Is walking as healthy as running?

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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).


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

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