Running v walking: Which is better for lasting health?

UNITED STATES – Walking is among the world’s most popular forms of exercise, and far and away the most favoured in the United States. And for good reason: It is simple, accessible and effective. Taking regular walks lowers the risk of many health problems including anxiety, depression, diabetes and some cancers.

However, once your body becomes accustomed to walking, you might want to pick up the pace, said exercise physiologist Alyssa Olenick, a postdoctoral research fellow in the energy metabolism lab at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

If you can nudge part of your walk into a run, it offers many of the same physical and mental benefits in far less time. But just how much better is running, and how can you turn your walk into a run?

Why walking is good for you

When considering the health benefits of an activity such as walking or running, there are two connected factors to keep in mind. One is the workout’s effect on your fitness – that is, how it improves the efficiency of your heart and lungs. The second is the ultimate positive outcome: Does it help you live a longer life?

The gold standard for assessing fitness is VO2 max, a measure of how much oxygen your body uses when you are exercising vigorously. It is also a strong predictor of life span, said Dr Allison Zielinski, a sports cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.

Even doing a small amount of activity – such as taking slow steps throughout the day – somewhat improves VO2 max compared with staying completely sedentary, according to a 2021 study of 2,000 middle-aged men and women. But bigger benefits come when you begin walking faster, which raises your heart and breathing rates.

If you are working hard enough that you can still talk but not sing, you have crossed from light to moderate physical activity.

Studies suggest that moderate activity strengthens your heart and creates new mitochondria, which produce fuel for your muscles, said Ms Olenick.

What makes running better

So how does running compare with walking? It is more efficient, for one thing, said Professor Duck-chul Lee, from the department of kinesiology at Iowa State University.

Why? It is more than the increased speed. Rather than lifting one foot at a time, running involves a series of bounds. This requires more force, energy and power than walking, said Ms Olenick. For many people first starting out, running at any pace – even a slow jog – will make your heart and lungs work harder. That can raise your level of effort to what is known as vigorous activity, meaning you are breathing hard enough that you can speak only a few words at a time.

Federal health guidelines recommend 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like brisk walking, or half as much for vigorous activity.

That might suggest that running is twice as good as walking. But when it comes to the key outcome of longevity, some studies have found running to be more effective than that.

In 2011, researchers in Taiwan asked more than 400,000 adults how much vigorous exercise (like jogging or running) and moderate exercise (like brisk walking) they did.

They found that regular five-minute runs extended subjects’ life spans as much as going for 15-minute walks did. Regular 25-minute runs and 105-minute walks each resulted in about a 35 per cent lower risk of dying during the following eight years.

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