Is walking as healthy as running?

I’ve seen this week a few reports of a study which compared the potential effects of running and walking on a variety of health markers and outcomes including blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. The study followed about 33,000 regular runners and about 16,000 regular walkers over a period of about 6 years [1]. For a given distance of exercise, running and walking were associated with similar benefits in terms of risk of the markers measured. In other words, whether someone walks a mile or runs it, the benefits are essentially the same.

The title of this study – Walking Versus Running for Hypertension, Cholesterol, and Diabetes Mellitus Risk Reduction – hints that it tested the effects of running and walking to see what effect they had. The conclusions of the authors also are written as if the effects of running and walking have been tested on individuals: “Equivalent energy expenditures by moderate (walking) and vigorous (running) exercise produced similar risk reductions for hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, and possibly [coronary heart disease].”

Reports of the study give a similar impression. This report starts by telling us that: “Brisk walking can reduce a person’s risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol just as much as running can.”

But this study did not test the effects of these different forms of exercise at all. What it did is assess the relationship between running and walking habits and health-related outcomes. From studies of this nature (epidemiological studies) we can only glean associations between things, and not the impact one thing (e.g. exercise) might be actually having on another (e.g. health). For this reason, I think the title of the study, the way the conclusion is phrased and the way that the study has been reported are potentially misleading.

It pains me to say this, in a way, as I am actually a huge advocate of walking. This is at least in part related to the fact that at various points in my life I was an avid runner, sometimes running upwards of 40-50 miles a week. However, I felt forced to retire from running after suffering from a long-running (no-pun intended) sequence of injuries which affected a variety of joints and muscles.

After a two-year hiatus where I mourned the ‘loss’ of my beloved running, I found my feet again with walking and have never looked back. I do actually believe walking can be very good exercise. For me, unlike running, it has allowed me to be regularly active pretty much anywhere I have been but it has not so far led to my need to spend weekly sessions on the osteopath’s or sports massage therapist’s couch.

One of the reasons I like walking is to do with sustainability. One of the questions I ask myself when thinking about my lifestyle habits is: “Could I be doing this when I’m 80?” The answer is ‘yes’ when I look at things like my diet and sleep habits. It’s also ‘yes’ when I think about my walking (and swimming and brief resistance exercises I do). Could I really say that about running? Not really, especially bearing in mind just how much the pounding appeared to cause my body to break down.

I also think, for a lot of people who do not regard themselves as ‘sporty’, it’s a much more accessible form of physical activity than running (and perhaps other endeavours too). So, make no mistake, I am a walking fan.

It might be that walking for a mile is indeed as beneficial to health as running a mile. However, the study that purports to show this shows nothing of the sort (even if I would like it to be true).

References:

1. Williams PT, et al. Walking Versus Running for Hypertension, Cholesterol, and Diabetes Mellitus Risk Reduction. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. Published online before print April 4, 2013

18 Responses to Is walking as healthy as running?

  1. John Walker 5 April 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    I have to agree Dr. John.

    With a name like mine, I would like walking of course and walked everywhere I needed to go, within say five miles of my home. I always walked briskly too, as a young man. I took up running in my thirties, (40 to 50 miles a week.) I fell for ‘conventional wisdom’ I suppose. Sad to say I now have serious osteoarthritis and already have had one replacement knee; I am awaiting another. That’s how much damage my running did; or at least so I believe. However, I also ate a lot of bread and pasta in the ‘dark days; Since reading ‘Waist Disposal’ and ‘Wheat Belly’, I think I know now what contributed most to my joint problems. Extra weight and of course the acidic nature of wheat products. The weight is now going, and I haven’t touched as much as a slice of bread or a spoonful of pasta in the last 18 months. I feel better for it, and I miss out on nothing I like to eat. I enjoy an extremely tasty, and varied diet. At 74 I am once again enjoying life, and when the surgery is finally over, I look forward to many more ‘walks in the park’! Thank you Dr. Briffa.

  2. Val 5 April 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    The timing of this, for me, is so helpful. I too have come to the sad conclusion that my running is probably at the point where the losses outnumber the gains. I have been trying to find the right lens through which I can view walking. The “it’s as good as running” optic hasn’t been working for me.
    In delineating the difference between testing the effects of walking and running have on health, vs assessing their relationship with “health related outcomes” you have helped me see that replacing running with walking, whilst positive on many levels, may not be the comprehensive substitute for which I’d hoped. Thanks for clarifying this nagging suspicion.

  3. Dr John Briffa 5 April 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Val

    Actually, walking may be as healthy as running. It might even be healthier for some or most people. The point is, this study does not tell us one way or the other.

    In the meantime, if you like walking and have a hunch it’s benefitting you, I’d stick at it.

  4. Fiona 5 April 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    I wonder whether overweight women wearing silly high heels are not doing their joints as much damage as if they were running: each step on a hard surface is like a hammer blow, which I know to my cost from when I was young and trying to be fashionable! I’m sure this must have contributed to the osteoarthritic state of my lower spine today and I want to tell the young ones to be more sensible.

    Doesn’t walking also give one more opportunity to observe one’s environment – though this is being lost to so many who have their eyes glued to their mobiles!

  5. Vicki Kleber 5 April 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Pleasure meeting you on the cruise last year! Interesting topic, and once again, we find a “study” WO the methodology to prove anything. Though at my fattest I could jog 2 miles, I started Atkins in 2005 mostly with walking and hiking(age 38). As the pounds dropped, my desire to run increased (maintained 50lb weight loss). I do many types of exercise, but running surpassed even my beloved cross country skiing now. My plea to the lifelong athletes who want to preach the evils of running: please let us late in life athletes have OUR time to wear out our parts! We’re enjoying what you did for years! While I am not into putting a number on my back and turning my sport into a competition, my joy in a few miles on the trail each week is something I shall continue until it is my time to say “enough”. Thanks for all your efforts Dr. Briffa!

  6. Nigel Wickenden 5 April 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    How about “barefoot running”? Apparently running barefoot or running in minimal footwear takes some time to adjust to but one does not sustain injuries.

    Then there’s Dr Michael Mosley on short time length but high intensity exercise. I tried the latter and after three months of 3 x 20 second bursts of rowing machine training twice or three times a week my resting pulse had gone from low 60ies to low 40ies. I was well chuffed. Sprinting, burpees or some other exercise would surely work just a s well.

  7. dixit subhash 5 April 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    liked the result of study i am also of view that with ageing its not possible to continue running so walking is only alternative to keep ourselves active and one should also practice meditation

  8. Mandy Cochrane 5 April 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    Whilst I sympathise, I don’t think it’s particularly pertinent to the walking vs running debate to throw in examples of ruined health/joints/knackered back etc by you former 40-50 mile a week addicts!

    That’s just not normal unless you’re an elite athlete and we all know their careers are pretty short-lived at that level.

    I’m in my mid-forties, been running “sensible” mileage (anything between 8m and 18m a week) off and on for 15 years with no particularly bad aches or pains, and foresee being able to maintain that for a good couple of decades yet!

    I hope future studies conclude in favour of running, myself – I never feel as fit, strong or healthy during my temporary non-running phases.

  9. Stuart Ward 5 April 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    Much like John Walker i also took up running in my early 30′s to beat the bulge. I was a previous powerlifter and naively thought the cardio would do me some good. I lost a load of muscle, my appetite for unhealthy carbs increased and after the London Marathon was in the worst shape of my life. Running is fun and sociable but we are not designed to cover long distance at such high speed. If i remember correctly the marathon legend began when the Greek messenger run 26.4 miles and then died.
    Now i’ll happy hike 20+ miles with my dogs and be fine. I have energy left to lift some weights and don’t crave pasta and bread to refuel.
    Just like all areas of health moderation is the key with a sound understanding of what moderation is.

  10. Christine Havard 5 April 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    May I suggest Nordic Walking as an alternative? Very popular on the Continent, and I can personally recommend it. I have lost weight and my cholesterol & AC1 have dropped.
    Even better, I actually enjoy it, and at 62 I need something I can continue for a few years.
    Have a look at http://www.britishnordicwalking.org.uk/.
    Excellent people, they got me started two years ago.

  11. jacquie 5 April 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    Walking anytime please for me, unless chased by wild beasts or hunting down your next kill for food…thatz how our ancestors would have been…why squanter your ojas when it is not infinite…
    One can just do yoga and 0 cardio and still live beyond 93 like BKS Iyengar, who is still teaching medical classes and practising few hours a day…

  12. William L. Wilson, M.D. 6 April 2013 at 12:01 am #

    I was a competitive runner in college and like you I ran for many years after graduating. Degenerative disk disease finally forced me to give it up. I also took up fast walking and I love it.

    We are currently staying at our condo in Mazatlan and we start the day by swimming for an hour. Every evening we walk for 4 or 5 miles along the ocean.

    If you haven’t tried it, I recommend Eric Goodman’s Foundation exercises for back or joint problems. I have found them very helpful.

    http://foundationtraining.com/video/foundation_training_dvd_trailer/

    Some recent research has even suggested that excessive running can cause cardiac problems. I think I’ll stick to walking.

  13. André 6 April 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    There is actually research showing walking is better than running. Some speak of the importance of NEAT (non exercising activity time).

    Endurence sports are unhealthy due to mitochondrial leaking. This means you produce more radical oxygen atoms than your glutathione can neutralize. And this wil speed up your ageing. Lots of runners have old faces; look at them! Professional marathon runners have higher risk of cancer.

    I once did a marathon and I am glad I did. But I will never do it again. I love to walk, fresh air, sun on my skin.

    Jacqui is right; our ancestors didn’t jog to stay fit. Oh, and sitting is very bad ;-)

  14. Steve Thom 6 April 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    I believe the association the study failed to find is that people who regularly engage in any type of regular exercise are far more likely to care for themselves in other ways, thus obtaining better health outcomes as a result. How many regular walkers or runners smoke, for instance? How many morbidly-obese people ever cared enough to perform any fitness regime at all? I think the take-home message here is that people who don’t consciously focus on their health are more likely to suffer the effects of ill health, whereas those who do are more likely to avoid the rampant health problems affecting the species.

    I appreciate the way that Dr. Briffa has taught me to invert the results of epidemiological studies and see through the bias toward getting the expected outcome versus getting the truth.

  15. Ron 8 April 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    I am an avid runner, over the 25 years I have run I have had my share of injures (mostly because of lots of racing). I have averaged 1700 miles a year and at 61 ran 3000 miles and every day last year. I have always had weight issues even with all the running. How ever 2 years ago I gave up processed foods I lost 40 lb and have kept it off. I have noticed that my issues with stiff joints especially me knuckles went away.

  16. Auntiegrav 11 April 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    Thanks. Good work on your part. As a farmer, I can only say that the benefit of running is that it gets you there faster. When people are spending hours and hours working out or walking or running, I have to ask, “Where are you going?”.
    If you’re not going anywhere in particular, it doesn’t matter if you run or walk.
    If you’re trying to get actual work done, however, it makes a difference.
    If you have to catch a calf or put a cow in the barn, you have to run. If the bull is chasing you, you’d BETTER run.
    Otherwise, the benefit of motion is in motion itself.
    If your motions are not useful, though, there is a serious psychological dissonance that will continue to grow.
    By all means, walk or run: but do it to get somewhere useful. If your job keeps you from moving as a useful act, then get a different job. If you are going to wander around the pasture field (golfing), bring the cows in.
    We are living creatures, not computers.
    Marketers thrive on getting people to be useless and afraid, and then selling them drugs to make them feel better about themselves even if they are acting uselessly and fearfully.

  17. Carole AKA CarbsaneR 13 April 2013 at 2:39 am #

    I walk up mountains, then you get the great feeling of achievement when you get to the top, it’s mentally uplifting and great for stress relief. Our holidays are usually 6 days of mountain walking for about 8 hours a day. An occasional sprint, just in case one needs to catch a plane or escape a wild animal.

  18. Chris 13 April 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    Hello John,

    I don’t know if you saw the article on The Times today suggesting that aerobic exercise was beneficial. Mice running for 30 minutes had better autophagy. Thoughts?

    I found the actual research at:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3463459

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