Can walking be as effective a form of exercise as running?

Oct 24, 2019

Walking on the beach

Whenever we are going to relate things to one another, it’s always best to adopt the old adage of “comparing apples with apples”. Comparing apples with say bananas makes for good conversation, but it doesn’t actually address the cold, hard facts.

The debate about walking vs. running and the respective health benefits of each has swung like a pendulum for decades between Doctors, Surgeons, Biokineticists, Physiotherapists, Athletics coaches and Personal Trainers.

Before we can critically comment on whether walking can be as effective as running, we would need to define what exactly “form of exercise” means. If we loosely reference the World Health Organisation’s definition of “exercise”, we can break the components into functional / balance, flexibility, strength and cardiovascular.

If we use these components as indicators, we can critically assess whether walking is as “effective” as running.

From a functional / balance perspective, the slower the movement the greater the stimulus. Generally walking is a good choice for people who need to improve basic function, increase activities of daily living and enhance balance. The function / balance components can be respectively varied in difficulty by offering assistance or creating instability. Verdict = when it comes to training basic function and balance, walking wins.

Flexibility. Unfortunately on this front, neither walking nor running has much to offer in terms of increasing muscle and joint range of motion. If I had a loaded gun to my head and was asked to make a call, I would have to say that across the walking / running echelon, sprinting would probably elicit the greatest effect on flexibility due to the ballistic and elastic components of the activity. Verdict = Do Yoga or full range of motion exercises such as squats in conjunction to your walking and running program.

When we introduce strength into the walk / run debate, we end up with a chicken and egg situation. Does one need to be strong to walk and run or does walking and running make you strong? Let’s make walking the chicken and running the egg. Walking is the most elementary form of movement; it is literally one step harder than sitting. From the perspective of rudimentary movement, it is logical that one should start with the basics prior to advancing the activity. The “basics” in this case, is walking and when advanced, is running. Strength however, nestles itself quite firmly in between the two activities: you need to be strong to run. Do we go with the chicken or the egg? Since neither walking nor running really develops strength, it is advisable to include other movements in your program, which do. Verdict = Walking should be progressed to incline walking which should be progressed to fast incline walking which should be progressed to running. Strength exercises should be included across the entire stratum.

Then we have the cardiovascular component. In short, the faster your heart beats, the more “cardiovascular” the modality of exercise is. One could argue that it is a no brainer that running elevates your heart rate more than walking does, but does it really? Running sloppily on a flat surface at a slow pace versus brisk walking with a backpack up a hill is like comparing apples with bananas. If we compare apples with apples; as a general rule running elicits more of a cardiovascular response on the body due to the speed of the activity. The body needs to work harder to run than to walk. If we are going to get walking to obtain the same level of work, we need to make it more difficult. This can be done with speed, resistance, hills and direction. Verdict = from a cardiovascular perspective, walking with purpose has the potential to topple lackadaisical running.

So… Shall I walk or shall I run? For the non-injured and mostly healthy community, running has the ability to elicit more of an exercise response than walking and should probably be the mode of choice – which is, of course, great news considering this is a running website! For individuals with joint problems or who are simply not fit enough to run, walking is a heck of a lot better than bum sitting in terms of exercise response. Even when walking is too easy and running is too hard, walk-running is also an alternative to get the heart rate up but still allow for bouts of rest. The bottom line is your ability: exercise is meant to be both challenging and enjoyable.

With regards to general health benefits, increased fitness, toning and weight loss; the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week. Strength train each muscle group two to three days a week; do flexibility exercise two to three days per week; and finally, do functional exercise two or three days per week. Whether you choose to walk or run is your choice, just make sure your heart is beating while you are doing it!

Tony Paladin

Tony is a qualified Biokineticist with a primary focus on orthopaedic rehabilitation through strengthening. Tony also has an interest in sport specific testing and training (primarily rowing, cycling, running and triathlon). He runs a private practice in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Read more about Tony Paladin

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