Running and walking are both excellent forms of exercise. Those who regularly do either typically have healthier hearts, stronger bones, and lower body weights than their sedentary counterparts.
The current Physical Activity Guidelines, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, call for a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity.
So does it matter whether you get those minutes walking or running? Arguments can made for both—and which is right for you depends on your goals and your current fitness level.
If You Want to Maximize Calorie Burning
“The key difference between running and walking is how many calories you are burning—not per mile, but per minute of exercise,” says Paul D. Thompson, M.D., chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital and a professor of medicine and preventive cardiology at the University of Connecticut.
For a 160-pound person, walking at a brisk, 3.5-mph pace for 30 minutes will burn about 156 calories. But running at a 6-mph pace for that same 30 minutes will burn more than double the calories (about 356).
“Running is a less efficient movement, and it’s more demanding on the body, so it burns more calories per minute,” says Thompson. “But if you’ve got the time to walk long enough to burn the equivalent calories, then walking is fine.”
That said, if your ultimate goal is to lose weight, chances are neither running nor walking alone is going to do the trick. “Exercise on its own is not the best way to lose weight,” says Thompson. “Research has shown that it needs to be done along with calorie restriction.”
If You Want to Improve Heart Health
Running makes the heart work harder than walking, so it stands to reason that it would also make it healthier. But the answer again may come down to how much time you have.
In a 2013 study that analyzed data from the nearly 50,000 people involved in the National Runners’ Health Study II and National Walkers’ Health Study, researchers found that runners' risk of cardiovascular disease was 4.5 percent lower than those who were inactive.
But walkers who expended the same amount of energy as runners daily—burned the same amount of calories—had a risk level that was 9 percent lower than those who were inactive.
If You Want to Reduce Belly Fat
You can help decrease how much fat you store in your middle if you pick up the pace by interspersing some stretches of all-out sprinting with your jog or walk.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT)—a workout in which you alternate short bursts of activity at close to your peak heart rate with easier bouts—can help eat away at belly fat. A 2018 analysis of 39 studies, published in the journal Sports Medicine, concluded that HIIT reduced what's called visceral fat by 1.8 percent.
This is important because visceral fat is located deep in the abdominal cavity, surrounding organs such as the liver and pancreas. That means the fat can trigger a variety of metabolic changes, including increased insulin resistance and higher triglyceride levels.
“Reducing visceral fat, even without losing weight, can improve overall health,” says Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., a professor of biobehavioral studies at Columbia University Teachers College. (Garber was not involved in the 2018 study.)
HIIT is also a great way to ease yourself into a running regimen, says Garber.
“Running is often a big step up in intensity from walking, so it’s best to add it into your routine gradually,” she says. “By alternating higher intensity intervals of running with lower-intensity walking intervals you’ll reap the benefits without putting excessive stress on your body.”
If You're Worried About Your Joints
Runners pound the pavement, but running doesn’t necessarily lead to more arthritis than walking, according to recent research.
In a study published in 2017 in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, almost 59 percent of non-runners had osteoarthritis in their knees compared with 53 percent of the runners; for the group that reported running the most, the prevalence dropped to about 51 percent.
Another study, published in 2013, that analyzed data from the National Runners’ Health Study found that those who ran more than 1.2 miles per day had a 15 percent lower risk of osteoarthritis and a 35 percent lower risk of hip replacement than those who were less active.
The researchers theorize that one of the reasons for fewer joint issues among the runners is that, as a whole, the runners had lower body mass indexes (BMI) than the walkers. Lower weight means less stress on the joints—even during a high-impact activity like running.
“Running gets the reputation for causing injuries because many people who are just starting to run try to do too much too quickly,” Garber says. “And they often get injured as a result.”
If you want to progress from walking to running, do it slowly, gradually increasing your speed, distance, and the frequency of your runs.
So Should You Walk or Run?
Running may be more high-intensity and calorie-burning than walking, but walking is a great way to ease into exercise—no matter what your current health status—and make sure you're staying physically active every day.
The bottom line is that getting exercise of any kind is beneficial—provided you stick with it.
“The best exercise is the one you are going to do,” says Thompson. “There are additional benefits to be gained from running, but what’s most important from a public health point of view is that everyone gets out and does some kind of exercise.”