Walking vs running—which is better for your health goals?

If you're balancing up the benefits of walking vs running, here's what you should know...

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Are you weighing up walking vs running, and wondering which one is best for you? The simple answer is that both are great ways to exercise. As well as being free, both will tone up your body, boost mental wellbeing, aid weight loss and improve general physical health. But there are some key differences, in particular, how many calories you are likely to burn, the impact on joints, and how often to add them into your training routine.

If you're looking to burn more calories in less time, running could be a better option. However, it's important to note that walking is far kinder on joints and sustainable, low-impact exercise. With the help of personal trainers and fitness experts, we delve into the walking vs running debate to uncover what you need to know to decide which is right for you. Including whether your time is better spent pounding the pavements three times a week, or having a leisurely stroll every day. 

Walking vs running—what are the benefits?

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The benefits of walking and running for the body make them both brilliant forms of exercise. Both activities can help with: 

  • Cardiovascular health—donning a pair of walking shoes (take a look at our guide to the best women's walking shoes to find out which would suit your needs) can be an effective cardio workout, like running. “Both increase cardiovascular fitness as well as energy expenditure, and temporarily raise the heart rate to encourage a nice healthy heart," says Jenny Hutchins, personal trainer and founder of JNY Personal Training
  • Toning up—Likewise, both activities are helpful if you want to tone up your legs, alongside strength training. "The main muscle groups used, whether walking or running, are broadly the same," explains Jane Hart, personal trainer and co-founder of GetMeFit. "You are primarily using your lower body muscles glutes, hamstrings, quads, hip adductors, and calves, but also you need to engage your core muscles—the obliques and rectus abdominis—to drive your motion forward."
  • Weight loss—if you're researching how to lose a stone in a month, walking and running can both help aid healthy, sustainable weight loss. "They will add to your daily calorie expenditure," reveals personal trainer Aimee Victoria Long. This will then help create a calorie deficit, which will in turn promote weight loss. Alongside figuring out which diet is best, plenty of movement should always accompany your nutritious eating regime.
  • Mental health—walking and running are also hugely effective at reducing stress and anxiety. "Even just 30 minutes outside can be a huge lift in mood," says personal trainer Caroline Idiens. "Part of this boost will also come from being outside in nature." What's more, doing cardio comes with numerous positives to general health too. "It leads to better circulation, strengthens your immune system, lowers blood pressure and provides a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and dementia," she adds. 
  • Better sleep—Idiens also notes, "It will also improve sleep and energy levels." After all, physical activity is crucial as part of an effective bedtime routine that will leave you waking up rejuvenated.

When is walking better than running?

"Walking is a lot lower impact than running, meaning it is suitable for most people," says Long. "If you have any joint issues, or are overweight, then walking won’t put unnecessary strain and load through your joints." It is also great for anybody who is currently unable to run due to an injury in the knee, hip, or back. "Walking is more accessible and safer than higher-impact running, which puts more pressure on the joints and creates more downward force,” adds Hutchins.

For this reason, if you're new to fitness, walking is an ideal place to begin. "It's a great starting point for anyone new to exercise as it's lower impact and you are less prone to injury," says Idiens. "Walkers can build up from a slow, short walk to in time a more vigorous pace, incorporating inclines which will further challenge the legs."

But this doesn't mean your body isn't still working hard. "If you're using walking for weight loss, it should not be underestimated," notes Long. " It may take a bit longer than if you are running, but if you burn 500 calories running and 500 calories walking, they’re exactly the same when it comes down to losing weight." 

Being able to do this while taking out the dogs or socializing with a friend can make it more enjoyable than some other types of exercise. What's more, a study by the University of Exeter found that a short, brisk walk helped people reduce their intake of high-calorie snack foods by half.

When is running better than walking?

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"Once you have built up a tolerance and adequate cardiovascular fitness levels you may be able to progress from walking to running," says Long. "Obviously with running there is a greater strain put on the body, especially cardiovascular-wise, so you are likely to see quicker gains in terms of fitness." This also means it is likely to prove a more time-efficient way to burn calories. "Running generally burns calories faster," notes Sarah Campus, personal trainer and founder of LDN MUMS FITNESS. "We need to walk more frequently and for a greater distance in order to get near the energy burn of running." This can bring other perks, depending on your health goals. "Once you're running longer distances, it can be extremely helpful for weight loss and keeping the weight off," agrees David Wiener, a training specialist at Freeletics.

It also brings additional benefits to physical health. "It is a fabulous exercise to improve cardiovascular fitness and to strengthen muscles," notes Idiens. "But, most importantly, it is high impact and weight-bearing which means it is an excellent way to improve bone health—although you should, of course, stick with low-impact exercise if you suffer from osteoporosis." 

Similarly, running has been linked to better mental health—you've likely heard of the famous 'runner's high'. "There’s no better way to burn off stress than sweating it on a run," says Hart. "The rush of happy brain chemicals, including endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, feels amazing." Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that running for 30 minutes, three times a week, over several months had a mood-boosting effect and helped alleviate symptoms of depression. 

Walking vs running—how many calories can you burn?

Both walking and running can be helpful for burning calories, however, one is more efficient than the other. "The calories we burn by walking and running completely depends on our weight, heart rate, fitness levels, and so on," says Wiener. "As a rule of thumb, running will always burn more calories, more quickly, as it’s more ‘physical’ and will trigger a higher heart rate. However, this doesn’t dispute how helpful walking is."

There are rough guidelines to how many calories you might burn. "The number of calories you can burn walking will again vary from person to person," notes Wiener. "On average, you can burn between 90 and 350 calories on a 30-minute walk, but this will depend greatly on the speed, intensity, and incline." Running is also completely individual. "On average, while running you can burn between 80 to 140 over a mile, which means on a 30-minute run you can burn between 280 and 520 calories," he adds. "Of course, this also depends on your weight and the speed you’re running at." Using one of the best fitness trackers can give you a more personalized indicator of how many calories you've burned during a walk or run. 

How much walking and running should you do?

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"You should aim to walk as much as possible throughout the day—getting steps in whenever and wherever you can to burn maximum calories, boost your energy levels, burn fat, and enhance your metabolism," advises Wiener. Even just a small amount makes all the difference, according to science. Findings from Public Health England showed that just ten minutes of brisk walking daily reduced the risk of early death by 15%. 

"Technique is key to getting the most out of your walks," says Idiens. "This includes making sure you have good posture, look forward, stay strong through your core and roll your foot from heel to toe." If you want a bit more guidance, it could be worth joining a Nordic walking group. She adds that good footwear—including the best walking socks—is crucial. Just make sure you push yourself. “If you’re trying to hit your moderate-intensity aerobic target, that means you can still hold a conversation while walking but have an increased rate and depth of breathing,” says Aisling O’Malley, a physiotherapist at London Bridge Hospital. “If you’re going for a brisk walk to meet the vigorous-intensity target, you need to walk as if you’re late for an important meeting. Not a stroll, but more of a purposeful stride.”

Once you feel comfortable walking, you may want to start running. "Don’t try to run the whole distance right from the beginning," suggests Wiener. "Start by breaking up your run into short intervals of running and walking. This style of HIIT exercise alternates periods of intense work with more restful bits which can help to build up your fitness levels and stamina. Eventually, you will be able to run for longer distances."

The Couch to 5k app is one of the best workout apps around. "It helps you to slowly build up distance and time—which can also be great workout motivation," recommends Idiens. "Always ensure you have enough recovery time and a chance for the muscles to repair." Once more, it's best to kit yourself out with the best running gear, including the best workout leggings and the best trail running shoes for women.

For any exercise, you want to keep it regular. "Spread exercise evenly over four to five days a week, reduce time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity," suggests Hart. "As a general goal, I’d suggest aiming to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day and include a balanced mix of exercise types."

Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. In addition to Womanandhome.com she has penned news and features for titles including Women's Health, The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss. 

While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym.

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