Walking is among the most popular forms of exercise in the world. And for good reason – it’s simple, accessible and effective. Taking regular walks reduces the risk of many health problems including anxiety, depression, diabetes and some cancers.
However, once your body gets used to walking, you may want to pick up the pace, says Alyssa Olenick, an exercise physiologist and postdoctoral researcher in the energy metabolism laboratory at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in the United States.
If you can push even part of your way into a run, it offers many of the same physical and mental benefits in much less time.
But how much better to run? And how can you turn your walk into a run?
Why walking is good for you
When considering the health benefits of an activity like walking or running, there are two related factors to keep in mind. One is the effect of training on your 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 a longer life?
The gold standard for assessing fitness is VO2 max, a measure of how much oxygen your body uses when exercising vigorously. It is also a strong predictor of life, says Dr. Allison Zielinski, sports cardiologist.
Even doing a small amount of activity — like taking slow steps throughout the day — slightly improves 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 rates.
If you’ve worked hard enough that you can still talk but not sing, you’ve crossed over from light to moderate physical activity. Studies suggest that moderate activity strengthens your heart and creates new mitochondria, which produce fuel for your muscles, says Dr. Olenick.
Which makes the ride even better
So how does running compare to walking? It’s more effective, for one thing, says Duck-chul Lee, a professor of physical activity epidemiology at Iowa State University.
For what? It’s more than just increased speed. Instead of lifting one foot at a time, running involves a series of limits. This requires more strength, energy and power than walking, says Dr. Olenick. For many first-timers, 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 breathe hard enough that you can only speak a few words at a time.
Guidelines recommend 150-300 minutes per week of aerobic activity of moderate intensity, such as a brisk walk, 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 that running is 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 lengthened the subjects’ lives as much as going for a 15-minute walk. Regular 25-minute runs and 105-minute walks resulted in about a 35 percent lower risk of death over the next eight years.
Those numbers make sense, given the effect of running 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 percent lower risk of dying in the next 15 years.
Although an enthusiastic proponent of running, Professor Lee suggests looking at walking and running as a continuum. “The greatest benefit is found when you move from none to little [exercise]”, he says.
Whether you walk or run, 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 run
Running has its downsides. It is high impact and hard on your connective tissue.
Researchers have debunked the myth that running will always hurt your knees, but short-term injuries are more common in runners than walkers. The ease of walking first allows your body time to adapt, which in turn reduces the risk, says Dr. Bella Mehta, rheumatologist.
In fact, even experienced runners who take a break should rebuild gradually. “It’s always best to start or increase an exercise program by going slow and low,” says Dr. Zielinski.
If you want to try running for the first time – or get back to it – try this progression.
Step one: add steps
Increase your step count, says Prof Lee. If you don’t exercise at all, start by trying to walk an extra 3,000 steps per day, at least a few days a week.
Step two: Pick up the pace slowly
Set aside 10 minutes for brisk walking three or four times a week, says Dr. Olenick. Aim for an exertion 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 that you have to walk even faster to reach a moderate intensity. Once that happens—usually after about a month or two—start adding run-walk intervals. Warm up with a brisk five-minute walk. Then alternate one minute of jogging with three minutes of walking. Repeat this three to five times.
Step Four: Try to run continuously
Every 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 such as chest pain, Dr. Zielinski says. You may need to pass a stress test or other evaluation before being cleared to perform vigorous activity.
Those who can’t run (or don’t want to) can increase intensity in other ways, says Dr. Olenick. For example, add a few hills to your walking route, and push the pace as you climb them. You can jump on a trampoline or try a HIIT workout, on land or in the pool.
The best of all is to mix and match – brisk walking or other moderate intensity exercise on some days, vigorous exercises on others, take more steps on days you can’t squeeze in a workout. “Get a little bit of everything” every week if you can, says Dr. Olenick. “It all adds up.” – This article was originally published in the New York Times
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