How incline walking benefits weight loss, heart health and overall fitness

Not yet discovered how incline walking benefits the body? There are multiple health and fitness-related reasons you should give it a go...

A woman and young girl feeling the incline walking benefits whilst hiking up a hillside
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In this article we'll outline how incline walking benefits the body. Whether you're looking to lose weight, improve your heart health or just boost your all-round fitness, simply changing how (or where) you walk can reap major wins.

Incline walking is exactly as the name suggests - walking on an incline. Whilst this might sound simple, it’s a sure fire way to break a sweat and burn serious calories.

You can practice incline walking on a treadmill, either at the gym or in the comfort of your own home (see our pick of the best treadmills if you're interested in the latter). Alternatively you can seek natural hill climbs outdoors, although the perk of a treadmill is that the incline is constant and you are ‘forced’ to work at a set pace.

Ready to lace up your best shoes for walking and get going? First take a look at our list of incline walking benefits below...

Boosts your heart rate

Adding an incline into the mix when you walk is a great way to increase your heart rate - which in turns burns more calories.

‘When you begin to exercise, your heart rate will increase in relation to the intensity of the activity until you reach the maximum level you can sustain,' explains Vanessa Gebhardt, an athlete and trainer at Freeletics.

'Although walking on a flat surface will raise your heart rate, when you increase the incline on a treadmill or start walking up a hill, your heart rate will climb, even if you slow down.'

Boosting your heart rate not only means that you will burn more calories, but it also helps to improve circulation and lower blood pressure. 

One of the easiest ways to monitor what your heart rate is doing during exercise is by using a fitness band with heart rate functionality - take a look at our edit of the best fitness trackers for options that do just that. You could also use a dedicated heart rate monitor, should you want super-accurate readings.

Burns more calories

As mentioned above, a higher heart rate means higher calorie burn. 

The specific number of calories that can be burned by incline walking depends on a variety of factors, including your weight and the intensity of the activity you are performing - which, in this instance, includes the incline.

For example, a person weighing 145 pounds who walked 5km on a level surface in one hour would typically burn 269 calories. Up the incline to just 3% and the calorie burn goes up to 325 - a whole 56 more. Up the incline further to 10% and they'd burn a whopping 529 calories.

Strengthens neglected muscles

The activities we do in day-to-day life and our exercise routines typically target the body's anterior chain muscles (those down the front of the body, such as the core and quads). Meanwhile, the posterior chain muscles (those down the back of the body, including the hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back muscles, and the shoulder muscles) often get neglected.

Walking on a flat surface primarily targets the quads (anterior) rather than the hamstrings and glutes (posterior) - but incline walking changes all that.

‘By comparison, when you increase the incline, you’ll feel the posterior chain muscles (which include the hamstrings, the glutes, lower back muscles, upper back and the shoulder muscles) working with each step,' says Gebhardt.

'Strengthening these muscles can prevent injuries, improve posture, boost athletic performance, and help counteract sudden forces.’

A woman feeling the incline walking benefits on a treadmill in the gym

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Helps with knee issues

A key incline walking benefit can be enjoyed by those who suffer from knee issues, according to scientific research.

A 2015 study by Ball State University found that incline walking on a treadmill could benefit people suffering from with knee osteoarthritis or those who have had knee replacements. 

In the study, lead researcher Professor Henry Wang noted that 'despite its benefits, fitness walking also involves risk factors, including increased frontal plane knee loading, which may lead to cartilage degeneration.'

However, after getting participants to walk on a treadmill at a gradient of 5, 10, 15 and 20 per cent for three-minute bursts, Prof. Wang concluded: 'Incline walking can strengthen leg muscles while introducing less joint load or pressure to the knee.'

Tones the lower legs

As well as targeting some of the posterior chain muscles, incline walking is one of the best leg workouts, especially for the lower legs.

Adding in an incline to your walking demands a greater number of muscle fibers to be recruited - most noticeably those of the calves and hamstrings, according to Stuart Jack a PT, nutritionist and co-founder of Musclemary.

‘Therefore if you're looking to develop the muscles of the lower body, adding in an incline to your walking can be a good option.’

Gebhardt also points to a study that found incline walking activates and strengthens the peroneal muscles (a group of muscles in the lower legs that help to move and stabilize the feet and ankles) significantly more than walking on a flat surface. Weak or injured peroneal muscles can lead to pain and issues with day-to-day activities such as running and walking.


(Image credit: Getty Images)

Offers an alternative to running

If you're a regular walker looking to increase the intensity of your workouts, you might think that running is the logical progression. However, incline walking might just have the edge as it's a lower impact exercise.

'Running can place a significant strain on the joints and, if not managed correctly, can lead to injury,' says Jack. 'As there is less pressure on the joints during incline walking, it may be a safer option.’

Boosts endurance

Gebhardt reveals that walking on the incline for just 30 minutes a day can increase muscular endurance. But why is this necessary?

‘Muscular strength and endurance are important for many reasons, including the increase in your ability to do activities without getting tired and reduce the risk of injury,' she says. These activities can be as simple as cleaning the house, taking the stairs or exercising.

Incline walking benefits: final thoughts

Whether you do it outside or on a treadmill, incline walking benefits the body in numerous ways - and as such is an excellent exercise to add to your workout regime. Walking is a natural movement for humans, and adding an incline is a great way to make this movement a little more challenging in order to reap additional benefits.

It's a great way of working both the lower leg and some of the posterior chain muscles, whilst at the same time causing less impact on the knees as the incline takes away some of the strain. 

Incline walking can also raise the heart rate and boost calorie burn, helping to increase weight loss and maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. 

Lucy Gornall

Lucy is a freelance journalist specializing in health, fitness and lifestyle. She was previously the Health and Fitness Editor across various women's magazines, including Woman&Home, Woman and Woman’s Own as well as Editor of Feel Good You. She has also previously written for titles including Now, Look, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Red and The Sun. 

She lives and breathes all things fitness; working out every morning with a mix of running, weights, boxing and long walks. Lucy is a Level 3 personal trainer and teaches classes at various London studios. Plus, she's pre- and post-natal trained and helps new mums get back into fitness after the birth of their baby. Lucy claims that good sleep, plenty of food and a healthy gut (seriously, it's an obsession) are the key to maintaining energy and exercising efficiently. Saying this, she's partial to many classes of champagne and tequila on the rocks whilst out with her friends.