Which is Better: Walking or Running?

Walking and running are the most popular physical activities for American adults.  However, it has long been debated whether one is preferable to the other in terms of improving health. Now a variety of new studies that compared running directly against walking are providing some answers. Their conclusion? It depends on what you are hoping to accomplish. For those whose goal is weight control running is superior. In a study published last month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise titled “Greater Weight Loss From Running than Walking,” researchers combed survey data from 15,237 walkers and 32,215 runners enrolled in the National Runners and Walkers Health Study — a large survey being conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.  Participants were asked about their weight, waist circumference, diets and typical weekly walking or running mileage both when they joined the study, and then again up to six years later.  The runners were almost uniformly thinner than the walkers when each joined the study, and they stayed that way throughout. That is to say, over the years the runners maintained their body mass and waistlines far better than the walkers.  The difference was particularly notable among participants over 55. Runners in this age group were not running a lot and, in general, were barely expending more calories per week during exercise than older walkers. However, their body mass indexes and waist circumferences remained significantly lower than those of age-matched walkers.  For more information on long term weight control, see my article "Lose Weight for the Long Term" from Tonic Toronto in 2010. Why running should better aid weight management than walking is not altogether clear. It might seem obvious that running, being more strenuous than walking, burns more calories per hour. But in the Berkeley study and others, when energy expenditure was approximately matched — when walkers burn the same number of calories over the course of a week as runners — the runners still seem able to control their weight better over the long term.  One reason may be the effect of running on appetite, as another intriguing, if small, study suggests. In the study, published last year in The Journal of Obesity, nine experienced female runners and 10 committed female walkers reported to the exercise physiology lab at the University of Wyoming on two separate occasions. On one day, the groups ran or walked on a treadmill for an hour. On the second day, they all rested for an hour. Throughout each session, researchers monitored their total energy expenditure. They also drew blood from their volunteers to check for levels of certain hormones related to appetite.  After both sessions, the volunteers were set free in a room with a laden buffet and told to eat at will.  The walkers turned out to be hungry, consuming about 50 calories more than they had burned during their hour long treadmill stroll.  The runners, on the other hand, picked at their food, taking in almost 200 fewer calories than they had burned while running.  Blood tests demonstrated that, after exercising, the runners had significantly higher blood levels of a hormone called peptide YY, which has been shown to suppress appetite. Conversely, the walkers did not have increased peptide YY levels, their appetites remaining hearty. On other measures of health, however,  new science shows that walking can be at least as valuable as running — and in some instances, more so. A study published this month that again plumbed data from the Runners and Walkers Health Study found that runners and walkers had equally diminished risks of developing age-related cataracts compared with sedentary people, an unexpected but excellent benefit of exercise. Finally, in possibly the most reassuring of the new studies, published last month in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology and again utilizing numbers from the Runners and Walkers Health Study, runners had far less risk of high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol profiles, diabetes and heart disease than their sedentary peers. But the walkers were doing even better. Runners, for instance, reduced their risk of heart disease by about 4.5 percent if they ran an hour a day. Walkers who expended the same amount of energy per day reduced their risk of heart disease by more than 9 percent. Of course, few walkers match the energy expenditure of runners. “It’s fair to say that, if you plan to expend the same energy walking as running, you have to walk about one and a half times as far and that it takes about twice as long,” said Paul T. Williams, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the lead author of all of the studies involving the surveys of runners and walkers.  On the other hand, people who begin walking are often more unhealthy than those who start running, and so their health benefits from the exercise can be commensurately greater. “It bears repeating”, Dr. Williams said “that either walking or running is healthier than not doing either”. Reference: Reynolds, Gretchen. Is It Better to Walk or Run?  The New York Times, May 29 2013. Exercise Specialist Recommendations:

  • Walk as much as possible.
  • Run if you are able.
  • Understand that the most important factor in good health is staying physically active throughout the lifespan.  With this in mind, create a workout routine that is enjoyable, and most importantly, sustainable over the long term.
  • Lift weights!  Strength training sustains and/or improves stamina (which declines with age) - this makes long term exercise adherence more likely.