Walking is among the most popular forms of exercise in the world. And for good reason: it’s simple, affordable and effective. Taking regular walks reduces your risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, diabetes and some types of cancer.
However, once your body gets used to walking, you may want to increase your pace, said Alyssa Olenick, an exercise physiologist and postdoctoral researcher in the energy metabolism laboratory at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
If you can turn part of your walk into a run, it offers many of the same physical and mental benefits in much less time. But how much better is running? And how to turn your walk into a run?
When considering the health benefits of an activity like walking or running, there are two connected factors to consider. One is the effect of exercise on your physical fitness — that is, how it improves the efficiency of your heart and lungs. The second is the ultimate positive result: does it help you live longer?
The gold standard for assessing physical fitness is VO2 max, a measure of how much oxygen your body uses when you’re exercising vigorously. It’s also a strong predictor of life expectancy, said Allison Zielinski, a sports cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.
Even doing a small amount of activity — like taking slow steps throughout the day — slightly improves your VO2 max compared to being completely sedentary, according to a 2021 study of 2,000 middle-aged men and women. But the biggest benefits come when you start walking faster, which increases your heart and breathing rate.
If you’re trying hard enough to be able to talk but not sing, you’ve moved from light to moderate physical activity. Studies suggest that moderate activity strengthens the heart and creates new mitochondria, which produce fuel for your muscles, Olenick said.
So how does running compare to walking? It’s more efficient, firstly, said Duck-chul Lee, professor of physical activity epidemiology at Iowa State University.
Why? It’s not just the increased speed. Instead of lifting one foot at a time, running involves a series of jumps. This requires more strength, energy and power than walking, Olenick said. For many people just starting out, running at any pace — even a slow jog — will make your heart and lungs work harder. This can elevate your exertion level to what’s known as vigorous activity, meaning you’re breathing hard enough to speak just a few words at a time.
Federal health guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or half that for vigorous activity. This might suggest that running is twice as good as walking. But when it comes to the key result of longevity, some studies have found that running is even more effective than that.
In 2011, researchers in Taiwan asked more than 400,000 adults how much vigorous exercise (like running or jogging) and moderate exercise (like brisk walking) they got. They found that regular five-minute runs increased individuals’ life expectancy as much as 15-minute walks. Regular 25-minute runs and 105-minute walks resulted in about a 35% lower risk of death over the next eight years.
These numbers make sense given the effect of running on physical fitness. In a 2014 study, Lee and his colleagues found that regular runners — including those who ran slower than 6 miles per hour — were 30 percent fitter than walkers and sedentary people. They also had a 30% lower risk of dying over the next 15 years.
Although he is an enthusiastic supporter of running, Lee suggested looking at walking and running as being on a continuum. “The biggest benefit occurs when you go from none to some” exercise, he said.
Whether walking or running, consistency is the most important thing. But after that, adding at least some vigorous exercise to your routine will increase the benefits.
Running, however, has its drawbacks. It has high impact and is hard on connective tissues.
Researchers have debunked myths that running will always harm your knees, but short-term injuries are more common in runners than walkers. Starting with walking allows your body time to adapt, which in turn reduces your risk, said Bella Mehta, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
In fact, even experienced runners who take a break should increase gradually. “It’s always best to start or increase an exercise program by going slow and at low intensity,” Zielinski said.
If you want to try running for the first time — or run again — try this progression
1. ADD STEPS
Increase your number of steps, Lee said. If you haven’t been exercising, start by trying to take an extra 3,000 steps a day, at least a few days a week.
2. INCREASE THE RHYTHM SLOWLY
Set aside 10 minutes for brisk walks three to four times a week, Olenick said. Aim for an effort level of three to five on a scale of ten. Gradually increase the duration until you can stand for an hour.
3. ADD RUNNING
As you gain fitness, you will find that you need to walk even faster to reach a moderate intensity. When this happens—usually after about a month or two—start adding in running and walking intervals. Warm up with a brisk five-minute walk. Then, alternate one minute of running with three minutes of walking. Repeat this three to five times.
4. TRY TO RUN CONTINUOUSLY
Every week or two, increase your running interval and decrease your walking time until you can run continuously.
Consult your doctor first if you are being treated for heart disease or another chronic condition, or if you have symptoms such as chest pain, Zielinski said. You may need to have a stress test or other assessment before being cleared for vigorous activity.
Those who can’t run (or don’t want to) can increase intensity in other ways, Olenick said. For example, add some hills to your walking route and increase your pace as you climb. You can jump on a trampoline or try a HIIT workout, on land or in the pool.
The ideal is to mix and match — brisk walks or other moderate-intensity exercise on some days, vigorous workouts on others, taking more steps on days when you can’t fit in a workout.
“Have a little bit of everything” each week if you can, Dr. Olenick said. “It all adds up.”
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