Changing your pace is a simple way to burn more calories while walking, Ohio State University researchers discovered. The results of their new study indicate that walking at varying speeds can burn up to 20 percent more calories when compared to maintaining a steady pace.

“The metabolic rate for oscillating-speed walking was significantly higher than that for constant-speed walking,” wrote the researchers.

Walking is the most democratic of all exercises. No expensive equipment or special training is needed, and almost everybody can do it. A saunter around the block or through the park can be squeezed into even the busiest of schedules. You can do it alone or with a friend and, best of all, injuries are rare. Meanwhile, walking offers many rewards. The Surgeon General suggests an increase in physical activity significantly reduces your risk of chronic disease and premature death. Regular exercise helps to protect against heart disease, stroke, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. Even people who already have a chronic disease may benefit from physical activity. Walking can lessen the severity of an illness or condition, while managing or reducing symptoms. Best of all, walking helps you keep off the extra pounds.

All these claims, the Surgeon General notes, are backed by science. Yet, one engineering team takes issue with one aspect of the research. Most of the existing literature has focused on constant-speed walking.

The current study, then, examined the missing piece of the pie: How many calories are burned when a person keeps changing speed?

Switch it Up

“Humans do not generally walk at constant speed, except perhaps on a treadmill,” wrote Dr. Manoj Srinivasan, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and his co-author. “Normal walking involves starting, stopping, and changing speeds.”

To measure metabolic rates while changing walking speeds, the researchers requested participants in their study change their walking pace on a treadmill while its speed remained steady. Past experiments directly changed the treadmill speed, however, according to Srinivasan that’s not the same as real-world walking. When the treadmill speed changes, the machine itself does some of the work, instead of the person walking.

Participants in this experiment, then, walked quickly to move to the front of the treadmill belt, or slowed their speed to move to the back of the belt. Compared to a steady pace, participants burned between 6 and 20 percent more calories by walking in this manner, the researchers observed.

Next, when they measured ideal walking speeds for different distances, the researchers “found people preferred lower walking speeds for shorter distances.” As the distance increased, participants generally picked up the pace.

Source: Seethapathi N, Sriivasan M. The metabolic cost of changing walking speeds is significant, implies lower optimal speeds for shorter distances, and increases daily energy estimates. Biology Letters. 2015.