Walking is among the most popular forms of exercise in the world, and by far the most popular in the United States. And with good reason: it’s simple, accessible and effective. Regular walks reduce the risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, diabetes and some cancers.
However, once your body gets used to walking, you may want to pick up the pace, said Alyssa Olenik, an exercise physiologist and postdoctoral researcher in the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
If you can turn even part of your walk into a run, it offers many of the same physical and mental benefits in much less time. But how much better is running? And how to turn your walk into a run?
Why walking is good for you
When considering the health benefits of activities like walking or running, there are two related factors to keep in mind. One is the effect of training on your fitness, that is, how it improves the efficiency of your heart and lungs. The second is the ultimate positive outcome: does it help you live a longer life?
The gold standard for assessing fitness is VO2 max, a measure of how much oxygen your body uses when you exercise intensely. It’s also a strong predictor of life expectancy, said Dr. Allison Zielinski, a sports cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.
Even doing a small amount of activity, like walking slowly throughout the day, somewhat improves VO2 max compared to remaining completely sedentary, according to a 2021 study of 2,000 middle-aged men and women. But the bigger benefits come when you start walking faster, which increases your heart rate and breathing.
If you’re working hard enough that you can still talk but not sing, you’ve gone from light to moderate physical activity. Studies suggest that moderate activity strengthens your heart and creates new mitochondria, which produce fuel for your muscles, Dr. Olenik said.
What makes running even better
So how does running compare to walking? First of all, it’s more efficient, said Duck-chul Lee, a professor of physical activity epidemiology at Iowa State University.
Why? It’s more than just increased speed. Instead of lifting one leg at a time, running involves a series of bounds. This requires more force, energy and strength than walking, Dr. Olenik said. For many first-timers, running at any pace, even a slow jog, will make your heart and lungs work harder. This can increase your effort level to what is known as vigorous activity, which means you are breathing hard enough that you can only say a few words at a time.
Federal health guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or half that for vigorous activity. That might suggest that running is twice as good as walking. But when it comes to the key longevity outcome, some studies have found that running is even more effective than that.
In 2011, researchers in Taiwan asked more than 400,000 adults how much vigorous exercise (like running or jogging) and moderate exercise (like brisk walking) they did. They found that a regular five-minute run extended the lifespan of the subjects as much as a 15-minute walk. Regular 25-minute runs and 105-minute walks each resulted in about a 35 percent lower risk of dying over the next eight years.
These numbers make sense, considering the impact of running on fitness. In a 2014 study, Dr. Lee and his colleagues found that regular runners, including those jogging slower than 6 miles per hour, were 30 percent fitter than walkers and sedentary people. They also had a 30 percent lower risk of dying in the next 15 years.
Although he is an enthusiastic advocate of running, Dr. Lee suggested that walking and running should be viewed as on a continuum. The biggest benefit comes from going from no exercise to little exercise, he said.
Whether you’re walking or running, consistency is key. But after that, adding at least some vigorous exercise to your routine will increase the benefits.
How to start walking and then running
Running has its drawbacks. It has a strong impact and affects your connective tissue hard.
Researchers have debunked the myth that running will always destroy your knees, but short-term injuries are more common in runners than walkers. Ease into walking first allows your body to adjust, which in turn lowers your risk, said Dr. Bela Mehta, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
In fact, even experienced runners who take a break should gradually return. It’s always better to start or increase an exercise program slow and low, Dr. Zielinski said.
If you want to try running for the first time or get back into it, try this progression.
Step 1: Add steps.
Increase your steps, Dr. Lee said. If you haven’t been exercising at all, start by trying to get an extra 3,000 steps a day, at least a few days a week.
Step 2: Slowly increase the tempo.
Set aside 10 minutes for brisk walking three to four times a week, Dr. Olenick said. Aim for an exertion level of three to five on a scale of 10. Gradually increase the duration until you can stay on your feet for an hour.
Step 3: Sprinkle on the run.
As you get fit, you’ll notice that you have to walk even faster to reach a moderate intensity. When this happens, usually after a month or two, start adding in running and walking intervals. Warm up with a five-minute brisk walk. Then alternate one minute of jogging with three minutes of walking. Repeat this three to five times.
Step 4: Try to run continuously.
Every week or two, increase the running interval and decrease the walking time, until you are running continuously.
Check with your doctor first if you’re being treated for heart disease or another chronic condition, or if you have symptoms such as chest pain, Dr. Zielinski said. You may be required to pass a stress test or other evaluation before being cleared for vigorous activity.
Those who can’t (or don’t want to) run can up the intensity in other ways, Dr. Olenik said. For example, add a few hills to your hiking route and pick up the pace as you climb them. You can jump on the trampoline or try a HIIT workout, on land or in the pool.
It’s best to combine brisk walking or other moderate-intensity exercise on some days, vigorous exercise on others, and taking more steps on days when you can’t squeeze in a workout.
Get a little bit of everything each week if you can, Dr. Olenik said. Everything adds up.
Cindy Kuzma is a Chicago journalist and co-author of Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart.
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