What’s a better workout: Walking or running?

It comes as little surprise that running provides more weight loss and fat burning benefits than walking. But experts say it's what gets you moving that matters. Russell Sadur

If the eternally occupied treadmills at the gym are any indication, walking and running are the favoured forms of exercise. But which one will actually provide a better workout?

Running is the general answer (not surprisingly), but it’s not a definitive one. That’s because it all comes down to a number of factors, including fitness level, pre-existing health conditions and personal preference — because the fact is, if you force yourself to run even though you don’t enjoy it, you’re probably not going to keep doing it.

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“It all depends on perspective,” says Dr. Martin Gibala, chair of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University. “When it comes to health, there are many different indices, and cardiorespiratory fitness is just as important as waist circumference or blood pressure. The more intense the exercise, the greater improvement you’ll have in cardiovascular fitness. That would speak to running over walking. But if someone doesn’t like to run, that rationale doesn’t mean much.”

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Studies have shown that even when the same amount of energy was expended (meaning walkers exercised longer), runners still lost more weight. And if weight loss is a top concern, this could clinch the deal: a small study concluded that running could help curb appetite, as it might be responsible for increasing levels of the hormone peptide YY, which is linked to appetite suppression.

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But all of this is moot if you don’t ask yourself some key questions to determine which activity will benefit you more.

“If you’re really in the space of trying to make a decision between the two, you need to ask yourself two questions,” says Dr. Monica Maly, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. “How will you expend the most calories and how active are you currently?”

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With energy expenditure, she says to think of it in terms of time. If you only have 10 minutes for cardio, you can burn around 200 calories by running six miles per hour, whereas a one-hour brisk walk will burn about 300 calories. If you have the time, walking will be more beneficial.

“Canadian physical activity guidelines say we need 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week. If you’re currently active and close to doing 150 minutes, go for the run, because vigorous exercise protects your heart more than moderate exercise does,” Maly says.

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It’s also going to lead to faster and greater calorie burn, which will inevitably result in weight loss.

“I believe in the first law of thermodynamics — calories in and calories out. In 15 minutes of running versus 15 minutes of walking, your calorie burn will be more intense with running because you’ll expend more energy,” Gibala says.

However, it goes without saying that running will be more taxing on your muscles and joints, which can have both pros and cons.

The pros, Maly says, are that the more you ask of your muscles, the more you’ll train them and boost their strength and capacity. The con is a higher risk of injury.

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“We have greater velocity with running. When we walk, we’re typically walking 1.1 to 1.25 times our body weight; with running, it’s almost double,” she says. “We need to expose our body to more than it’s used to if we want to train it, otherwise we don’t achieve anything. But you don’t want to do too much that will lead to injury.”

To differentiate between a normal level of soreness after activity and potential injury, Maly uses the two-hour rule: if you feel sore beyond two hours after working out, you need to re-evaluate the intensity of your exercise.

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If your main goal is to burn fat and tone, the first order of business is to introduce intervals into your cardio routine, then incorporate strength training, which will build lean muscle mass and prevent injury.

“It’s easier to do high-intensity interval training with running than walking, but [with the latter] it can be done by playing with inclines,” says Kathleen Trotter, a personal trainer and author of Finding Your Fit. “But you have to add in strength training, proper diet and sleep.”

Even if your goal isn’t to lose weight, she says strength training remains an integral part of overall fitness because it helps prevent injury. Running, for example, requires single leg strength and without it, you would be putting an exorbitant amount of stress on each leg.

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“When you run, your body has to absorb all the forces you’re exposing it to. If you can’t stand or balance on one leg, you’ll injure yourself. That’s why it also requires glute and core strength.”

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By that rationale, walking is considerably easier on the body, which is an especially important consideration if you’re new to fitness.

“When you’re deciding between walking or running, you need to think about your joints, your cardiovascular health and your general health history,” Trotter says. “Running burns more calories, but it’s all based on what your body can do. If you have arthritis or a back issue and you injure yourself while running, fat and weight loss will be off the table.”

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