They both use your legs. They both require time. They both help your body.
But, somehow, most of us have a nagging curiosity about running vs. walking. Which one is better? Does one burn fat quicker than the other? What about calories?
And, of course, what kind of effect do each of them have on your body over the long run?
These are the kinds of questions that are common among those who are investigating walking and running as options for exercise.
We’ve done our own research into the positive effects of walking and have found that just 30 minutes a day is profoundly helpful.
However, it’s hard to talk about walking without bringing running into the conversation. As a result, there is a long list of questions the average person has about walking vs. Running, some of which we mentioned earlier.
We wanted to find the best possible answers we could to help you understand the differences between walking running and, ultimately, answer the question: Should you run or walk?
During our research, we talked with fitness experts to find out exactly what happens when we walk and run, how each one benefits us and more.
Running vs. Walking for Calories and Weight Loss
One of the age-old arguments about running and walking is the number of calories you burn when you do either of the activities.
This is an interesting discussion, says Dr. James R. Churilla, professor and graduate program director at the Brooks College of Health at the University of North Florida.
Interesting, he told us, because walking actually burns a higher percentage of fat calories than carb calories.
“If somebody was to walk three miles or run three miles, they burn the same amount of calories,” Churilla said. “You’re going to burn a greater proportion of fat if you’re walking three miles to running if you look at the percentages.”
But here’s the trick to this. While you may be burning a higher percentage of fat calories when you walk the same distances as you run, if you talk about walking and running the same amount time (not distance) then you’ll burn more fat calories when you run.
This has to do with the fact that, while you’re burning fat calories at a lower rate than carb calories while you run, you burn calories at a more rapid rate.
Think of it like the difference between a fast and slow drinker. The slow drinker might drink over the course of an hour a 4 oz. drink that has a 1 oz. shot of alcohol in it. In that same amount of time, the fast drinker could down three drinks with half as much alcohol – 0.5 oz. instead of 1 oz. – but end up drinking more total alcohol: 1.5 oz vs. 1 oz.
The bottom line: When you run or walk the same distance, the calories you burn are identical, but the proportions of fat calories and carb calories are different. A greater proportion of fat calories are expended when you walk a mile versus running a mile. When you run or walk the same length of time, running burns more calories and fat.
Running vs. Walking and Injuries
According to Churilla, every step you take when you run incurs a force of three times your body weight. So, if you’re 200 pounds, you’re putting 600 pounds on your leg and your core.
The good side of this is that the impact of running – and walking – is that your body’s musculoskeletal system (muscles, bones, connective tissue) gets stronger. The downside, however, is that injuries are more of a possibility from running than they are with walking.
Aideen Turner, a physical therapist and founder of Virtual Physical Therapists, said that about half of runners end up with an injury at some point. She also noted that very few walkers experience injuries.
“Studies have found that runners have significantly higher injury rates than walkers. Overall, more than half of the people who run will experience some trauma from doing so, while the percentage of walkers who will get hurt is around 1 percent,” Turner said.
She went on to identify the feet and knees as the weak points for most runners who get injured.
“The main running-related injuries include tibia stress syndrome, Achilles tendon injuries, and plantar fasciitis,” she said.
If it’s injuries you want to avoid, then walking is the way to go.
“Interestingly, it seems you can walk pretty much endlessly without any increased risk of hurting yourself,” Turner said.
Now, while running may increase the chance of certain injuries, you can actually decrease the chances of getting hip or knee arthritis as compared to someone who doesn’t exercise at all.
“The data shows that 3.5% of runners develop hip or knee arthritis versus hip (10.2%) and knee (13.3%) in those that are sedentary,” Turner told us.
The bottom line: Running increases the risk of certain injuries but decreases the risk of others. Walking, however, is the best choice if you want to avoid getting hurt.
Running vs. Walking for Overall Health
The good news is that you’re going to win if you choose to walk or run. Both of them have significant impacts on your health.
Part of that has to do with your muscles and bones. The lower part of your body gets a serious workout, Churilla said, and, for that reason, it gets stronger.
“When somebody runs it’s the lower extremities doing most of the work: the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the legs and the glutes,” he said.
But, aside from that, there are some very specific things happening to your body after you work out that provide a significant boost to your health.
After you walk or run, your body enters a “catabolic state” Chriulla told us. Basically, your body is working to break down your blood sugar and triglycerides you eat after your exercise. This is a huge help when it comes to preventing diabetes and keeping your cholesterol low.
And here’s the best part. If you walk or run on a regular basis, then when you go for a walk, your body is in a catabolic state for 12-13 hours, Churilla told us.
After you eat, your blood sugar and triglycerides will go up, but not nearly as much as they would if you hadn’t’ exercised.
“If you walk or run, for the next 12-13 hours, those sugar and lipids go up but the amount they go up is drastically lower and significantly healthier for you,” he said.
This is why Churilla recommends getting your exercise in the morning as opposed to night, as you can’t take full advantage of your body’s catabolic state when you’re sleeping.
Aside from regulating blood sugar and cholesterol, walking and running have a ton of other general health benefits because they’re two of the most basic forms of exercise.
“They’re better than any drug in maintaining heart, lung, muscle, bones and brain health,” Turner said. “They help with weight loss, lowers cholesterol levels, strengthens our muscles including our heart, improves balance, reduces many cancer rates, boosts our immune system, fights depression, reduces stress, enhances mode.”
» For Further Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Getting in Shape
Choosing the Right One for You
In a perfect world, you’d be able to read through this guide and decide which choice is best for you based on the facts. Some of us can do that but some of us are dealing with health issues or may not have run or walked for exercise in a long time.
Therefore, saying that running is better than walking or vice versa really Isn’t as important as saying which type of exercise is best for you.
According to Dr. Churilla, you should ask yourself two questions: How old are you and what is your goal?
“If the person wants to run in a 5K or 10K, then they’re going to have to run,” he said. “But if the person’s goal is general overall health and improved musculoskeletal strength, walking is by far the most popular activity around the world.”
Those whose age prohibits them from the pounding a job provides should probably opt for the gentler impact of walking.
The key, he said, is to walk at least 30 minutes at a time and to do it consistently – at least five times a week, most guidelines state.
Doing so not only provides the health benefits mentioned earlier, but Churilla said walking regularly in 30-minute intervals can keep your blood pressure low through the following day.
If you’re younger and your body is able to bear the brunt of the physical stress, then jogging is a good choice, if for no other reason than it burns more calories and fat if you run for, say, 30 minutes, instead of walk.
“If you want to run, great. You don’t have to do as much duration for the benefit. Walkers have to do more for caloric burn and weight loss,” he said.
As for those who are trying to do exercise for the first time, walking is a wise choice considering the impact on your muscles, bones and joints is lower. This is a good thing if you’ve been sedentary for a long time.
“You don’t want to start some rookie out with running. Start with a walk, then go to an intermittent walk-jog,” Churilla said.
Caleb Backe, a personal trainer and health/wellness expert at Maple Holistics, says you should be wise about your choice and listen to your body as you start your running or walking routine.
“There are times in your life when walking is more beneficial, and there are times when running is. This is a case-by-case estimation, so you need to be aware of your body,” he said.
Also, don’t push yourself too hard. Trying to run or walk through an injury could do more harm than good.
“If some kind of pain arises, get some rest, ice it down, and ease up. If the pain persists, see a physician. You could be making it worse by being tough and riding it out,” Backe said. “Treat your body right, and give it what it needs. This will aid you in getting back in the walking/running game sooner than later.”
The bottom line: Running is a good fit for those whose bodies can handle it. If you’re dealing with injuries or starting an exercise routine for the first time, walking is a good choice.
The Final Word: Is Running Better Than Walking?
Based on the conversations we’ve had with experts like UNF’s Dr. Churilla and Virtual Physical Therapists’ Aideen Turner, we believe that there is no “better” when it comes to walking and running.
Both forms of exercise are good for your health. They strengthen your bones, muscles and connective tissues. They both help your body better handle blood sugar and triglycerides, therefore decreasing the chances of you getting diabetes and/or high cholesterol.
If there was an area in which we would say that running is better than walking, it’s the efficiency with which you burn more calories, carbs and fat. You burn more of those three things when you run the same length of time as you walk.
Now, you’ll burn roughly the same calories if you run the same distance that you walk. However, you’ll end up saving yourself a ton of time. Three miles walked could take you an hour if you walk, but only 30 minutes if you run.
If your body is able to take the physical stress of running, then running could be the best choice for you if you don’t have a lot of time during the day to allot to exercise.
However, remember that all you need is 30 minutes of walking or running a day. You don’t have to do long, drawn-out workouts in order to help your body. As Churilla pointed out, it’s all about doing consistent bouts of exercise over the long-haul.
Doing so puts your body in a state in which it’s working hard to break down blood sugar and triglycerides, as well as regulate your blood pressure.
Overall, the key to making walking and running effective for health and weight loss is to do it consistently.
“You don’t become healthier or a better runner one to two times a week.” Churilla said. “You become healthier and aerobically fit from running or walking on a regular basis.”