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Running or Walking: What’s the Healthier Choice?

While both are excellent ways to burn calories, boost your metabolism and keep your body working smoothly, when it comes to the best overall exercise, Dr. Weil thinks one is the clear winner. Find out which exercise he chooses!

On the face of it, you might figure that when covering the same distance - say, a mile - you would burn the same number of calories whether you walk or run. After all, while walking is less strenuous, it takes longer for a walker to cover the distance.

But running requires much more effort than walking - you're actually jumping from one foot to the other as you propel yourself forward, a major muscular undertaking. Bottom line: running burns 50 percent more calories than walking over any given distance, even though running takes less time.   

Still, I think walking is the best exercise choice for most of us, particularly as we get older. Walking may not burn as many calories as running, but it offers the great advantage of being a practical substitute to driving for short trips, since you can do it in street clothes and you don't typically arrive in need of a shower. Further, it requires no skill or practice. Everyone knows how to do it, and the only equipment you need is a good pair of shoes. You can walk outdoors or indoors (in shopping malls, for example). It is the safest exercise option of all, with the least chance of injury.

The key to making walking pay off is to do it briskly. Aerobic walking cannot be casual or intermittent. Keep at it until you can walk about three miles in forty-five minutes. Doing this at least five times a week is one of the best moves you can make for a lifetime of health.

Is 5 Minutes of Running The Key To Living Longer?

Want to lower your risk of premature death significantly? Go from being a couch potato to being a runner – even a (very) short distance one. A study in Dallas found that people who engaged in little to no strenuous exercise, when compared to those who ran daily for as little as five to 10 minutes, had a 30 percent higher risk of dying. When the cause of death was heart disease, the number went up to 45 percent.

While running can be hard on the joints, knees and kidneys, it is an efficient high-intensity form of exercise that quickly increases fitness and may be a good option for those with little time to exercise. An added bonus is that it can also act as an anti-depressant. While I prefer swimming or biking, many people do enjoy running. To minimize the risk of injury, try the following:

  • Limit running on concrete and instead opt for running tracks or cinder or dirt paths.
  • Always wear well-made running shoes designed to minimize shock to the joints; replace the shoes when their cushioning begins to fail.
  • If you develop pain in any joints, cut back or stop running until you determine the reason for the pain.

Run Five Minutes, Save Your Life?

If you can find even five to 10 minutes a day for running, a new study suggests your risk of premature death would be significantly lower than that of people who don’t run or engage in any type of strenuous exercise. These findings come from a review that examined data from 55,137 people between the ages of 18 and 100 who had check-ups at the Cooper Clinic and Cooper Institute in Dallas, during which they had fitness tests and responded to questionnaires about their exercise habits. The researchers found that the daily runners had a 30 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than non-runners and a 45 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, even if they were overweight or smoked. All told, the runners lived three years longer than the non-runners. The report didn’t delve into the mechanisms behind the benefits of running and didn’t try to determine whether it was the only type of strenuous exercise that lowered the risk of premature death.

My take? The great advantage of running is its intensity. As this study suggests, it promotes fitness quickly and efficiently. Because of its intensity, running releases endorphins in many people, creating the runner's high that some describe as an "energy buzz." The euphoria experienced with running - like aerobic exercise highs in general - acts as an effective antidepressant. Running, however, also has some potentially serious disadvantages including a higher chance of injury than most other aerobic activities. Running can also traumatize the body, especially joints in the knees, and back, as well as the kidneys. To minimize the risk of injury never run on concrete. If possible, run on cinder tracks or dirt paths. Always wear well-made running shoes designed to minimize shock to the joints, and get a new pair whenever your present ones start to wear out. If you develop pain in any joints, stop running or cut back on it until you determine the reason for the pain. It will be interesting to see if other forms of intense exercise – sprint swimming, for example, which is easier on the joints – confer the same lowered risk of premature death.

Duck–chul Lee and Timothy Church et al, “Leisure-time Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.04.058