There are many reasons why people start running: Busting stress, boosting energy, or snagging that treadmill next to a longtime gym crush are just a few. What's more, running can keep your heart healthy, improve your mood, stave off sickness, and aid in weight loss. Greater weight loss from running than walking during a 6.2-yr prospective follow-up. Williams PT. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2013, Nov.;45(4):1530-0315. But depending on your personal goals, going full speed isn't the only route to good health. Walking versus running for hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes mellitus risk reduction. Williams PT, Thompson PD. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2013, Apr.;33(5):1524-4636.
Now Walk (or Run?) It Out
While walking can provide many of the same health benefits associated with running, a growing body of research suggests running may be best for weight loss. Greater weight loss from running than walking during a 6.2-yr prospective follow-up. Williams PT. Medicine and science in Sports and Exercise, 2013, Nov.;45(4):1530-0315. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people expend 2.5 times more energy running than walking, whether that's on the track or treadmill. Energy expenditure of walking and running: comparison with prediction equations. Hall C, Figueroa A, Fernhall B. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2005, Feb.;36(12):0195-9131. Translation: For a 160-pound person, running 8 mph would burn over 800 calories per hour compared to about 300 calories walking at 3.5 mph.
And when equal amounts of energy were expended (meaning walkers spent more time exercising), one study found runners still lost more weight. Greater weight loss from running than walking during a 6.2-yr prospective follow-up. Williams PT. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2013, Nov.;45(4):1530-0315. In this study, not only did the runners begin with lower weights than the walkers; they also had a better chance of maintaining their BMI and waist circumference.
Plus, running may regulate appetite hormones better than walking. In another study, after running or walking, participants were invited to a buffet, where walkers consumed about 50 calories more than they had burned and runners ate almost 200 calories fewer than they'd burned. Influence of running and walking on hormonal regulators of appetite in women. Larson-Meyer DE, Palm S, Bansal A. Journal of obesity, 2012, Apr.;2012():2090-0716. Researchers think this may have to do with runners' increased levels of the hormone peptide YY, which may suppress appetite.
But aside from weight loss, walking has definite pros. Walking versus running for hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes mellitus risk reduction. Williams PT, Thompson PD. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2013, Apr.;33(5):1524-4636. Researchers looked at data from the National Runners’ Health Study and the National Walkers’ Health Study and found that people who expended the same amount of calories saw many of the same health benefits. Regardless of whether they were walking or running, individuals saw a reduced risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and improved better cardiovascular health.
And running does have downsides: It puts more stress on the body and increases the risk for injuries like runner's knee, hamstring strains, and shin splits (which plague even the most consistent runners).
Your Action Plan
When running isn't in the cards, walking with added weight might be your next best bet for an effective workout. Research shows that walking on the treadmill while wearing a weighted vest can increase the metabolic costs and relative exercise intensity. The effect of weighted vest walking on metabolic responses and ground reaction forces. Puthoff ML, Darter BJ, Nielsen DH. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2006, Jun.;38(4):0195-9131. Similarly, increasing the incline on the treadmill makes for a more effective walking workout. A study showed that walking at a slow speed (1.7 mph) on a treadmill at a six-degree incline can be an effective weight management strategy for obese individuals, and help reduce risk of injury to lower extremity joints. Energetics and biomechanics of inclined treadmill walking in obese adults. Ehlen KA, Reiser RF, Browning RC. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2011, Oct.;43(7):1530-0315. And picking up the pace slightly almost always helps. One study found speed walkers had a decreased risk of mortality over their slower counterparts. The relationship of walking intensity to total and cause-specific mortality. Results from the National Walkers' Health Study. Williams PT, Thompson PD. PloS one, 2013, Nov.;8(11):1932-6203.
No matter what pace feels right, listening to your body and completing a proper warm-up and cool-down are all ways to prevent injuries. That way you can spend more time running on the treadmill—and less time running to the doctor. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Woods K, Bishop P, Jones E. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2008, Mar.;37(12):0112-1642.
Regular cardio (at any speed) is part of a healthy lifestyle. But, lap for lap, running burns about 2.5 times more calories than walking. Running may also help control appetite, so runners may lose more weight than walkers no matter how far the walkers go. Still, running isn't for everyone, and going full-speed might increase injury risk. Adding weights or an incline can help pick up the intensity while maintaining a slower pace.
Originally published January 2012. Updated July 2015.