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Rucking – walking with a backpack – is a simple, low-impact, full-body exercise that promotes cardiovascular and muscle health.

Editor’s note: Before starting a new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.


If you enjoy walking for exercise, there’s an easy way to maximize your efforts – by turning your walk into a backpack. Rucking is walking with weight on your back and is becoming increasingly popular.

“I see people running around my neighborhood all the time now,” said former U.S. Navy SEAL Stew Smith, a fitness instructor and trainer for the U.S. Naval Academy’s Special Ops Training Team in Annapolis, Maryland.

The term “rucking” comes from jerk marching, a core skill used by militaries around the world. One of the U.S. Army’s tests for recruits who want to earn a veteran infantryman badge is a 12-mile ruck or walk that they must complete in three hours while carrying at least 35 pounds of equipment. However, you can start with a lighter load and gradually increase the weight as you develop strength.

One of the reasons rucking is becoming more popular may be because it is a simple, low-impact, full-body exercise that promotes cardiovascular and muscular health. A small study from September 2019 showed that 10 weeks of weight-bearing walking and resistance training improved men’s physical performance while significantly reducing their perceived exertion.

Another January 2019 study found that weighted step training improved lower limb muscle strength and functionality in older women. This revealed that the exercise could potentially extend their independence by almost 10 years.

In addition, hiking burns calories. A person burns 30 to 45% more calories walking with weights than walking without a backpack, Smith said. According to the U.S. Army, a 180-pound soldier carrying 35 pounds and walking 15 minutes per mile for 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) burns 680 calories. Since generally the more you weigh, the more calories you burn in any activity, this 180-pound soldier will burn the same number of calories as someone who weighs 215 pounds.

“It’s a simple mathematical equation,” said Mark Stephenson, senior director at the Center for Sports Performance and Research at Mass General Brigham in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Another plus: Since rucking is usually done outdoors, it’s also good for your mental health. “There are numerous studies that show that spending time in a natural environment has tremendous mental health benefits. “So if being outside gives you a purpose, then that’s an encouragement I would use,” Stephenson said.

While backpacking is simple – walking with a backpack – there are a few things to consider before you grab your backpack and head outside. First of all, don’t be too ambitious. As with any new exercise, you need to start slowly.

“Start with an empty backpack and walk back a distance that you have already covered,” Stephenson said. “When you start adding weight to your pack, try using a low weight gain, about 10% of your body weight. Adding weight puts more stress on your ankles, knees, hips, and back. So take it step by step.”

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Start slowly and don’t be too ambitious when you start jerking, experts say. Use an empty backpack and cover a distance that you have already covered.

Another option is to start with a weighted vest instead of a backpack. This distributes the weight between the front and back. Once you get used to the vest, you can switch to a backpack. However, you should not use old packing.

Backpacks should have wide, padded shoulder straps. “Don’t put weight in a shopping bag,” Smith said. “Most straps are not designed to hold 10, 20 or more pounds, and the thin straps really dig into your shoulders.”

It’s also important that your backpack has a hip belt, which will help minimize its movement and distribute the weight more evenly. This should fit snugly against your back and not pull away from your shoulders.

While it’s tempting to pack canned food or dumbbells in your backpack to reach your desired weight, that’s not the best idea, he added. Heavy items should be stored in the middle of your back near your shoulder blades, not at the bottom of the pack near your lower back. Sharp objects can also be uncomfortable.

Smith prefers to use a bag of sand, which can be purchased at a hardware store. Ideally, the load will fill your backpack evenly. Custom-made fitness sandbags are also available. “Sand can lodge in your back while metal digs into your spine,” Smith said.

If you don’t want to worry about choosing the right backpack and weights, buy a backpack specifically designed for backpacking. These can come with weight plates or sandbags as well as bags to keep them in the correct position. Some backpacks have handles on the outside if you want to take a break while transporting the backpack to do some exercises, such as squatting while holding the backpack over your head.

“Don’t forget your feet,” Smith said. Choose a comfortable pair of shoes and socks made from wool or another moisture-wicking material to prevent blisters.

While most people can backpack if they can walk, this is not advisable for everyone. “If you have shoulder problems, tendonitis or stiffness, wearing a weighted backpack will only make the situation worse,” Stephenson said. “If I run 2 miles and my knee hurts, it will get more painful if I gain weight.”

Fitness experts recommend exercising only a few times a week, not daily. It can also be helpful to combine your jerks with lower body exercises. For example, the students Smith coaches at the U.S. Naval Academy train twice a week. Her workouts include running around on a track and getting up and down the stands, interspersed with lunges and squats.

You can also just go around your neighborhood. “It’s not that complicated,” Stephenson said. “Just be smart. You are looking for an activity that is challenging but doesn’t push you beyond your limits. If it hurts, it’s not good.”

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in hiking, travel, and fitness.

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