Sure, incorporating ankle and wrist weights into moves you do in a standing or stationary position, or during mat work can offer benefits far beyond toning your body. Hey, even the chicest of boutique fitness classes (like Pure Barre) are utilizing the old-school accessories, which were formerly reserved for gracing the appendages of power walkers in the mall. But their notable comeback sparks an important question: Is walking with weights safe for your joints and muscles?
Even though people have been doing walking workouts with weights for years (hello, have you seen those ’80s aerobics videos?), the mode of movement might not be the best option for the health of your wrists, shoulders, and ankles. I know, I know, you’re thinking, How could strapping a few extra pounds to your ankles or wrists present any real drawbacks? Well, experts tend to be way more against the added weights than for it.
Why to think twice before walking with weights
According to the Harvard Medical School, it’s tempting to use wrist weights to amp up your cardio workouts, but there are a few different reasons why doing so is a no-no. First of all, swinging your arms back and forth can lead to muscle imbalance, making it easier to injure the joints and tendons in your wrists, elbows, shoulders, and neck. Yikes, right? On top of that, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) says gripping hand weights—like those small dumbbells you see everywhere—during a workout can cause an exaggerated blood-pressure response.
Okay, okay—but what about the ankle-weight varieties? Unfortunately, they’re categorized in the same way. According to the Mayo Clinic, the tool is not recommended for supplementing walks—not even a little bit. Aside from possibly straining the ankle joint and leg muscles, which can up your chances of getting hurt (and not being able to exercise at all), Harvard Medical School reports they can also lead to a muscle imbalance in your quadriceps and hamstrings. On top of that, the pull they place on the ankle joint can lead to some serious issues if you’re not careful, including the risk of tendon or ligament injuries to your knees, hips, and back.
And the good-for-you reasons to give them a try
Anytime you add more weight to your body, your muscles have to work harder to move—and that principle extends itself to walking with weights. According to the ACE, strapping them on is a simple way to boost the physiological demands of walking and get stronger. Even upping the weight you’re using by a tiny bit can help increase your heart rate by 5 to 10 beats per minute, as well as your oxygen consumption and caloric expenditure—meaning the amount of calories you’re burning—by 5 to 15 percent.
Despite that being the case, studies have shown that you can up the amount of oxygen you’re taking in and the amount of calories you’re burning simply by better engaging your upper body. This means you don’t even need the weights to reap their body-boosting benefits. So sure, you can use hand weights, for instance, but you can also get similar results from simply swinging your arms a little more. And by going this route, you don’t need to worry about the possible negatives that could result from using the accessory during your workouts.
If you do try walking with weights, how heavy should you go?
So, you’ve considered both sides and really want to try using weights during your walks. To be safe, there are some crucial checklist items to satisfy first to make sure you’re actually gleaning some benefits and not causing any harm to your body in the process.
While neither ankle nor wrist weights are necessarily recommended by doctors, make sure your wrist weights aren’t too heavy. They should never more than three pounds in order to keep you from avoiding stress on your muscles and joints. In fact, it’s best to start as light as possible. Another thing to note is that you’ll definitely want to ditch the dumbbells: By using strap-on wrist weights instead, you can avoid the risk of elevating your blood pressure due to that tight grip.
There are options: Here’s what to do instead of using ankle or wrist weights
One type of weight that is actually doctor-approved is a weighted vest that accounts for 5 to 10 percent of your body weight. According to Harvard Medical School, putting one on for a walk can do your body some good: The pressure it puts on your bones can nudge your body to produce new bone cells, which helps to fight bone loss as you age—an occurrence that could lead to osteoporosis. Just don’t use them if you’re already experiencing issues with your back or neck: “It puts pressure on your spine, and if you have spinal stenosis or significant disc degeneration, it can cause problems all the way to the neck,” says physical therapist Terry Downey.
Aside from using a weighted vest, you can also just make your walk a little more difficult by picking up the pace and going uphill. You’ll boost your heart rate and tone your muscles without having to rely on ankle or wrist weights that could bring more negatives than positives. Basically, the best move seems to be keeping the cardio and weights separate: Weights can do you body a lot of good—whether by helping you to reduce your risk of osteoporosis, fight off depression, or close in on your fitness goals—but adding them into your walking routine opens you up to risk of causing you pain. So, sorry, mall walkers, but you might want to switch up your routine.
A full-body dumbbell workout that won’t hurt your joints:
This story was originally published on September 28, 2018; updated on December 19, 2019.
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