise in a hilly area or near some steps (or on a treadmill), you can slowly incorporate inclines into your routine. Start by moving on an incline for one to five minutes, and then return to level ground. Eventually, walking on a slope will become easier and you can upgrade to longer or steeper uphill stretches.
3. Carry a backpack with extra weight
One surefire way to intensify your strides? Add some weight to it. Simply getting your steps in with some extra pounds in a backpack—also called "rucking"—can increase your heart rate and improve lower body strength and posture more than just taking steps on your own. Wearing a backpack offers far more bang for the buck compared to carrying dumbbells, which experts say are only safe up to 3 pounds. You can fill your pack with dumbbells, weighted plates, or even old books. Just make sure to stay within a weight range that works for you—the lighter the better when you're first starting out—to avoid poor form and subsequent injury. Once you get the hang of things, aim for 10% to 15% of your body weight to see the most benefits of walking with weight.
Any old backpack will work for light weights (or your water bottle, a snack, or a book to read in the park). But if you want to start carrying serious weight, you'll need something more heavy-duty. Go Ruck makes bags specifically for this type of training. The Rucker 3.0 20L is built with a sternum strap, lumbar padding, and a designated slot for a weighted plate. Reviewers say this rucksack makes carrying heavy weights around as comfortable as can be, and laud its durability. For a less expensive option, try the Mardingtop Tactical Backpack from Amazon, which has both a sternum and waist strap to keep your load stable and an internal sleeve for a hydration bag, a feature reviewers love.
4. Use a weighted vest for extra resistance
To really add some heft to your step, try a weighted vest. It distributes weight more naturally throughout your core, which can reduce the risk of injury while allowing you to use heavier resistance. Weighted vests can be used to strengthen your muscles while you’re strolling or make typically bodyweight-only exercises like squats and push-ups more challenging. Experts recommend starting with a vest as light as 4% of your body weight so you don't sacrifice good form—for walking, this means keeping your head up with shoulders and back relaxed—and working your way up to 10% or 15% of your body weight to see more benefits.
If you're in need of a lighter weight, try the Yes4All weighted vest. It comes in multiple weights from 6 pounds to 16 pounds, and reviewers like its slimmer style which makes it comfortable to wear during longer workouts. However, it also only comes in one size and reviewers say may not fit larger bodies as well. For a heavyweight vest, try the TRX XD Kevlar Weight Vest, which comes in one size and has adjustable shoulder straps. This vest comes in two weights, 20 and 40 pounds, and the 20-pound vest can be adjusted by 1-pound increments while the 40-pound vest can be adjusted by 2-pound increments. Reviewers love the quality of this vest, and how secure it feels while exercising.
5. Bring along resistance bands
If you’re integrating bodyweight moves into your walk, you can amp it up without loading yourself down by adding resistance bands. For a basic set, try the rubber-based Fit Simplify bands. These oft-recommended bands have a 4.5-star rating with over 95,000 reviews on Amazon. They come in a set of five, each with a different resistance level. Reviewers love the varying difficulty that comes with this set, but warn that rubber tends to bunch up during certain exercises.
If you know the mid-movement bunching will annoy you, try fabric resistance bands. The Walito resistance bands come in a set of three with light, medium, and heavy resistance levels, and have a 4.7-star rating with over 14,000 reviews on Amazon. Reviewers love how comfortable and long-lasting they are, however, they’re intended to go around your legs and are best used for lower body exercises.
6. Wear the right earbuds to keep you going
Ill-fitting earbuds can be a nuisance while exercising, as you’ll likely spend more time fiddling with them than focusing on your movement.
We’ve tested plenty of headphones here at Reviewed and the best earbuds for working out are the Jabra Elite Active 75t. Their sound performance makes them a great pick for users who value clarity through both loud and quiet workouts, and their controls are easy to use, even mid-session. These Jabras are dust- and water-resistant, which comes in handy if you find yourself taking a long trek in less than ideal weather, and they have a “transparency mode” which allows you to tune in to the background noises when you want to stay aware of your surroundings.
7. Use a jump rope to up your cardio game
Jumping rope is a great way to add some extra cardio to your workout routine while working your legs, arms, and core and improving coordination. Jump ropes are compact, lightweight, and easy to bring along. You can start by jumping for one to five minutes in between walking intervals, and work your way up to longer jumping sessions. And if you want an extra challenge, you can try a weighted jump rope. These have added load either in the handles or the rope itself and can weigh anywhere from a quarter of a pound to 10 pounds, but even the lightest option increases the aerobic benefits of every hop.
For a regular jump rope, try the Jumella jump rope, available in a pack of two for about $8. Reviewers love how easy it is to adjust the rope’s length and use it during different workouts. For a weighted rope, you can start with a relatively lightweight option like WOD Nation’s 1-pound rope. Unlike more expensive options which increase the weight of the rope itself, WOD Nation comes with half-pound inserts for the rope’s handles that can still increase the resistance.
If you fall in love with jumping rope and want to make it a regular part of your workout routine, consider investing in Crossrope. The brand's jump ropes range from a quarter of a pound to two pounds, and all are high-quality and portable while offering more of a challenge than a regular rope with heavy handles. You also have the option to add on a membership to Crossrope’s jump rope workout app for $9.99 a month or $49.99 a year, though there’s also a (great!) free version.
8. Try a water-filled vest for easy hydration
Staying properly hydrated before, during, and after your workout can improve your performance and prevent injury from tired muscles. And while it’s important to drink water during your workout, fumbling for your water bottle mid-stride can slow you down and cause you to lose focus on your form.
Hydration vests allow you to carry water on your back and sip away without breaking your stride. Reviewers say the Camelbak Circuit Vest 50 ounce holds plenty of water without feeling uncomfortable, and many say they are never going back to bringing along old-fashioned water bottles.
9. Use a fitness tracker to log your progress
One of the best indications that your strolling habit is paying off is to see your resting pulse rate diminish as your heart muscles strengthen from all that aerobic work. A great way to track your step count and cardio progress, particularly as you amp up your walks, is with a fitness tracker.
When you can keep an eye on your stats, you can challenge yourself to move faster or longer, which can make your route more difficult. “A brisk walking pace can be just as challenging to maintain as a jog. Never discount the efficacy of a brisk walk,” Lyman says. “It is also important to switch up your usual route and try not to avoid obstacles like hills. The more variety you can include, the better off you’ll be.”
Our favorite fitness tracker of the moment, the Fitbit Charge 4, is great for logging indoor and outdoor strolls. The not-too-large, not-too-small tracker automatically logs walking workouts (though you can track these manually too), and keeps track of stats like steps taken, distance traveled, and heart rate.
Not quite ready to commit to a wearable? Walking apps like Map My Walk by Under Armour can track your pace, distance, duration, and elevation and let you keep an eye on how these statistics change over time. You can also use Map My Walk to set goals such as distance traveled and sync your data with fitness trackers, if you decide you actually do want one.
10. Pick up the pace
You don't have to consider yourself a runner to add some short bursts of speed into your workouts. These segments where you pick up the pace, also called "fartleks," can boost your heart rate for greater cardio and calorie-burning benefits, without the impact of steady-state running. Here's how to do it: After strolling for a few minutes, pick a point ahead of you (like a distinctive tree or a bench) and jog or run until you get there. Then walk until you feel your heart rate lowers back to your baseline, and do it again.
Once you've tested the waters and gotten comfortable with fartleks, you can try timing your intervals and gradually running for longer segments. A good starting point would be to run for a full 30 seconds and walk for two minutes to recover. Eventually, the running portion will get easier and you'll find you need less time to recover. Don't rush this process. Take your time working your way up to running more and walking less.
You can time these running intervals with the stopwatch on your phone, a fitness tracker, or a walking app. And if you need some more guidance when first starting to run, you can download free running plans from brands like Nike or the ever-popular C25K (couch to 5K) app.
Need help finding products? Sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’s free and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
This article originally appeared on Reviewed: How to make walking for exercise more challenging