Is walking as healthy as running?

Walking briskly provides health benefits comparable to running, including lowering your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and potentially heart disease, according to a comprehensive new study of over 33,000 runners and 15,000 walkers. If you’re among the many people who prefer a moderately-paced stroll to a strenuous sprint, these findings will come as welcome news.

The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology (ATVB), analyzed six years’ worth of data from participants. Researchers found that what mattered wasn’t the level of exercise intensity, but how many calories were burned during the workout. Over a six-year period, both activities significantly trimmed risk for these dangerous health issues:

  • High blood pressure. Running cut risk for developing high blood pressure by 4.2 percent, compared to a 7 percent drop for walking regularly.
  • High cholesterol. Running lowered risk by 4.3 percent, versus a 7 percent reduction for walking.
  • Diabetes. Running and walking both lowered risk by about 12 percent.
  • Heart disease. Running shrank the risk 4.5 percent, while walking lowered it by 9.3 percent.

“The more the runners ran and the walkers walked, the better off they were in health benefits," says Paul T. Williams, Ph.D., the study’s principal author and staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"If the amount of energy expended was the same between the two groups, then the health benefits were comparable,” Williams adds.

Walking has brain and mood benefits, too

Walking isn’t just good for disease prevention; it helps keep you sharp, too.  A study published in Neurology found that walking longer distances—more than 72 blocks per week—could predict larger volumes of “grey matter” in participants’ brains nine years later. Higher levels of gray matter—the neuronal cell bodies distributed throughout areas of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, brain stem, and cerebellum (among others)—help you maintain concentration and memory into old age, and reduce your risk of cognitive impairment.

In addition, walking has been shown to boost your emotional wellbeing. An hour of treadmill walking can lift your mood by reducing tension and depression, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The mental benefits of walking appear to be cumulative—the more steps people take each day, the better their mood and energy. A study conducted at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) revealed that participants who walked longer distances ate better and felt healthier on a daily basis.

“Specifically the correlations between the number of steps and self-ratings indicated that when our participants walked more, they rated their diet as more nutritious. They also rated more highly their health, energy, overall mood, happiness and self-esteem, in that order,” study leader and psychology professor Robert Thayer, Ph.D., told inside CSULB.

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Running is more optimal for fat loss

However, running has its benefits as well. If you’re looking to lose some weight, for instance, picking up the pace may be your best option. Those who run rather than walk have significantly lower body mass indexes, according to a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that compared the energy expenditure and BMI of walkers and runners over a six-year period.

This study, which was also authored by Williams, looked at changes in body composition in over 32,000 runners and over 15,000 walkers (the same data set as in the ATVB study above), and found that runners, who were generally younger in age, already had lower BMI to begin with. They were also less likely to smoke. Although both groups achieved some level of weight loss, the runners had the most success.

Another benefit to running is that it’s quicker—walking three miles, for example, takes far longer than a run of the same distance. So if you’re a runner, you may be more likely to squeeze a workout into your busy schedule, or cover a longer distance.

In addition, a key benefit appears to be metabolic, which means that picking up the pace can help you continue to burn calories long after the workout is finished.

Diet Is Key

Although running or walking can help torch calories, what you actually put in your mouth is just as important for weight loss. Sticking to a diet with a wide variety of nutritious foods will not only help you get (or keep) the pounds off, but has tremendous health benefits as well. The American Heart Association recommends a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and legumes, and fiber-rich whole grains, with only limited amounts of sugar, sodium, processed meats, and saturated fat.

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Walk, Run, Swim or Bike

No matter which type of exercise you ultimately choose, it’s important to get enough of it! According to the Centers of Disease Control, the proper amount of exercise varies based on intensity. An adult who chooses moderately intense aerobic activity, such as walking, needs to get two and a half hours of it a week, in addition to muscle-strengthening exercises two or more days a week. If you opt for more vigorous activity, such as running, you only need an hour and 15 minutes (plus two days of muscle-strengthening activities). Of course, you can always pick some combination of the two as well.

If you’re having trouble meeting these requirements, remember that you can just do ten-minute increments. But if you’re looking to increase the challenge, up to five hours of moderate aerobic activity or two and a half hours of more strenuous activity offers even greater health benefits.

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