Walking is among the world’s most popular forms of exercise. 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, says Alyssa Olenick, an exercise physiologist and postdoctoral research fellow in the energy metabolism lab at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in the United States.
If you can nudge even 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 lifespan, says Dr Allison Zielinski, a sports cardiologist.
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, Dr Olenick says.
What makes running even better
So how does running compare with walking? It is more efficient, for one thing, says Duck-chul Lee, a professor of physical activity epidemiology 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, Dr Olenick says. 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.
Guidelines recommend 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as 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 even more effective than that.
In 2011, researchers in Taiwan asked more than 400,000 adults how much vigorous exercise (such as jogging or running) and moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) they did. They found that regular five-minute runs extended subjects’ lifespans 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.
Those numbers make sense, given running’s effect on fitness. In a 2014 study, Prof Lee and his colleagues found that regular runners – including slow joggers – were 30 per cent fitter than walkers and sedentary people. They also had a 30 per cent lower risk of dying over the next 15 years.
Even though he is an enthusiastic proponent of running, Prof Lee suggests looking at walking and running as being on a continuum. “The biggest benefit occurs when moving from none to a little [exercise],” he says.
Whether you are walking or running, consistency matters most. But after that, adding at least some vigorous exercise to your routine will increase the benefits.
How to start walking, and then running
Running does have its downsides. It is high-impact and hard on your connective tissue.
Researchers have debunked myths that running will always wreck your knees, but short-term injuries are more common in runners than walkers. Easing into walking first allows your body time to adapt, which in turn reduces risk, says Dr Bella Mehta, a rheumatologist.
In fact, even experienced runners who take a break should gradually build back up. “It’s always better to start or increase an exercise programme by going slow and low,” Dr Zielinski says.
If you want to try running for the first time – or return to it – try this progression.
Step one: Add steps
Increase your step count, Prof Lee says. If you have not been exercising at all, begin by trying for an extra 3,000 walking steps per day, at least a few days per week.
Step two: Slowly pick up the pace
Set aside 10 minutes for brisk walking three to four times per week, Dr Olenick says. Aim for an effort level of three to five on a scale of 10. Gradually increase the duration, until you can stay on your feet for an hour.
Step three: Sprinkle in running
As you gain fitness, you will notice you must walk even faster to reach moderate intensity. Once this happens – usually after about a month or two – start adding in run-walk intervals. Warm up with a five-minute brisk walk. Then alternate a minute of jogging with three minutes of walking. Repeat this three to five times through.
Step four: Try running continuously
Each week or two, increase your running interval and decrease your walking time, until you are running continuously.
Check with your doctor first if you are being treated for heart disease or another chronic condition, or if you have symptoms like chest pain, Dr Zielinski says. You might need to undergo a stress test or other evaluation before being cleared to do vigorous activity.
Those who cannot run (or do not want to) can turn up the intensity in other ways, Dr Olenick says. For instance, add a few hills to your walking route, and push the pace as you climb them. You could jump on a trampoline or try a HIIT workout, on land or in the pool.
Best of all is to mix and match – brisk walking or other moderate-intensity exercise on some days, vigorous workouts on others, taking more steps on days when you cannot squeeze in a workout. “Get a little bit of everything” each week if you can, Dr Olenick says. “It all adds up.” – This article originally appeared in the New York Times