The walking versus running debate is an old one, with an overabundance of conflicting studies strongly supporting one over the other. But what’s the skinny – which is really best for weight loss? Well, the latest research shows that when it comes to dropping the pounds, running beats walking.
The report, compiled by staff scientist Paul T. Williams at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, is published in the most recent issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Participants in the National Runners’ Health Study II and the National Walkers’ Health Study were recruited for the trial (32,216 runners and 15,237 walkers). The average age of the runners was 41 for women and 48 for men. The walkers’ average age was higher at 53 for women and 62 for men.
“An overweight woman might expect to lose 19 pounds by adding a 3.2-mile run to her daily routine, but only 9 pounds by expending the same amount of energy by walking.”
The height, weight, and waist measurements for the previous five years were recorded for each participant. Physical activity was also tracked, with data collected about the types of activities participants engaged in, as well as frequency, pace, and the distance covered during these activities.
At the beginning of the study, male runners had an average BMI of 24, while female runners averaged 22. Male and females walkers had a higher BMI, averaging 27 and 25, respectively. Walkers were also more likely to smoke, drink less alcohol, and eat more fruit, despite their larger waistlines.
Participants were followed for six years and both groups saw weight loss. However, the male runners and female runners who weighed more at the study start saw greater weight loss results than walkers. In addition, researchers found that the energy expended by the walkers during walking was less than half of what the runners reported when running.
As an example, “An overweight woman of average height and a BMI over 28 might expect to lose 19 pounds by adding a 3.2-mile run to her daily routine, but only 9 pounds by expending the same amount of energy by walking,” says study author Williams.
One suggested reason for this difference is that running takes less time to produce the same results. Running 3.2 miles would expend the same effort as walking 4.6 miles, but over 40 minutes versus 80 minutes for walking.
In addition, running raises metabolic rate and keeps it elevated long after the activity, while walking has a lesser effect. Williams also notes that individuals who engage in vigorous exercise tend to offset an imbalance better by eating less and exercising more after overindulging.
And despite the greater weight loss seen by runners, Williams strongly emphasizes that moderate exercise like walking is still beneficial to health and will still contribute to weight loss.
This report coincides with another study by Williams, in conjunction with Dr. Paul D. Thompson of the Division of Cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, which finds that brisk walking and running both reduce the risk for high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, diabetes, and perhaps even heart disease.
The report, published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, finds that running reduced high blood pressure risk by 4.2 percent while walking reduced it by 7.2 percent.
The risk for high cholesterol in runners was reduced by 4.3 percent versus 7 percent in walkers. Similarly, runners had a 12.1 percent reduced risk for diabetes while walkers saw a 12.3 percent reduction, and runners lowered the risk of heart disease by 4.5 percent versus 9.3 percent for walkers.
The findings of both reports are significant, Williams notes, because “there is now some choice in the exercise you want to do.”
The Bottom Line
A person needs to balance their health and wellness objectives with the activity that makes the most sense. For some, it’s running; for others it may we walking.
If the initial goal is to improve your cardiovascular health, then brisk walking or running is ideal. But, if you’re looking to lose weight, running may be a quicker solution than walking. However, if you hate this exercise or have bad knees, running isn’t going to work for you.
Ideally, to lose weight, you’ll want to address diet and then exercise for a multitude of health benefits and improved weight loss.
Consistency is key, so pick something you enjoy. If that happens to be running, that’s great. If not, brisk walking is always an option that can provide similar health benefits. The most important thing is that you find a physical activity that works for you and keeps you fit. And one that you’ll continue to do on a regular basis.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.