The Benefits of Walking vs. Running as You Age: Why You Should Run More

Research shows there are differences between walking vs. running, especially for the elderly.

walking vs. running

If your health allows it, running regularly might have some profound impacts on your health.

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I love taking long walks in the park near my house. Walking is peaceful to me, and I love the chance to be outside and get my legs moving. And while I also enjoy running and would love to run more, it is definitely more of a challenge for me; it takes a lot of work and training to make running enjoyable. We all know that exercise is good for us; exercise benefits digestive health, osteoporosis, depression, fatigue, and more. While any exercise is definitely better than none, there are advantages to certain forms of physical activity. Research shows that there is a difference between walking vs. running. Running allows you to lose more weight, protects against mortality, and helps you to stay energy efficient as you age, too.

Walking vs. Running: Which is Better?

Previously, researchers thought that all forms of exercise were equal as long as the total energy output at the end of the workout was the same.[1] This means that walking, which is less intense, could offer the same benefits as high-intensity running if you walked for long enough. And while this notion might hold some truth, it isn’t the whole story; certain forms of exercise do offer advantages over others.

A study from 2013 followed men and women who either ran or walked regularly over six years. They found that runners had greater reductions in body mass index (BMI) than walkers over the trial period. The results showed that runners were protected against age-related weight gain while walkers were not.[2]

Another study in women diagnosed with breast cancer found that those who ran post-diagnosis were more likely to survive than post-diagnosis walkers. Women who were the most active runners were 95% more likely to survive than the least active runners. The study also found that the runners maintained better weight control.[3]

The Importance of Staying Active as You Age

As we age, our walking tends to deteriorate. And this is not a good thing; impaired walking performance is a predictor of morbidity in older adults. One of the reasons for impaired walking performance is the increase in metabolic cost for walking that occurs as we age.[4] Older people spend more energy on walking than young adults do, but luckily there is a way to prevent this kind of age-related change.

Running Keeps Us Energy Efficient

A recent study looked at the energy efficiency of walkers vs. runners, all older than 65 years old. They studied the amount of energy it took for both regular walkers and regular runners to walk at different speeds. They found that older runners used 7% to 10% less metabolic energy to walk compared to older walkers. The runners only had to increase their power output by 86% when walking at the highest speed, while walkers had to increase their output by 95%. These results showed that runners spend less of an energetic cost to walk than regular walkers do.[4]

Although the authors don’t exactly know why this happens, there are many factors that come into play, such as better muscle efficiency and stronger muscles in runners.[4] Another study suggests that runners have more effective walking mechanics in the ankle joint than walkers, which they might be able to use for more efficient walking.[5]

If your health allows it, running regularly might have some profound impacts on your health. But keep in mind that this research does not discourage walking—walking can be extremely powerful as well in keeping your health in top shape. In fact, one study found that walking might be better than running for lowering cholesterol. Just make sure that you are moving as much as you can, as often as you can.

If you are not a regular runner, the key is to start small. Try adding short bouts of running to your regular walk. Warm up by walking, and then start running for only a few minutes at a time, taking long walk breaks in between your bouts of running. Slowly but surely, you will be able to shorten your walking time and increase your running time, so that you only take short (if any) walking breaks. Another strategy is to start by running only about 5-10 seconds out of each minute of your walk, and slowly build that up over time.

Setting yourself a long-term goal, such as training for a local 5K race, might help you to get motivated. For other ideas on how to get motivated to exercise, read more here.

Share Your Experience

Are you a walker or a runner? In your opinion, what are the advantages of walking vs. running? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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This article was originally published in 2015. It is regularly updated.

[1] PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e36360.

[2] Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Apr;45(4):706-13.

[3] Int J Cancer. 2014 Sep 1;135(5):1195-202.

[4] PLoS One. 2014 Nov 20;9(11):e113471.

[5] Gait Posture. 2007 Apr;25(4):590-6.

Comments
  • No matter how much I try, I just can’t seem to enjoy running. When I run, it just doesn’t feel healthy; it feels harmful. I’ve often wondered if it’s my ankle and foot structure, so I found the statement above interesting: “Another study suggests that runners have more effective walking mechanics in the ankle joint than walkers … ” I’ve found elliptical machines and biking to be good alternatives.

    Reply
  • I am in my 60s and have ankles and knees that begin to ache when I run outside on the asphalt or concrete. However, I’ve found that interval training on a treadmill inside does not hurt my joints because of the cushioned surface of the treadmill. It thus enables me to do some running and get these good benefits of running that the studies suggest. So my interval training involves three minute repeating cycles of two minutes fast walk and one minute of running. I believe that routine can help to maximize the benefit of the time I do spend exercising without hurting my joints. Thanks for this article reminding us that putting some effort into the routine will likely yield the most value for the time spent.

    Reply
  • You bring up a good point, Tom. running can be hard on the body for many people, but choosing a good surface to run on can help out a lot. As you said, concrete especially can cause problems – when I recently lived in an urban environment my best option was to run on the sidewalks, but I found that I got shin splints and even a stress fracture from the impact on the cement. Although I am not personally a huge fan of treadmills, I find that running on dirt trails is a good option; it seems to be easier on the body.

    Reply
  • I am 42, and have recently started running, after I began to feel that the effects of 10 years sitting at a desk job was taking its toll. I will start by saying, I am not a medical professional and make no claims to know what is best, but i believe that modern running shoes give us a “false sense of security”, and encourage poor running from, which may result in injury. I think starting easy cannot be emphasised enough. Be patient and take what your body allows. First I started just walking in shoes without cushion (vivobarefoot) for about a year. Again, start slow. I can almost guarantee stress fractures if your feet aren’t conditioned. After three months of running, I can report that I can comfortably jog (barefoot or minimalist shoes) on a non-concrete surface for a half an hour on a regular basis without pain or injury. I think I still have a long way to go to condition my body to where I want to be, but I am hopeful that slow and steady will get me there.

    Reply

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