Have a Walking Lunch

Wed, 10 Oct. 2012 - 1:35 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Walking crucially builds bone mineral density, is often sustainable even when running might lead to injury, and burns a great deal of unwanted body fat when sustained for long periods. Now, with the recent reportage from the European Society of Cardiology that even 30 minutes of light exercise daily can extend your life half a decade or longer, there’s every reason to consider having a walking lunch.

A walking lunch is a useful concept because it implies a healthful habit, established at a regular time and sustained several times per week. It also yields the benefit of supplanting a familiar, unquestioned habit that adds calories (eating) with a new one that creates a caloric deficit (walking), in the hope that eating again becomes mindful; the goal is not to starve yourself during lunch hour, but to make sure you are eating the right foods for the right reasons, and that you are avoiding eating if hunger isn’t calling.

To establish a walking routine during lunch, consider not skipping lunch, but favoring eating small, healthful snacks during work breaks over a large midday meal. Eating on a short break means eating less; there simply isn’t time to over-consume. Yet you should feel satiated, and the walking lunch should feel energized and appropriate. Be mindful of becoming famished, just as you ought to be mindful of “taking lunch” when your body does not really want food.

Lunch is a break from work, which we can easily misinterpret as actual hunger. If your job requires you to stand, the sitting lunch is a welcome respite. This is not to be confused with the need to eat, and by the same token rest should not become synonymous with relaxation. (If your job requires a great deal of seated desk work, the connection between relaxing and walking is easier to see.) Either way, a walking lunch requires a shift in traditional thinking about breaks from working. But the benefits are legion.

The benefits of walking during lunch accumulate

The familiar concept of light or moderate exercise as a daily dose will make it easier to see why walking during lunch is a great idea; and the idea of a daily lunch walk will in turn give fresh meaning and sense to these concepts:

Vasodilation. In one large UK study from 1991 which has been replicated repeatedly, average blood pressure values in mildly hypertensive men were still reduced by 8 mm Hg 13 hours after just 30 minutes of low intensity exercise. During exercise, the blood vessels dilate to accommodate increased blood flow from the heart to the muscles. When exercise ceases, the blood flow quickly falls back, but the blood vessel accommodation persists for several hours. In their thorough compendium of the current science on exercise, Physical Activity and Health: The Evidence Explained, Hardman and Stensel observe, “Someone who regularly and frequently engages in endurance exercise may well spend most of their lives in a state of post-exercise hypotension.” [Emphasis added.]

Lipid Oxidation. In another large study, endurance athletes enjoyed a 43% lower post-meal blood lipid level (bodily response to dietary fat) than sedentary controls. But just two and a half days without training, and those same athletes saw a 45% increase in postprandial blood lipid level than from three days before. So one conclusion to draw is that they have a superior lipid-clearing mechanism in part because they simply have always exercised recently. Therefore, lunch hour five days a week is the perfect regular interval to establish such an ongoing, beneficial mechanism.

A look at the gains

A sustained, brisk walk during even a half-hour lunch will make a difference if engaged in five days a week. But here we look at the magic of a one-hour active lunch versus sitting and eating. 

The metabolic equivalent (MET) per hour of sitting is 1.0. Let’s determine the resting metabolic rate (RMR, or calories burned sitting) per hour for a 6’ 2”, 175-lb man, aged 45. This person trains a good deal, say 5 to 8 hours per week, at a moderate pace as a recreational middle-distance runner. He therefore typically consumes about 3,200 calories per day.

Using the Mufflin equation for calculating RMR, this man burns 73 calories sitting for one hour. If he walks for one hour on a firm, flat surface at a brisk 15:00 mile pace (4 mph), according to the ACSM’s Physical Activities Tracking Guide, he burns 73 x 5.0 METs, or 365 calories per hour of walking.

If he daily eats three regular meals plus two snacks (totaling a fourth meal), this avid recreational runner consumes an 800-calorie lunch. Excepting the calories burned due to the physical act of eating, he therefore nets 727 calories per day at lunch. By contrast, the deficit he creates by walking instead is 1,165 calories. Multiplied by five days per week, he creates a net loss of 5,825 calories each week. There are 3,500 calories in one pound. After four weeks, he loses almost seven pounds.

A 5’ 7”, 135-lb, 45-year-old woman, also training fairly aggressively at, say, 4 to 7 hours per week, consuming 2,000 calories daily would, by substituting a 500-calorie lunch for an hour of 4- mph walking, create a deficit of about 770 calories per day and by week’s end lose just over one pound of body weight.

How to hop to

The perfect walking lunch depends on your job and its surrounding topography, but the basic principle is to time your out-and-back carefully enough that you aren’t irresponsibly over time on your outing.

  1. Note the time of your lunch hour’s start
  2. Note the time you actually reach outdoors, the ground-floor front of the building 
  3. Begin walking briskly in any direction (15:00 mile pace)
  4. Subtract 1. from 2. above, and double this value.
  5. Subtract the final value from 4. from one hour and divide in half. This represents one half the total time you can walk. Add this value to the time you reached outdoors (2.). Don’t use your stopwatch as you would during a run, e.g., pausing it for traffic lights. Perform the walk in real time.
  6. When you reach the time in step 5., about-face and retrace your steps exactly. 

Another simple method is to establish short laps and figure out how many you can allow for based on the time it takes you to complete the first one. 

Additional tips

Keep a change of shirt in your office, locker, or even car (this depends on your occupation). The beauty of a walking lunch is that you do not need a shower at work or any other special accommodations. You won’t need running shorts; you may need to change shoes to sneakers. Your work location will determine the nature of your walking lunch. You might do laps of a parking lot, short walks in a suburb (the hillier the landscape, the better), a tour around an industrial park, laps inside a mall (do take the stairs), or laps inside a hospital or academic building. In the case of the latter, a brisk walk around campus may suit you better.

Even if you take a full lunch at your desk and walk during the time you’re free for your actual “lunch hour,” you are still ahead of the game compared to sedentary eaters. You will likely find that you do not feel deprived, but energized. Certainly it will help you melt stress off your shoulders, particularly if you do a lot of up-close computer work. Gaze into the distance as you walk, wander your mind, breathe, relax, and enjoy.

When you return to your workplace thirsty, you may realize you weren’t truly hungry for food. If you are, eat. The weather is right for a walking lunch. Without winter’s snow, ice, or compromised daylight, you can get the most out of your lunch hour today. 


Physical Activity and Health: The Evidence Explained, by Adrianne E. Hardman and David J. Stensel, 2003, Routledge, London, UK, p. 86-87, 142-143


The Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide, ACSM, 2000


Food for Fitness, by Chris Carmichael, 2004, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY, 

pp. 347-355


Caloriesperhour.com, http://www.caloriesperhour.com/tutorial_BMR.php



(RUNNING & FITNEWS® May / June 2012 • Volume 30, Number 3)

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