Brenda lived two streets down from our rental house. At the time, I was an undergraduate at Texas A&M, and rode my bike to campus each morning.
On my way, I would see Brenda speed walking through the neighborhood. She was fast – even in her matching blue ankle and wrist weights. We would exchange a "howdy", as I slowly passed by on my bike.
I once 'busted' her eating a donut in the Shipley's at the end of our road. To be fair, I was on my bicycle in the drive-thru. To this day, I believe Brenda was simply speed walking to Shipley's each day for her morning donut. Maybe the wrist weights helped?
I was pleased to have revisited these memories this past week when the Boston Globe offered wrist weights as an 'accessory fit for a summer on the run'. So, should you invest in some wrist or hand weights this summer? Let's take a look at what the research says.
A major advantage of walking is the demand it places on our cardiovascular system, which can lead to important improvements in our aerobic fitness and health. This demand is commonly reported in METs.
1 MET = the energy demand of sitting quietly
Using 3-lbs hand weights provide only a slight increase in aerobic demand when walking normally at 4 mph. However, if we walk with a more 'vigorous' arm swing (NOT excessive), even at the same 4 mph, we might see a slight increased demand (+1.5 METs) from the addition of hand-held weights.3,4
Walking at 4 mph is a 5 MET activity = moderate-intensity (3-6 METs).
So, if we increased the demand of the walk with hand weight to to 6.5 METs, we would reach vigorous-intensity (>6 METs). Very cool.
So, How Many Extra Calories Would That Be?
Using Cornell's MET calculator, you can calculate the subsequent effect in calories.
EXAMPLE: For a 150 lbs person on a 30-minute walk:
5 METs (without weights) = 170.5 calories
6.5 METs (with 3-lb weights) = 221.6 calories
Difference = 51.1 calories
Thus, for this individual, adding the 3-lb weights increased caloric expenditure by 51 calories over the 30-minute, 4 mph walk. Not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless – and we were able to increase the intensity of walking without having to walk faster.
How Much Weight Should I Use?
Everyone is different, but weight from 0.5 lbs to 3 lbs (per hand) appears to work just fine. Also, going heavier is not better than these lighter weights. For example, going from 3 lbs to 5 lbs in each hand does not change aerobic demand (thus calorie 'burn'), but made the walk seem harder.2
Stick to 0.5 lbs to 3 lbs (per hand).
Going heavier does not appear to provide any extra aerobic/calorie benefit.
Start light and work your way up in weight over time.
There is no need to excessively swing your arms while you walk.
Most studies are done on short-term, immediate effects of wrist/hand weights. But, what if you to use the weights for weeks, would it be better than not using weights?
A cool Master's thesis put this question to the test with a small group of 12 normal-weight adults. They found that using 2-lb hand-held weights during a 6-week walking program did not have a greater effect on aerobic fitness or body fat loss than unweighted walking.6
However, walking 3 brisk walks per week, for 6-weeks, produced meaningful improvements in aerobic fitness, irrespective of whether hand-held weights were used.
Walking with wrist/hand weights has been shown to be safe in adults, even those with cardiac disease, but caution has been made in those with high blood pressure.1,5 Everyone is different, with different concerns, so it is helpful to know what walking with weight, compared to normal walking, can do:
- Increase blood pressure
- Increase heart rate
- Limit your arm swing
- Put extra pressure and demands on the shoulders
- Increase how difficult your walk feels (feels harder)
- Make you walk slower
Walking is an excellent physical activity choice, providing numerous health, physical, and mental benefits. If you are looking for ways to enhance the effort required in your walks, the addition of some light wrist or hand weights might be a feasible option – especially in the short-term.
Start with lighter weights, then increase the weight gradually. There is no need or benefit in going over 3 lbs, per hand.
The addition of wrist or hand weights can help make the walk a bit more demanding, but can also make us walk slower, limit our arm swing, and increase the effort – both how we feel (it feels harder), and how our body responds (increased heart rate and blood pressure).
As always, be sure to check with your doctor before starting a new or different exercise program.
- Amos, K. R., Porcari, J. P., Bauer, S. R., & Wilson, P. K. (1992). The Safety and Effectiveness of Walking With Ankle Weights and Wrist Weights for Patients With Cardiac Disease. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention, 12(4), 254-260.
- Evans, B. W., Potteiger, J. A., Bray, M. C., & Tuttle, J. L. (1994). Metabolic and hemodynamic responses to walking with hand weights in older individuals. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(8), 1047-1052.
- Graves, J. E., Martin, A. D., Miltenberger, L. A., & Pollock, M. L. (1988). Physiological responses to walking with hand weights, wrist weights, and ankle weights. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 20(3), 265-271.
- Maud, P. J., Stokes, G. D., & Stokes, L. R. (1990). Stride Frequency, Perceived Exertion, and Oxygen Cost Response to Walking with Variations in Arm Swing and Hand-held Weight. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention, 10(8), 300-301.
- Sagiv, M., Goldhammer, E., Pollock, M. L., Graves, J. E., Schneewiss, A., & Ben-Sira, D. A. V. I. D. (1990). Comparative analysis of cardiopulmonary responses during dynamic exercise with wrist weights in the elderly versus young hypertensive responders. Gerontology, 36(5-6), 333-339.
- Savin, D. J. (2012). Impact of hand-held weights on treadmill walking in previously sedentary women. Master's Thesis. University of Chester. http://chesterrep.openrepository.com/cdr/bitstream/10034/279072/6/Deborah Savin.pdf