Incline walking vs running: which is better for fat loss?

We asked a trainer whether you should run or take an incline walk if you want to lose weight sustainably

Man walking uphill in a town
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Many of us compare incline walking vs running when we're looking for the most effective way to burn fat and lose weight sustainably. You don't need a gym or loads of equipment to get started, but can incline walking really be as effective as a run?

So, before you lace up your pair of the best walking shoes, we spoke to several personal trainers to explore the differences between incline walking and running and how to decide on which cardio-focused workout is right for you. 

“Incline walking simply means walking on a gradient higher than flat,” explains strength and conditioning coach Simon Bennett, co-founder of TRI-FIT Athletic. “On a treadmill this would be anything higher than zero percent or in an outdoor setting, finding a nice hill in your neighborhood and walking up it!" 

To head out on a run, you need to place one foot in front of the other at a faster pace, which will raise your heart rate. Running and incline walking both help increase your heart rate, which is vital to your health, and helps burn energy and boost your metabolism; the essential ingredients of sustainable, long-lasting fat loss.

Incline walking vs running: which is easier?

As we’ve heard, you can walk on an incline on a treadmill at home, or find a hill outdoors. Likewise, you can run outside or at home on a running machine.

Both activities are great for the cardiovascular system, boosting heart and lung health. However incline walking is far kinder on the joints, and is probably a better option for anyone who is new to running or has knee issues.

When it comes to which is easier, it depends on your fitness level. If you’re new to running, build your stamina and endurance up first by walking on an incline.

Incline walking vs running: burning calories

Depending on your speed, walking on an incline can often be as effective as running on a flat surface. For every incline gradient on the treadmill, your body has to expend on average 4% more energy – boosting the calorie burn significantly.

Bennett says: “If you look at the speed walking event when the Olympics is on, you'll notice that those athletes have the lowest body fat percentage of any athlete in the entire games. This is because a fast pace walk or indeed a walk on an incline will place you into a heart rate zone where the body can utilize fats for energy most effectively. 

“Running at a moderate pace would also be great for burning calories however the body would be using more carbohydrates and fats as a fuel source.”

Man running outside

(Image credit: Getty)

Incline walking vs running: muscle building

Walking at an incline adds resistance to your workout, recruiting the glutes and quads more than a walk on the flat. The result? A peachy butt, and strong, toned thighs.

A study in the journal Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews found that, similar to incline walking, running used repetitive weight-bearing movements to target the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. 

“If you were to start on a treadmill, set the incline to its maximum (around 14% for most) and walk until your legs felt heavy and were unable to continue, then you would be experiencing a build-up of lactic acid. This is the same as when you lift a weight for a number of repetitions until you can no longer move the weight. This is strength training or 'muscle building',” says Bennett.

“Essentially there are a number of ways you can make incline walking either a form of cardio or a form of muscle building and it's all down to the gradient of the incline and the speed in which you will be walking. A low gradient and fast walk would be more cardio-based, and a steep gradient and slow speed would be more strength-based.

“Similarly in running, If you sprinted until you began to slow down, that would constitute a form of building muscle. This is because you're using your muscles for a short period of time at a high intensity, much like lifting a weight for a number of reps at a similar effort.”

Incline walking vs running: cost

The good thing about incline walking and running is they are both free. The only potential cost is the price of a treadmill, but check out our best treadmills guide to help you find something within your budget.

Bennett says: “Investing in a decent pair of walking or running shoes is also important. If you can also stretch to a fitness tracker, then that way you can track distance/calories and other metrics to improve on and give you the motivation to push that little bit harder.”

Incline walking vs running: benefits

“All exercise has benefits,” says Bennett. “There are the immediate physical benefits such as reducing your risk of chronic illnesses like osteoarthritis, and heart disease, but there are also great mental health benefits, too. 

“When you perform each of these types of exercise, you'll release a chemical in the body called endorphins that trigger a positive feeling. 

“You might not experience it at the time but shortly after you've completed your exercise you will. Your energy levels will also be elevated as you'll be improving your fitness throughout your exercise journey.”

So what are the pros and cons of getting started with incline walking vs running?

Incline walking is a full-body workout that can improve muscular strength in your legs, abs, and core. From a musculoskeletal perspective, walking on a treadmill at an incline hits the quads (thighs), glutes (buttock muscle), hamstrings, and calves hard. This increases the heart rate more than on the flat, so metabolically this means you will burn more calories and body fat.

Walking on an incline is great for people who find running painful or unpleasant. This aerobic exercise boosts both strength and endurance without placing stress on the joints, making it an excellent substitute for running for people recovering from injury.

While incline walking is generally kinder to joints than running, downhill walking can be quite tough on the knees – in fact, the impact that occurs on a declining terrain or treadmill is three times greater than level ground.

This is because when you switch from a flat surface to one with an incline or decline, you’re putting extra stress on the front and back lower leg muscles. This can lead to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS) until the body adapts to the training. 

Person with arms outstretched on top of a hill

(Image credit: Getty)

If you’re someone who suffers from lower back pain you might need to work with a physio to set an incline that doesn’t aggravate it – put simply, the higher the gradient, the more strain there will be on the back and hips.

Running does carry an injury risk because while one foot is off the ground, the other one (and the leg) is supporting your entire body weight during the impact of landing. This puts more stress on the knees and joints and a higher risk of a fall. 

Incline walking vs running: does incline walking burn belly fat?

If you're looking to drop pounds, you'll be happy to hear that walking does burn belly fat; it also helps burn fat all over your body. 

Portia Boston, a certified holistic health coach and fitness expert, says, "Any movement that you do consistently, including incline walking, [has] the potential to help you increase your metabolism and burn more calories. It really comes down to what you enjoy doing." 

Incline walking burns calories, elevates your heart rate, and builds muscle. All these things can lead to fat loss, but Boston also explains that it's impossible to direct fat loss to one area of your body with exercise and nutrition alone. 

Healthy bodies store fat in different places—some people may have more fat on their bellies, while others store fat in their hips and thighs. The location of fat in your body and where you'll lose it is primarily determined by hormones and genetic makeup. 

Since you can't spot-target fat loss from a specific area, you must focus on techniques to burn energy and boost your metabolism. You can lose weight by walking, but the aim is to move at a moderate pace to increase your heart rate. 

This is one way to start building up a calorie deficit—burning more energy than you consume daily. Taking a regular, brisk incline walk helps increase your metabolism, and keeping an eye on what you eat can set you on your way to burning fat and losing weight sustainably. 

Headshot of Portia Boston
Portia Boston

Portia Boston is a NASM-certified personal trainer, Pilates instructor, and certified holistic health coach. She is also the Head Coach at the [solidcore] Pilates studio in Dumbo, New York. 

Incline walking vs jogging for weight loss

Running and incline walking are both aerobic activities that can burn many calories quickly. Although you don't need much equipment for either—just step outside and move—the intensity is different for each, so you'll probably have a preference depending on how you like to exercise. 

Generally, higher-intensity workouts like jogging or running burn more energy than low-intensity options like a gentle walk. Incline walking sits between these two, but you can alter the intensity by changing your pace or picking a more significant incline to walk up. 

Similarly, you can adjust your jog by speeding up, slowing down, or taking on a hill or incline. So, you may lose weight more effectively through a brisk incline walk than a steady-paced jog along a flat path.

Incline walking also works your calf muscles—the muscle on the back of your lower leg, which is why doing calf raises every day can make it easier to walk uphill. Larger muscles use more energy, making it easier to stick to a calorie deficit and lose weight. 

Running or jogging can also be tough on your joints, so Boston suggests incline walking as a low-impact alternative. "If you have joint issues, running can be very tough just because it's naturally high impact. Walking is much more low impact, whether at an incline or flat. 

"It's a little bit easier on the joints but still provides the benefits you get from jogging," she adds. This makes it less likely you'll injure yourself during incline walking, so you can keep exercising and progressing towards your fitness and weight loss goals. 

Maddy Biddulph

Maddy Biddulph is a freelance journalist specializing in fitness, health and wellbeing content. With 26 years in consumer media, she has worked as a writer and editor for some of the bestselling newspapers, magazines and websites in the US and UK. 

She is also a qualified L3 personal trainer and weight loss advisor, and helps women over 40 navigate menopause by improving their physical and mental strength. At Maddy Biddulph Personal Training, she runs one-to-one and small group training for menopausal women who want to get fit to ease symptoms and feel like themselves again.